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.

In the troubled state of education, there’s scope for an imaginative administrator, even a thoughtful one, to do good.

In a couple of months’ time, the biggest school system in Australia will need a new head. The current Secretary of the Department of Education in NSW, Mark Scott, is moving to greener pastures as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney.

The job of Director-General of Education (the NSW title was changed in 2014) really matters. Some of the great innovators in Australian education have held this role, or its equivalent: William Wilkins in the nineteenth century, Peter Board in the early twentieth, Alby Jones in the reform era of the 1970s in South Australia.

There’s no guarantee that NSW will get another Peter Board – and it’s worth recalling that Peter Board himself resigned in protest against a right-wing Minister’s demand to reintroduce fees for high schools. But in the troubled state of education around the world, there’s scope for an imaginative administrator, even just a thoughtful one, to do a lot of good.

Making choices

There are, of course, bad choices that the NSW government might make. First, they could appoint someone who is a generic corporate manager. There are plenty of potential candidates in the business elite, accustomed to handling big budgets and riding herd on large workforces. Since the public sector was remodelled on corporate lines, there is also a supply from the executive suites of public and ‘public-facing’ (Mark Scott’s unintentionally revealing phrase) agencies.

This way, we could get a D-G who understood spreadsheets, could thump a team into shape, defend austerity, find opportunities for outsourcing, spout the language of excellence – and who would not have two educational ideas to rub together.

Alternatively, the government could go for a right-wing ideologue who did have schemes for education. That’s what Donald Trump did, choosing a wealthy party donor who was an enthusiast for charter schools, parental choice, guns, and other educational devices dear to the far right. Betsy DeVos proved a disaster; one of her few achievements was revoking guidelines on inclusiveness for disabled kids. I don’t think this is a likely kind of appointment in Australia, but it is possible.

How could government make a good choice for this job? Here are the criteria I’d have in mind if, through some terrible error in the Minister’s office, I were appointed to the selection committee for the next D-G.

Know the business

The great myth of managerialism is that all ‘leadership’ roles are basically the same. Just read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, get your MBA, and keep up to date with the relevant apps . . . but education isn’t like oil refining, online marketing, or even Chinese dynastic warfare. 

Good administrators need a hands-on knowledge of what educational processes are, and how schools and classrooms work. They need to recognize how teachers weave multiple tasks together in their daily work. Administrators need to grasp the deep diversity among students in a public school system, the complex needs of young people, and the very complex responsibility that creates for educators.

Above all, they need to understand that it is the inter-active work of teachers, students, support staff and communities that produces educational effects as children grow. Good administrators do not fall into the deadly error of thinking of students and their families as ‘customers’ of a school system.

Hold the fort

One of the important roles of public administrators – though one that’s hard for them to acknowledge – is protecting the workforce from disruptions, distractions and abuse from outside. The list of hazards is long: nervous ministers, hostile media moguls, backbenchers with a bee in their bonnet about communists or feminists or transsexuals, business or religious pressure groups, corporations trying to sell new tests or online systems or training programmes (or even take over whole groups of schools, which has happened in other countries), and more.

Defensiveness won’t work. It’s important that a public school system should be open to the community, should acknowledge criticism, and should be constantly learning and experimenting. I think a new D-G is most likely to get the balance right on the basis of a powerful commitment to the children, a strong skepticism about educational nostrums, and a certain toughness in defence of her fellow-workers.

Trust the staff

Corporate-style management is built on distrust of the workforce. It’s replete with surveillance mechanisms, audits, performance indicators, reporting requirements, incentives and threats. Managements’ adoption of these practice is one of the most damaging parts of the corporate makeover of Australian universities; you can smell the distrust around campus.

It hasn’t got that bad in the school system – yet. A new D-G will have to navigate between demands for performance and the damaging effects of surveillance and distrust. A willingness to recognize the skills, knowledge and responsibility of the workforce, at all levels, is basic. Trust can be built, but it will take serious work.

Speak the truth

An important part of that work is speaking honestly. We may not be quite in a post-truth era, but we are in a world with spin doctors in every government, ads on every bus, and obscenities like corporate funding for climate denialism. It’s easy to think that image matters more than reality. Management now has its own lexicon of weasel words – transparency, accountability, values, excellence, community engagement.

The new D-G has to reject those games and that language. It’s an educational as well as a political question. The curriculum in schools is intended to provide students with the nearest to truth that we fallible humans can get. We need a correspondence, not a contradiction, between what we teach and ask of students, and what the people who run the system say and do. 

Is any of that possible? I hope so – but I don’t know. Please let the NSW Minister have your view!

Raewyn Connell is professor emerita at the University of Sydney. During her career, she held two chairs, sociology at Macquarie University and education at the University of Sydney. She wrote two classics on education – how class and gender hierarchies are made and re-made in the everyday life of schools (Making the Difference, 1982; Teachers’ Work, 1985).

The photos at the top of this post are, from left to right, Betsy DeVos, Peter Board, William Wilkins and Mark Scott.

The image of Peter Board is courtesy of NSW State Archives and Records which is the source or custodian of the Materials NSWSA: NRS-15051-1-4-[222]-3 | Peter Board