education leadership

How to lead the leaders

In its infancy, the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL) was a male-centric organisation. At its 50th anniversary, it showed us how far it had come.

It was significant that the opening of the 50-year ACEL celebration represented a major transformation of past ACEL membership to its current iteration, transformed by a group of influential women in the early 70s and now represents the diverse faces of educational leadership in 2023. 

One of the significant features of the 2023 ACEL conference was powerful women in leadership within the organisation. Barbara Watterston (ACEL CEO) opened the conference with great passion and insight, throwing the spotlight on the quality of educational leadership and the agility and resilience of educational leaders. Briony Scott (ACEL President) made the most remarkable concluding speech that tied all elements of the conference together in an eloquent and positive manner. She challenged the 600 delegates to listen to multiple voices and build collaborative and inclusive relationships within the community.

 These ACEL leaders were joined by Stacie Hansel (Dep DG Qld) who officially opened the conference, Sarah Kanowski – the effervescent host and maestro who wove the key elements together throughout the conference, Dr Sue Pillans, who managed to encapsulate and illustrate key learnings from the conference, and the distinguished Viviane Robinson (Uni Auckland) who started the conference with virtuous educational leadership- doing the right things the right way. 

Emeritus Professors Frank Crowther and Brian Caldwell, two of the founders and original members of ACEL were celebrated for their 50 years of service. They highlighted the role ACEL played in leading educational change such as women in leadership in the history of ACEL through the Commemorative Monograph (1973-2023). The Monograph was framed in five parts, writing four sections himself and the final contribution by Brian Caldwell: Auspicious beginnings; Years of Renovation, Revolution and Unification; The Blossoming of Education Leadership Scholarship; Ahead of the Game in a Tumultuous World; the Future of ACEL. Frank talked about connections and described how the DNA of ACEL (originally the Australian Council for Educational Administrators) has shaped, is shaping, and will shape Australian education. The 2023 theme was celebrated through presentations, demonstrating the evolution of ideas and practices in educational leadership rooted in the DNA described by Frank Crowther. The monograph reflects on the journey of ACEL and highlights key events and dedicated service since the inception. It was a fitting backdrop to the theme of the 2023 National Conference, Learning from the Past, Leading for the Future, which raised the following ideas.

‘Working with’ not ‘working for’

Inspiring attendees to look to the future, presentations explored the opportunities that arise when we shift our mindsets to ‘working with’ rather than ‘working for’ groups in education. Marnee’s William Walker oration focused on the value of codesign in working with Aboriginal communities.

The panel discussion involving Kristen Douglas and Beth O’Brien highlighted the importance of working with people to remove the barriers that can inhibit success in education and work. The discussion represented a powerful shift in inclusive education, about working alongside people to showcase their strengths and support their needs.

Focusing on the wellbeing of all

We were reminded of the importance of considering the wellbeing of all members of the school community, including teachers and leaders. We know that educational leaders are often inclined to worry about the wellbeing of their students and their staff before themselves. The analogy of the airplane oxygen mask came to mind for participants with the importance of leaders ‘fitting their own masks first’ in order to be able to help others. 

The theme of ensuring leaders are healthy and well, so that they can best serve their schools, was evident in Paul Kidson’s concurrent session. Paul shared evidence from the 11 years of the ACU Principal Health and Wellbeing survey and made connections to strong evidence from TALIS research that demonstrated a positive relationship between teacher and principal job satisfaction and student achievement. With the current need to focus on teacher retention in Australian schools, as was raised in the research from Mark McCrindle and Fiona Longmuir, the conference highlighted a need to reframe the ways in which we support staff wellbeing. While educators will always care about the wellbeing and learning of students, perhaps a slight shift in focus to ensure those in the profession have their own ‘masks’ well secured first would ultimately benefit students the most?  

Dealing with the ‘problem’

So much of the current talk about education takes a deficit discourse. Within the media and the policy arena, we constantly hear about the failings of students, teachers, educational leaders, schools and initial teacher educators. Discussions at the ACEL conference, however, were a little more proactive. Kristen Douglas and Penny Brown, among others, shifted the conversation forward, calling on educators and policymakers to stop focusing on the people and pay more attention to problems within the system. 

The call to refocus our attention was 

 to the ‘Imagination declaration’, in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people made a statement to the Prime Minister and education ministers describing their aspirations for the future:

We are not the problem, we are the solution. 

We don’t want to be boxed.

We don’t want ceilings.

We want freedom to be whatever a human mind can dream. (Imagination Declaration, 2019)

Connections beyond the classroom

Listening is fundamental to the curious mindset of educational leaders that was advocated for by Pasi Sahlberg. Fiona Longmuir’s Spotlight session reminded us that listening to teachers’ experiences in order to understand how to best support them is integral to retaining them in the current workforce shortages. 

The conference provoked discussions about listening to one another, being curious and celebrating the strengths of educators. In his keynote, Mark McCrindle described significant disruptive features that already exist in schools that require new ways of thinking, challenging us to adopt creative strategies for adapting to change.

As one of the final speakers at the conference, Luke Springer critiqued the current ‘doom and gloom’ discourse of teachers and school education and demonstrated the importance of positive representations of schools. His social media posts have helped him to engage with students, parents, teachers, system leaders and the international community, spreading new narratives about the joys of teaching.

Participants were left with a challenge to make a difference, by being inclusive and responsive, by listening and connecting to improve educational leadership, now, and into the future.  

From left to right: Jess Harris is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research is focused on the leadership and development of teachers and teaching within schools and through initial teacher education.

Fiona Longmuir lectures in educational leadership at Monash University and has over 20 years’ experience as a researcher and practising school leader.Her research interests include intersections between educational leadership and educational change with a particular focus on student voice and agency. Susan Ledger is a professor and dean of education at the University of Newcastle. She researches education policy, practices and issues related to teaching and preparing to teach in diverse contexts: international, rural, remote, multi-lingual, special needs and difficult to staff.

The astonishing adventures of Angela and Kimberley: this is how it all ends*

Our two authors have told their stories of leaving university life to return to school over three blogs this year. You can read part one here and part two here.

An introduction from Kimberley

Let me take you for a moment into my Year 6 classroom. It’s the last morning of Term 4 and my students have just finished cleaning out their tote trays. They’ve proudly packed their workbooks from this year into their school bags to take home to share with their parents. ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ has just been requested as we set up for some final UNO games and reminisce about primary school and the year that we’ve shared. Our Deputy Head appears at the classroom door and silently hands me a single sheet of paper then leaves. I read it. There’s been a positive COVID case in our school. ‘Calmly pack the students up immediately and drop them to the playground for supervised collection’. I am to return to the classroom to join a staff Zoom. With a heavy heart, masked up and socially distanced, I do my best to farewell my students on their final day of primary school in a way that none of us had ever really entertained.

Some might say this is an unsurprising end to the 2021 school year, and of course, sudden school closures have become widespread in Term 4. Students, teachers, school leaders and parents have come to accept that adaptability is a requisite disposition for contemporary life and schooling. As widely documented and increasingly researched, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on learning and teaching in all education contexts. Since our previous blog posts for EduResearch Matters, we each have spent time teaching remotely as our primary and secondary school students learnt from home for a large proportion of the second half of the year in New South Wales and Victoria. While this has created challenges as well as opportunities, both similarities and differences in our experiences have been highlighted. In this our third and final blog post, we reflect on two of our key learnings from returning to school contexts in 2021, after our years of previously working as teacher education academics.

Learning 1: We are teachers at heart 

Our grappling with our professional identities has certainly continued over the year. In returning to our reference of the ‘departure card test’ in our original AARE blog post, this year has certainly cemented our self-perceptions as being teachers. Not that this has surprised us, but we did wonder if this identity work would be challenging and prolonged. Positioning ourselves as teachers in our respective school contexts has been easier than first imagined, but two interesting elements of this readjustment arose. Firstly, we have both been struck at different points in this journey that we bring a ‘different’ lens to viewing the world of education. Continually seeking research and data to inform our decisions, engaging in reflective practices and actively  inviting critique and feedback may be second nature to us, but these are practices not necessarily embedded in the approaches of our teaching colleagues. Secondly, we have come to realise that imposter syndrome is present in any professional setting. There certainly have been days where we have both felt that our true identities would be ‘revealed’ and that we would be escorted from the school premises at any moment! While we both identify even more strongly as teachers now, the process of fitting into our teacherly skins is a work-in-progress and one that we embrace wholeheartedly.

Learning 2: One size does not fit all

Our respective experiences in a Sydney urban independent boys’ school (Kimberley) and a rural Victorian co-educational state secondary school (Ange) have emphasised the importance of teachers building relationships and having professional autonomy, in identifying and responding to key and immediate priorities for the students that they teach. Student engagement in learning during remote teaching was a challenge that each of us faced, but how we responded to that challenge differed in our contexts, and even from teacher-to-teacher and class-to-class within our schools. Each of us has worked closely with parents to support students this year, but the needs of, and resources available to, our students and their families have differed. An effective solution in one school community may face barriers, or prove ineffective – or indeed, unavailable – in another. As many have argued and continue to argue, our experiences have emphasised that school funding models need to more equitably equip all schools to respond in a timely and contextualised way to their school community needs.

A conclusion from Ange 

At the start of Term 4, I moved into an Acting Principal role at my school. It was quite a whirlwind of a time to take up the hot seat generally, but COVID certainly added some additional spice! The learning curve has continued to be steep, but I have greatly valued being able to bring some of my ‘big picture’ education skills and knowledge to the table to better support my colleagues and our students to achieve their best as teachers and learners, respectively. This role will continue for me into Term 1, 2022. Kimberley will also move into a leadership role at her school in 2022 as Deputy Head of Junior School. As we reflected together on the year that was, we did ponder this question: was it inevitable that we would end up in school leadership roles? In many ways this shift out of the classroom does reflect our educational backgrounds, where we have professionally come from and our relationship with education. We recognise these differences in us in three key ways:

  • A desire to meaningfully contribute to school-wide improvement using wide-ranging data as the evidence-base from which to make decisions;
  • A level of engagement with the ‘bigger picture’ elements of the educational landscape, locally, nationally and globally; and
  • An opportunity to leverage our extensive mentoring and coaching experience with pre-service teachers to transition into instructional coaching opportunities with peers.

While we are not where we thought we’d be when we individually made decisions over a year ago to leave tenured academic positions, in many ways that has been the beauty of being able to embrace our return-to-school journeys and not be so focused on the destination. Anything has been possible and that openness has certainly played out as we have found our place in our respective schools and they have found their groove with us. Bring on 2022! We are ready to embrace our next challenges and see what working life in schools has in store for us into the future. 

In signing off, we would like to thank our academic and teaching colleagues for their support and encouragement over the year. Your positivity about our return-to-school adventures certainly spurred us on and we hope that our sharing of our experiences has been insightful and inspiring for you too.

*for this year anyway

Dr. Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn (University of Technology Sydney and Newington College) started her career as a primary teacher, and after time working as a casual academic and research assistant, took up a tenured academic position at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in 2004. She completed her PhD in 2010. Highlights in Kimberley’s time at UTS have included opportunities to collaborate in leading externally funded research evaluations of science education initiatives, as well as accompanying preservice teachers on international professional experiences to Samoa and Bhutan. This year, she joined the staff at Wyvern House, Newington College as a Year 6 classroom teacher. Kimberley wears glasses in the photo.

Dr Ange Fitzgerald (University of Southern Queensland and Mirboo North Secondary College) is recognised for her experience and expertise in science education, particularly through her explorations of quality learning and teaching practices in primary science education from a number of angles. While she entered higher education as a teacher educator and PhD student in 2007, she has previously spent time away from higher education as an Australian Government-sponsored volunteer in the Middle East. In 2021, Ange was meant to return to the classroom as a mathematics and digital technologies teacher but that’s not quite how it worked out. Ange is not wearing glasses in the photo.