St Michael’s Grammar School is an intriguing mix of progressive thinking, creative endeavour and traditional adherence to the centrality of ritual and faith. The resulting culture is grounded, steeped in continuity and certain of its values. It is from this firm foundation that the School is able to sustain a progressive outlook that is open to change. Having commenced as Head of the School at the beginning of this year, I am well on my way to a deeper understanding of the School community that is nurtured by this strong, positive culture.
Getting to know a school community takes time and effort on the part of a new Head of the School. The Board of Directors of St Michael’s Grammar School invested to ensure a successful transition between the previous Head, Simon Gipson, and I. Through Simon’s generosity and wise counsel, over a six-month period I was afforded precious time to immerse myself in the foundational narratives and lived experience of this remarkable community before taking up the role. I made the most of every opportunity to appreciate the strengths of the School and to observe the daily interactions between students and staff.
During my six week-long visits to the School from July 2017, I spent time with groups of students and staff and asked each individual to take part in a quick, simple routine that would be familiar to any teacher. I asked each person to write down three stars and a wish for St Michael’s Grammar School. The most common theme in the long lists of ‘stars’ was the culture and values of the School and the ways in which they shape the respectful relationships that are the necessary precursors for learning and growth.
During the transition I worked with the Associate Head (Innovation and Learning), Mrs Annabelle Knight, to map out the first few days of staff professional learning for 2018. Two years ago, as Deputy Principal of Ravenswood School for Girls, I witnessed the power of David Cooperrider’s Appreciative Inquiry as a methodology to simultaneously mobilise the positive core of an organisation and assist a newly appointed principal to gain a deeper appreciation of the school from the perspective of the staff who have such a vital role to play in the stewardship of school culture. Annabelle has long been an expert in, advocate for and practitioner of Appreciative Inquiry, so it made sense to me that we set aside time during the professional learning days at the beginning of the year to engage our collective expertise, reaffirming all the positives that exist in the St Michael’s approach to teaching, learning and caring, and beginning to dream together about what could be. We used the following as our key question, “How will we use our collective expertise to ensure the very best teaching, learning and caring experiences for every student, every lesson, everyday?”
Staff from across the School participated in the two-day event, reflecting on the role we play as educators in the various learning environments that comprise St Michael’s. Incidental learning was valued alongside intentional learning experiences and groups of staff dreamt together about how these might look in the future. New friendships were formed across the academic, property and business units of the School and the positive energy in the room was palpable.
Driven by the idea that we can only be great by choice – many choices coalescing for the present and future of the School, its students, parents and staff – the process of Appreciative Inquiry enabled us to recognise our service to the School’s core purpose. In this spirit of service, we are using the idea of ‘lift’ as an organising concept to support each other to grow in agency and initiative. Lift is the force that holds the aeroplane in the air. It is generated by every part of the plane, even if most of the lift on a normal aeroplane is generated by the wings. Without all parts of the plane working in concert and functioning well, the plane will not gain lift. In order to sustain the energy and motivation that will be required to realise our dreaming, each staff member left the Appreciative Inquiry workshops having made a commitment to one small change that will contribute to a collective lift in our aspirations and motivations. Written on coloured pieces of paper, these have been laminated and returned to staff with a wooden stand so that individuals can refer to their commitments daily.
With St Michael’s Grammar School having already set a high bar for teaching, learning and caring, some may ask, “why do we need to lift?” Continuous improvement is our objective for our students and so it must be with our staff. Where would we be if the Sisters of the Church (who founded St Michael’s), the Wright brothers, and all the great thinkers and doers of the past and present had never asked “Why not?” and “What if?”, and aspired to a life that confounded the status quo, that went beyond expectations, that saw possibilities and stretched to find ways to make them real. The staff at St Michael’s Grammar School has big dreams and, importantly, the core competencies, commitment, goodwill and tenacity to bring those dreams to life in the service of improved student learning and enhanced student wellbeing.
What a privilege it is to be part of this next phase of the School’s 124-year history.