School Transformation – Not That Easy.

I am thankful for the support of so many global educators in the public, catholic and independent sectors who have followed the transformation of my school over the past few years. This following extends to the philanthropy world that generously donates in kind or via social capital to our school.  Together, with my staff, we’ve been able to have rich and deep dialogues about how we would go about engaging our students in a much more meaningful level by using technology and the general capabilities of the Australian Curriculum, and with the underpinning belief that our students can learn anytime, anywhere and with anyone.

The Merrylands East Public School transformation is well documented through various journals, media articles and this blog site. Each story talked about the changes that have been made but none of them actually highlighted some of the difficulties that we’ve experienced.

1. Schools cannot transform without a long term principal and stable leadership team.

Having been in a school where the principal and leadership teams changed every couple of years can be frustrating. A new principal walks through the front door and outlines a vision for a school but then walks out soon after.  There is no sustainability in overall school plans and vision. No wonder staff can often be disillusioned and cynical of a new principal. I experienced it with some previous staff members and needed time to build up credibility for change.

I’ve just read the latest Harvard Business Review called “The Most Innovative Companies Have Long Term Leadership”. The article references some of the most successful companies as having long term leadership at the helm of their organisation. Schools are no different. Last term, over 50 NSW Public School educators visited three well renowned innovative and creative Melbourne primary schools. While people marvelled over the learning spaces and the various programs at these schools, a common factor of each school was the long term tenure of the principal – all have been at their school for at least 20 years and now reaping the rewards of their long term vision. I’m not saying that every school needs a principal that stays at a schools for 20 years but they do need stability in principalship and leadership density to ensure programs are sustained.

This year, I am coming up to my tenth year of being at the same school. I am thankful that a few staff members have been with me during the whole ten years and part of our long term transformation. It hasn’t been easy as we’ve had to scramble for funding to implement programs, forge partnerships with para-professionals and philanthropic organisations, complete our own maintenance in order to reduce costs so that we can redirect funding directly to students, and build teams of staff who were willing to let go a lot in order to venture into the unknown. We’re also had to battle critics, some of which included people in my own system while at the same time establish credibility for change with our school community, and not to mention teach at the same time. All of this can be emotionally draining and energy sapping, so be prepared to build up your resilience during school transformation.

2. Schools cannot transform without leaders at all levels of a system having an understanding of 21st century learning.

During the rugby season, I often sit in sporting crowds and listen to people yell out advice to the referees, players, coaches as though they were the experts. For many, their own experience in the game is either at a local park level or vicariously. They try to have a conversation with others as though they are experts but in reality, they’ve never played the game at the same level and all their advice is nothing more than crowd noise. We need leaders at all levels who not only can “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk,” Nothing is more frustrating to school transformation than to have internal and external leaders that are not supportive of change and add nothing but crowd noise.

In the past, I have found critics to have a superficial and uninspiring approach to school transformation. They often cannot see past their past, and see their role as more important than students and their learning. I recently heard the term CAVE people  (Citizen Against Virtually Everything) and we have them in education whenever school transformation occurs.

School transformation needs empathetic and supportive leaders. They need to be co-designer and be prepared to understand that creating and designing during a period of transformation is a long term process and not measured in simplistic metrics such as NAPLAN or other standardised tests.

Over the past nine years at Merrylands East, I have appreciated my former directors and relieving directors for their support in our school’s transformation and understanding the concept of change. They have enable my staff and I to make the changes that have been needed, battled and ran interference with critics, advocated on our behalf whenever there’s been an injustice or a better way forward with a solution, and been prepared to be actively involved in our school. Most importantly, they have been receptive of school transformation and had a deep understanding of processes.

3. Schools transformation cannot take place without adequate resourcing and support.

Can you imagine a business not investing adequate resources in research, marketing, innovation, staff training and ultimately product design? I don’t think the business would be around for too long. School transformation needs more resources not a reduction of resources. Too often systems work on a deficit model whereby schools that have shown improvement continue to find their resources are diverted or reallocated to other schools, and the whole momentum of driving change slows down or comes to a grinding halt.

Proper school resourcing is a vital element for school transformation. I am full of praise for my brilliant staff and their willingness to undertake so much change for the betterment of our students. It’s been exceptionally difficult and we’ve done it the hard way both physically and emotionally – with a reduction of resourcing.  In an era of increase commonwealth and state funding to our school, our school community has seen an overall reduction of resourcing to our school in the past three years. Our English as a Second Language allocation has dropped from 2 full time teachers and a one day a week part time teacher to 1 full time teacher and a 2 day a week part time teacher. We’ve also  seen a reduction of a teacher who specialises in children with learning difficulties from a weekly fulltime position to a half a week part time position. In other words, we have lost staffing during the Gonski period of funding (Unbelievable in a low socio-economic school with 90% of students from a non English Speaking Background!!) but at the same time we don’t begrudge other schools receiving additional resourcing.

This year will be challenging for my staff and I. We’ve seen a decline in our resourcing but we’ll be continuing our school transformation with one resourcing hand tied behind our back. We’ll continue to work with our para-professionals and with the support of our wonderful philanthropic organisations like Social Ventures Australia.  Nevertheless, we’ll stay focused but it is disappointing that when we’ve undertaken school transformation, the resourcing is not there to back up what we’re doing.


4 thoughts on “School Transformation – Not That Easy.

  1. Hi John,
    This is such an interesting post, thank you for sharing your experience. I really liked what you said about long term tenure. I agree. I think it’s essential. Yet, the popular wisdom seems to be that principals (and teachers) should move on after around 5 years both for the good of the school and for their own professional growth. I’ve been assistant principal at my school for 8 years and my principal for 9, and its only in the last 2 years that we are really seeing the fruits of our labour – with great improvements in school vision, culture and pedagogy that were developed over years.

    And I’m glad you pointed out the need for adequate funding. I see some people trying to deny that educational improvements require money, but it’s a falsehood. There is only so much that can be achieved through ‘efficiencies’ before the quality drops as services for our students are cut. We can’t keep doing more with less. I’m sorry to hear you’ve lost funding. I know you’ll continue to forge ahead anyway, and I hope the reduction of funds is only a temporary set back.

  2. Hi John,
    I read with interest your comments about long term tenure. I agree wholeheartedly with this. I am a Teaching Principal in a small school and for both me and my hardworking staff, it is physically and emotionally tough. I am fortunate to have an incredible group of people around me both at school and at home as support. I too, know what it is like to work with limited resources.
    I would have loved to have visited the innovative schools in Melbourne and I’m really interested in the philanthropic organisations you talk about. Funding in a small school is also something we always need more of. I look forward to talking to you soon!

  3. Thank you for sharing your school’s journey. I really did connect with the part about long term leadership. Unless staff see a consistent and long term commitment to something nothing changes. When you have leaders who serve for long periods of time they do ensure that others stick to the game plan. I’ve been fortunate enough to be at my school for 7 years and I have not wanted to leave because I had felt the journey was not done. The last two years at my school were the most challenging but we can finally see a shift.

  4. It’s hard sometimes to see the shift when you’re still up close. I’m now in the third year of my principalship and I can see change but I also know that needs to be attributed to the work done by various leaders within the school before I arrived. Change of leadership changes a school. When I went into the role I tried to see the existing strengths and build rather than start again. I recognised the sense of initiative fatigue amongst staff as they saw a new leader with new ideas and I pledged to stay committed to the key ideas for the long term. And I often return to that message to remind the school community that the core principles and priorities stay unchanged even as small events and programs change.
    I have great APs who are ready for the next step but their move means my long term leadership team is ever changing. The challenge for us is to build a sense of longevity by creating that leadership across all staff, regardless of role. The executive team need to be able to seek promotion without limiting their own opportunities due to duty to the school. It’s a balancing act.

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