In the early 1980’s, I remembered walking into my former primary school for a second year teacher education practicum and noticing that nothing had changed. This is despite leaving the school almost 8 years ago. The school’s learning environment looked the same, my former teachers were in the same rooms and most of them were using the same textbooks and resources, and the culture felt like a time warp despite the world moving on. I passed my practicum but little did I realise at the time that the experience would be invaluable in making change at my current school.
Too often, we believe that a situation is difficult to change due to inertia or some form of policy that has lost its currency. Disruptive leadership is about looking at an authentic problem from outside in. Instead of tinkering around the edges, we reconceptualise problems, obtain different perspectives from both within and outside the field and design strategic solutions.
Merrylands East Public School required disruptive leadership to make a shift from conventional wisdom to a new reality. The school’s Parents and Citizens Association asked a simple question as to why schools cannot start earlier and finish earlier to capture the peak hours of learning for primary students and to avoid the fatigue factor in the afternoon. Many of these parents have very little deep grounding in industrial relations, government policies and procedures, or how schools worked but came with an authentic pragmatic solution without any preconceived ideas. We could have easily tinkered with the school hours by shifting our recess and lunch periods but still ended with a hybrid version of the existing paradigm.
Disruptive leadership is not about the norm but creating new products and procedures and challenging the values, beliefs and assumptions of a society. School hours for the majority of Australian primary schools are 9am to 3pm model with some slight variations. These times haven’t changed since the commencement of NSW public schools in 1848. The Merrylands East change has resulted in teachers having optional afternoon time to collaborate, program, assess and evaluate student learning without the added conflict of other activities. Students have benefited with learning taking place earlier in the morning with additional family time in the afternoons. Most recently when Sydney sweltered above 30 degree Celsius temperatures in the afternoon, our students had a range of alternatives rather than being fatigued at school.
In any organisation disruptive leadership is about making long term change with sudden impact. The Merrylands East school hours had to change overnight rather than gradually. People involved in our school had to make the necessary personal adaptation to align with the organisational change. With any disruption, there is always some form of insecurity, uncertainty and emotional change that needs to be addressed. However, collective community solutions have inevitably resulted in our school being placed in a position to meet the needs of our local community.
Disruptive leadership is evident all around us. Who would have imagine that banks could be automated and funds withdrawn or deposited globally, phones become multifunction, and enterprises operate in alternative work designed environments? Who would have imagined that students could self-regulate their learning, share their learning globally in a range of multimodal texts and collaborate with other students anytime anywhere? At a classroom level, disruptive leadership may involve the change of pedagogy and the creation of a better learning environment for students.
I must caution that disruptive leadership is not about being militant or making change for the sake of change. Instead, disruptive leadership is about being solution driven with a totally fresh approach and challenging the current norm. Sometimes, this may involve starting with a blank canvas and designing from scratch with all possible solutions on the table for discussion. It’s also about letting go our prejudices and stepping back from within, and withdrawing emotionally from ownership – not easy to do, especially if schools have long standing traditions and a culture of conservatism.
Disruptive leadership has resulted in Merrylands East changing our pedagogy, learning spaces and the way we operate in the 21st century.