Looking Forward and Looking Back: Career Reflections

Looking Forward and Looking Back: Career Reflections

In December 1969, I graduated as a two year trained teacher from Graylands Teachers College in Western Australia. I remember sitting in the assembly hall on the day of our graduation and announcement of school placements. I thought about how far into the future time stretched. It seemed as if I was facing an infinity, a never-ending teaching future.

Looking back, writing this paper as an essentially retired Principal (although a person still deeply committed to education) I feel that time has flown by, almost in the twinkling of an eye. I have learned a lot and that is ongoing for personal education and development is a life-long process.

Education has offered me the privilege of working with students, staff, parents and community in many different situations over forty five years. i wanted to reflect and share thoughts that go to leadership and survival strategies I have practised and systemic changes which have come to pass during my (and including family, our) time in the Northern Territory.


There are constants about the way one leads, together with changes to process impressed as prudent or necessary from time to time. My leadership over time was largely informed about what I should do by learning, from observation and experience, about what not to do!

With the passing of time, leadership modelling moves from one paradigm to another. To move from one leadership approach, to the next, to the next can mean one’s constant adoption of new approaches leading to unpredictability. This could result in destabilisation and a diminution of respect held for the leader by peers and subordinates.

I have never moved far from my first adoption of leadership preference and style. There have been refinements but the basic premises by which I lead have remained constant.

* I have tried to be a ‘developer’ of others in a context of where focus on both people and task has been to the fore. In terms of schools, this is about the importance of being a facilitator in a hands on context rather than offering leadership at distance ‘above’ (and therefore somewhat removed from) those with whom I have worked.

* My focus was to be a leader whose position was acquired and maintained by respect held for me; therefore not relying solely on ascribed or positionally empowered leadership. While appreciating my ‘position’ I have always aimed to be a Principal whose leadership is sustained by respect held for the way I do my job. I don’t believe it hard to maintain authority expected by superordinates, while earning and sustaining genuine respect from those connected with my schools.

* For a long time I struggled with how to meld my thinking about leadership with an appropriate model. The hierarchal model represented by a pyramid which runs from the top down through management and leadership strata to the bottom or base, representing those at the lowest level within the organisation did not fit with my conceptual appreciation. I discovered a more appropriate and fitting model while studying for a Masters in International Management. The Concentric Model presented as being ideal.

Viewed from above, concentric leadership is depicted as a circle, in the centre of which a bold black dot is positioned. Applying the mathematical principle of a circle being a series of dots, the circle in side elevation becomes a series of dots in a straight line, with the bolded dot in the centre of the circle being on the same plane but slightly amplified from the series of dots to the left and right. This signifies the separation and the significance of the leader but does not impose her or him as being far more important than the cohort.

The concentric model represents the leadership style I have always tried to emulate. To be ‘above’ but ‘with’ those one is leading, positions leaders on the balcony (looking down and seeing all) and on the dance floor (with subordinates as colleagues) in a simultaneous context.

I have always practised being a concentric leader.

* The respect one gains as a leader by being a ‘do as I do’ person cannot be overestimated. Countless examples abound which illustrate that people who lead by saying are less effective than those who lead by doing. My practice has never been to ask of others, things I am not prepared to do myself.

* Leadership is enhanced if one has confidence and trust in people. While a responsible leader ensures that the major organisational functions are being met, that expectation is not enhanced by distrustful leadership. My practice as a Principal has been to put trust in people rather than micro-managing them in a scrutinising and suspicious manner. Trust is enhanced through professional contact and conversations. Over the years, my discourse with staff has been enriching because it has been collegial. Giving and taking and sharing ideas has been an important element of those conversations.

Where counsel has been necessary, I have always offered it to people, be they staff, students or members of our parent community. I have also made it clear that advice if offered, will be accepted and considered. Effective and meaningful leadership has to be ‘two way’. It can NEVER be ‘my way or the highway’.

Leadership is about ‘different strokes for different folks. in terms of preference. Being an open, consensus seeking leader is, in my opinion one of the harder models to practice. It can mean putting aside your personal preferences for the sake of the corporate good, along the way working to mould and shape a group toward agreed organisational practice. I would uphold my approach over the years, while offering personal challenge, as being organisationally fulfilling and rewarding. The engagement of stakeholders in a contributive way to help with shaping direction is an important ultimate operational method.


No matter what the profession, it is all to easy to become defocussed and to lose the plot. There is a real need to have balance in life, meaning the establishment of careful priorities.

Life and Work Balance

The imperative of work can lead to people believing that above, through and over all, occupational commitment needs to transcend all other elements of life’s world. This I contend is a sad and misplaced assumption. A wise person (anon) once said that “nobody on their deathbed ever regretted not spending more time at work”. That is so true, but a position often overlooked by those enthusiastically traversing the years of their employment pathways. People go to work, take work home, think and dream work. So often it seems, nothing else counts.

I am not for one moment advocating slackness and don’t support anyone skiving off in attention from their employment obligations. However, balance is critical if one is to lead a satisfying and satisfied life.

Mission Statement

In 1982 the Department of Education sponsored a forum for leadership development. It was conducted by Dr Colin Moyle through the Victorian Institute of Educational Administration, a forerunner of the Australian Council of Educational Leadership (ACEL). A cornerstone of the program was the urging of participants to focus on developing, in 25 words or less, a mission statement that would focus and guide them in the present and into the future.

We were asked to ponder this proposition and developing an encompassing statement that would help in setting priorities. For me, this was one of the best and most strategic professional development exercises ever completed. My mission statement, developed at that time, has been my directing inspiration ever since that time. I hold it in my memory, think about it constantly and share it with others as a message included on the reverse of by business card. It reads:
* To fulfil and be fulfilled in organisational mode – family, work, recreation.
* To acquit my responsibilities with integrity.
* To work with a smile in my heart.
This focussing statement for me has been a key element to my survival and development over the years.

‘Family First’ is so Important

One of the issues that has impacted on many in our schools has been the impact of ‘distance tyranny’ on lifestyle. A phenomena that has impacted on education has been the appointment of people in away that causes family separation. While ‘fly in fly out’ is a phenomena associated with the mining and resource industry, a similar practice has been the appointment of couples in a separatist manner. In the interests of career enhancement and occasionally because of job scarcity in a particular location, principals and senior staff have needed to ‘work away’ from families, coming home on weekends and at times even more periodically.

I am not casting aspersion on that separation, other than to confirm family togetherness as being a very important part of my life. On occasion the opportunity for me to make upward career moves by taking an appointment away from family has been available -but never accepted. I am glad about not taking this pathway because it would have challenged our family. It would have been unfair fore me to leave our adolescent children to my partner in almost a ‘single parent’ context in order to pursue career.

An affirming strategy for me and one that has been altogether the best alternative in the long run, is to have been a part of our family in a very ‘nuclear’ and contributive sense.


One of my strongest survival and enhancement strategies grew from study, awareness and appreciation of the tone, harmony and atmosphere within my schools – the way those schools felt. Once, I had a rather clever member of my staff take an aerial photograph of ‘our place’ and photoshop a weather map over our school campus. This I kept close for it was necessary for me to appreciate the ‘highs’ within our school. I also needed to take account of the ‘lows’, being aware of the fact we needed to make sure they were swiftly moving and not permanently affective of the people within our borders.

This awareness was a phenomena which in intangible form I kept ‘soul-close’ in all my schools.

Tone and harmony are atmospheric elements. This precious intangible cannot be bought but when it imbues an organisation the benefits are enormous. Atmosphere is not constant and esprit de corp can diminish. Atmospheric awareness was always important to me asa leader, an intangible I worked on building and retaining at all times.

Education needs to be about more than survival. To ‘survive’ is essential and to ‘thrive’ an ultimate in terms of satisfaction, that ought to derive from our engagement within the teaching profession. Education in both teaching and leadership terms has been a profession I have enjoyed … and loved.


A privilege of living and working in the Northern Territory has been a connection with our educational system from its inception.

‘The Gray Family’ came to the NT in July 1975. By 1978 I was Principal of Numbulwar School in South-East Arnhemland. In January of that year, Territory Education became the responsibility of the Northern Territory Government – the first operational agency taken over from the Commonwealth by our Government. Our first Educational Director (these days he would be referred to as our Chief Executive Officer) was Dr Jim Eedle.

In March 1978, Dr Eedle met with school education leaders in Katherine, a regional town 300 kilometres south of Darwin. I never forget his welcome of us all to the ‘new’ NT educational system, or his words of wisdom, advice and caution.

Dr Eedle metaphorically described our system’s emancipation as being like unto a rising sun. He offered two pieces of advice I have always regarded as being statements of infinite wisdom. He told us as leaders we should always remember that “schools are for children”. His further advice was that educational “structure should always serve function”.

Dr Eedle set systemic priorities for us, from which I believe we have sadly departed. With the passing of years, we have become a system which has structured to the point of where educational operations are massively ‘sky-scrasperish’ and which has as a prime focus, career opportunities and advancement for people in self betterment terms. Structural magnification in my opinion, has defocused us from the prime purpose of education – to develop and enrich children and students moving up the grades and through the years.

Systemic change and priority alteration has moved NT Education from an institution focussing on holistic development more toward an organisation which upholds teaching and strategies as important only in leading to data confirmed outcomes. It seems that the needs of children and students no longer underpin education in endpoint terms. The ‘ends’ are data and statistical derivatives, the students a means to that end – or so it would appear!

I worry that part of this change in system and therefore school focus is to narrow education down to a point of where students are ‘performers’ on the stage of test based outcomes rather that persons being developed toward becoming confident, competent people with the know how they need to cope with and contribute to tomorrow’s world.

Contract Employment

One of the most significant changes – and on reflection, one of the most detrimental – that occurred for principals in the Northern Territory, was their movement to contract employment. In the NT, this meant Principals severing their connection as permanent members of the Northern Territory Public Service. In exchange for the benefits of contractual employment, they became temporary Education Department employees on four year contracts, renewable if performance was satisfactory. In time, four year contracts were reduced to two years or ‘two-pluis-two’ before recent reinstatement to four year periods.

A downside of this change, together with accountability and compliance being more and more heavily stressed for principals with each passing year, has been the striping of Principal confidence and an increase in their hesitation to lead in any way that might be out of the box.

The belief principals have, that unless they perform their contracts may not been renewed, hangs over many in a Sword of Damocles manner. Principals have in my opinion become a bilingual group. On the one hand they talk quietly and covertly to each other in a way that reflects genuine sharing of feeling. On the other, when they are in superordinate company, they indicate a ‘sharing’ of system held ambition they don’t really feel. In the interests of employment security, they cannot afford to fall foul of the system.

Interstate Infusion

Any system needs revitalisation that comes from the infusion of new blood: No system should become inbred. However, that new blood can come from within as well as without. ‘Within’ is about growing our leaders through developing them through the years and up the ranks. In this way teacghes can grow to become Principals via a Senior Teacher and Assistant Principal track. It is critically important that a significant percentage of our leaders are home grown, along with our system drawing in some from outside the NT.

With the passing of time it has become patently apparent that those within are often overlooked for promotion, with outsiders being preferred. Indeed, there are those in high positions within the NT who appear to believe those within our system are of lesser calibre than external (to the Northern Territory) recruits.

It worries me that the trend toward external engagement of people to senior positions seems a continuing trend – ands this to the denial of our home grown personnel. This trend does little to promote goodwill within and confidence toward our system by many who have given good, faithful and envisioned service. I believe vesting – or re-investing – confident in homegrown and long-term Territory educators, entrusting ands respecting them in leadership roles is important, necessary … and overdue.

Data Focus

With the passing of time, demands made of educational systems by Governments have impacted on schools. Compliance and accountability requirements, the linking of data to performance outcomes and the trying of funding to results, has both narrowed and magnified educAtional perspectives. As a new system and taking into account Eedles’s advice, I thought of our schools as having a panoramic perspective and wide ranging holistically focussed outlook. With the passing of time that focus narrowed to a point of where academic focus seemed to be the ‘b all and end all’ of education: Social, emotional and moral/spiritual perspectives have been tagged as less important than they were historically.

There needs to be strong adherence to holistic development because there is more to preparing people for tomorrow’s world that literacy and numeracy competence. There is a feeling of fallaciousness about measuring our children, Australia’s educational ‘product’, against the way they compare in literate and numerate terms with the rest of the world. Sadly it seems, systemic change has discarded this principle. Rather than schools being for children, they are institutions for data gathering and number crunching. Children and students are no longer the endpoint; they are merely a means to an end.

Our client group must be re-elevated. Schools are for children. While structure is important, the status of providers one of essential consideration and data an important measurement criterion, we must not lose sight of who we are doing it for – the children and students of today who are tomorrow’s adults and our future leaders.

Concluding thoughts

There is so much that is important about the work undertaken by educators. Developing our children and students toward their future roles in life’s world is possibly the most significant of all professions. Beyond the nuclear (and extended) family unit, we are charged with the most important of all occupations, that of human development. We do it better if we work closely in a collegiate sense and in partnership with parents and children themselves.

For me, education has been challenging and rewarding. I gave up entitlement as an only son to inherit our family farm and opted for life as a teacher. How glad I am that with my family I followed my dream.

Henry Gray

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