How long have you been in education and what initially attracted you to the profession?
My journey began in education late in the 1970s with my accepting of a teacher scholarship from the Wagga Wagga Diocese. I was to complete a one-year contract as a Youth Worker for the Diocese before undertaking study at Castle Hill College of Education to become a primary teacher. The experience as a youth worker provided a great start to my journey, a journey that is now close to 40 years long.
Can you take me back to your early years as a teacher – what did you teach and why?
As a primary teacher, I think the early years in education are a time of great challenge but also great reward, particularly when we see children sparked into new learning by curiosity, wonder and a sense of fun. My first year of teaching was in Wagga Wagga on Year 5 with 37 students. Following this, I spent time in Kempsey teaching Year 6 and Year 3, before moving to Orange to teach Year 3 at an expanding Catholic school. Soon, my wife’s work gave our family the opportunity to live and work in Darwin for 12 months. I taught Year 7 and then moved to a high school to help establish a support program for Indigenous students from isolated communities attending the College. I was also fortunate to visit some of these remote communities. These experiences gave me a real understanding and appreciation of the challenges faced by families, schools and school leaders in these communities.
On return to Orange, I began working as a learning difficulties support teacher before being appointed as a support class (K-2) teacher at Glenroi Heights PS.
You’ve had a range of roles in your 30 years in the profession – what attracted you to it and why the range of roles across both Catholic and government primary, and high schools?
I have been fortunate to have experienced so many opportunities that have contributed to my leadership development. While working as a consultant for Early Learning and experiencing roles in leadership, I was offered a temporary principal’s position at Cumnock. This was a teaching principal role in a 3-teacher school. My class was Year4/5/6. I found the duel role an enormous challenge but incredibly rewarding. I was not successful in winning the position fulltime so applied for other small school positions. In these, too, success did not come due to competing against more experienced leaders. On reflection, this was all a great learning experience. Put simply, I needed to learn more about leadership and demonstrate a deeper understanding of my own leadership capabilities.
Fortunately, I was successful in being appointed as a Special Education Consultant for the Orange District, covering over 50 schools. This involved working with principals and teachers to support students with disabilities. At the same time, I also undertook the NSW Department of Education Leadership Course and became a mentor in the program. At the end of my 3-year term in the office, I was successful in winning the principal’s position at Glenori Heights Public school.
Following the decision to move to Canberra, I was appointed principal at Cranleigh Special School. It was during a meeting with my director that I expressed a desire to lead a school that had an inclusive culture and would cater for all students. This goal was achieved with my appointment as founding principal of Harrison School in July 2007. This new school would be an inclusive and contemporary learning community for students from Preschool to Year 10. In 2008, we opened with 330 students from Preschool to Yr6. In 2011, we expanded to Year 7. At the end of 2014, our first Year 10 class proudly graduated and I left to take up the role as President of the Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA). The Harrison School had grown to almost 1500 students and 150 staff.
Which of your roles have you most enjoyed over the years and why?
As a principal, to be given the task of establishing a school in a new community is a very special and humbling experience. The challenges and the demands are enormous, BUT the rewards and the satisfaction you see in others when there is success and achievement of goals, seems to fade the heartaches and worries. I have enjoyed the many roles that have come my way. In my view, it is vital that as a leader you are enjoying your role. You turn up each day, knowing this ‘job’ is something you want to do, not have to do.
What have been a few core philosophies/mantras that have helped ensure your success as a school leader and a leader/board member of peak bodies?
A key philosophy is the positive mindset. I learnt early on, through experiences, that when things don’t go to plan or something doesn’t work out, beating yourself up does not work. Turning challenges or disappointments into opportunities sets the mind on a positive path and solutions become much clearer. I strongly advocate that in education a team approach will lead to greater outcomes for students and teachers.
You've a range of qualifications and, I believe, a strong interest in professional development for leaders. Why do you think it's so important that leaders are always updating their professional knowledge?
I have the belief that learning is continuous and every new role requires more learning. To undertake a different or new role, building your knowledge, skills and experiences will enable a strong base or foundation from which leadership can be directed. I have strongly supported professional learning in myself and in others. My belief is leadership is about building the capacity of the people around you to be leaders and decision makers. If we don’t develop the people to be the best they can be then we’re not doing our job as a leader.
You’re a keen presenter at conferences and events on leadership, school culture, 21st century learning communities and implementing a coaching culture to improve leadership and teacher performance. Do you enjoy doing this and why?
Presenting is way of developing yourself and affirming – or even challenging – your knowledge of a topic. Sharing a journey with others might also spark and encourage others to build their capacity as leaders. I think the conference experience is enhanced if you can also present a workshop and share something from your own practice. I also enjoy working with small teams or individuals using a coaching approach to build capacity.
You’re president of APPA – what does your role with the association mainly involve?
The role of president is an exciting opportunity to represent primary principals, visit schools across the country, advocate at the national level on primary education and assist state and territory associations in their work of supporting principals. The role, while a sideways step out of a school, has allowed me to promote and work on some key passions, such as professional learning for principals, teacher education, inclusive culture in schools, and curriculum for students that inspires creativity and innovation.
What’s it mean to you to be in such an important role?
I see this role as supporting associations and principals by presenting their view of practice. I also see it as advocating for principals and helping others develop a deeper appreciation of the role principals have today. When it’s ‘hot in the kitchen’, it’s only another principal who really understands the demands and challenges. This role is about bridging the gap between policy and practice. I have an opportunity to influence the policy decisions and direction so that they can be reflective of the practice in schools and classrooms.
Primary school principals hold a pivotal place in our education system. Your thoughts?
The APPA Charter is very clear about the vital role primary principals have in the education of young Australians. We need to ensure principals have the training, resources, people and support to address the needs of all the children in their school. Second to teachers, principals have a huge impact on the education and culture experienced by students at school. I will always say, if want to make change: engage and involve the principal first!
From your perspective as president of APPA, how do you feel about the Federal Government considering introducing mandatory phonics, maths and literacy testing for Year One students?
APPA welcomes the opportunity to examine the current practices happening in schools and the evidence upon which these assessments are based. My position is that a mandatory practice does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. We will get compliance instead of accountability. The opportunity to develop a check that gives teachers and students immediate feedback and direction for teaching is the key to effective teaching. I believe we need to be building the capacity of teachers to be competent and confident in identifying learning needs. This also goes for Teacher Education providers. APPA has a major concern about the teaching of reading whereby too many graduates are coming into schools without the skills and knowledge to teach reading.
What are some really important priorities for the APPA this year?
APPA has a major focus on principal health and wellbeing. The role of principal has changed with an intensified workload and unrealistic expectations impacting adversely on personal health. This was evident from the 2016 National Principals Health and Wellbeing Survey. APPA has been a partner in the survey and is now looking to complete three major projects. One is presenting a pilot program that will provide professional learning for principals on building and developing effective practices that support school leader health and wellbeing. Secondly, we will conduct a research project to identify the successful practices of employers that principals as assisting them to manage job demands and support positive health and wellbeing. Thirdly, we will hold a national symposium in August, bringing together key stakeholders to develop a national strategic plan and statement on principal health and wellbeing.
You’re also Deputy Chair of Principals Australia Institute – how important is the work that the PAI does in the sector?
The Principals Australia Institute was established to support associations and principals with professional learning. They provide a fantastic program to schools through the KidsMatter and MindMatters resources. The new strategic plan looks at providing services and products that will strengthen the profession and ensure we have a great leader in every school. A key project in 2017 will be principal certification.
Moving into 2017, what are a few things you, personally, are really keen on achieving this year?
I am keen to see the work of the TEMAG recommendations continue to be implemented to ensure we are improving the quality of teaching graduates. I will be working with state and territory associations to ensure partnership agreements between providers and schools for professional experience for ITE students are implemented. Additionally, I would like to see an increased focus on the teaching of reading and a move to put more time into the ‘how’ of learning. I will be personally pleased if we can get a national statement on principal health and wellbeing agreed to by all stakeholders and a national approach to principal preparation.
What are your biggest concerns for education at the moment?
The concern is the decline in the number people deciding to become principals; the extreme focus on assessment as the driver of teaching and learning; the challenges faced by schools in fitting everything into the school day; the impact of technology; and the changing needs our students bring to the classroom. Our investment in primary education needs to be long term and targeted. Short term only leads to Band-Aid solutions. We are trying to educate for a future that is changing, using a last century mindset / construct. It is time to revisit the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians so that the goals are targeted to today’s students; not a review, by tinkering with the model, but a rebuild and redesign to reflect the contemporary learning environments required to prepare our students for the future.
A few of my favourite music artists/bands on high rotation on my iTunes/Spotify include... unfortunately I'm not a strong iTunes or Spotify user - I'm more a CD or vinyl collector. So it would be blues, swing, generally with big band favourites or neo swing. John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison, Daddy Cool (actually have an original album with Eagle Rock), or CDs recently purchased at a folk, blues or jazz festival get played often.
A few things I love to do when switching off from work are... spending time with family(and grandchildren), in the vegie garden, cooking, watching sport (I'm a Swans supporter), or going for a run.
A few movies/TV shows I enjoy are... movies with an espionage theme (James Bond), NCIS, Fawlty Towers (any Monty Python), murder mysteries. I'm currently enjoying the new series of Death in Paradise
I'm hosting a dinner party and can invite four guests – living or dead – my wishlist would include... thinking about leadership, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Barack Obama and Daniel Goldman (the connection to his work on EQ influenced my leadership) would invite engaging conversation.