Iris Nastasi was principal of a school in south west Sydney, and her oval had just been defaced with three large genitalia, plus a rude message, which lay etched out across the grass.
The student-scrawled graffiti existed only for 24 hours, but much to the leader's dismay, in that brief period a Google Earth satellite flew over and took an aerial snapshot of the scene.
The image, Nastasi reports, went viral. Splashed across social media channels and even scoring a special mention on news talk show The Project, the principal went into a damage control frenzy.
She called Google who refused to take the image down.
She called the police. The graphic image continued to trend.
The worst thing, Nastasi says, was that her own student body were actively ‘liking’ the situation.
“We know that student’s outcomes improve when we hear and harness student voice,” Nastasi reflects.
But in this scenario, what should a leader do when the student voice is ultimately a damaging one? She asks the audience “is there ever a time when school leaders should silence student voice in order to strengthen it?”
It was a delicate situation, and Nastasi soon realised she had to re-gain the trust of her students: to encourage them to not buy-in to the scandal underway.
“It’s tricky, if you try to close them down, you risk giving them strength” she says.
A shift in thinking was required.
Instead of blaming Google and the police for the unfortunate predicament, Nastasi looked to her students. What would make students act out in this way? Was it indicative of disengagement or dissatisfaction? A lack of pride in the place, maybe?
Desperate to change the narrative and to place her school in a position of empowerment, she used practical creativity on the ground to respond.
Nastasi surveyed students about what they liked and didn’t like about their campus. ‘Feedback walls’ dotted around the school were introduced to capture the voice of those students less inclined to participate in surveys.
“Student voice should not be high-achieving leadership voice, it needs to be every student in the school” she notes.
Nastasi bought in local artists to enliven the arts and design curriculum. Leadership identified ‘blind spots’ in the school where spaces could be better transformed to cater to student’s needs. Students were taken on tours of other schools to gain an appreciation for alternative education spaces and to learn how design influences the way we teach and learn.
Students bought in. Staff bought in. Nastasi, now Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning at Sydney Catholic Schools, is still elated.
“We created new heroes” of the story, she says.
Wrapping up her presentation, the leader urges delegates to go to the root of a problem when it arises in their professional life. If you are feeling trapped, look closely at the problem and pin-point its genesis. Only then will a viable solution be found.
“Thank you Google, we learnt a lot,” Nastasi concludes.