“SUNS” COLUMNS 13 – 18
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SUN 13 – 18 RESERVE
SUN 13 – 18
TWO WAY COMMUNICATION A NECESSITY
Organisations benefit from open, two-way lines of communication. Schools are winners if teachers and support staff are relaxed about communicating upward to principals and leadership teams. Similarly, if school based staff feel confident in contact with the support service arms of Education Departments, educational processes and teacher satisfaction will be enhanced.
There is a reluctance on the part of those within the lower echelons of organisations to speak up with confidence. Within schools, teachers have to perform and deliver in response to downward command. Similarly, schools are on the receiving end of instructions dictated by their Education Departments. In both scenarios one-way communication from the top down is the dominant strand.
Two way communication is necessary
In the interests of organisational health and well-being it is important that people feel confident about “speaking up” to those at higher levels within the educational structure. If teachers and support staff are comfortable about conversing with principals and leaders, their schools will benefit. Similarly, if school based personnel feel confident in communicating to those within the bureaucracy, trust will grow and all staff will benefit.
Feelings of insecurity
A symptom of modern organisation seems to be that those responsible for service delivery (implementation responsibilities) are discouraged from sharing opinions. They believe that to speak up will draw sanctions from on high.
Feelings of employee insecurity are bad for organisations. While those responsible for classroom teaching are silent, this does not mean they are contented. Instead, unhappiness builds within the consciences of staff members. Tensions well up in organisations when people want to speak out but don’t, in case they are reprimanded for being ‘bold’.
If leaders indicate their willingness to hear from those they are leading and if this is demonstrated through organisational discourse, schools will be places of confidence and trust.
An unfortunate reality
A sad reality within education and schools is the existence of a “them and us” mentality that wedges between the lower and upper organisational levels. Distance between leadership and service providers (teachers and support staff) does little to promote harmony and accord within schools.
The communications gap existing between schools and the support arm of our Education Department needs to be closed. If this happens, confidence will build. Relationships based on trust rather than suspicion will enhance delivery of education. There is a need for positive atmosphere and the need for school leaders, teachers and school support staff to feel good about their important work. There is no job more significant than the development and shaping of today’s children and young people. They are the adults and the leaders of tomorrow’s world.
THE CHALLENGE OF SCHOOL PRINCIPALSHIP
School Principals occupy a unique position within education systems. On the one hand, they are leaders answerable to staff, students and the parent community. On the other, they are charged with school management by their Departments, whose agendas are largely set by Governments. There is a lot that impacts on principals’ positions from both Government and community.
As Governments are elected, it might seem they and the community at large, hold the same expectations of schools. That is not necessarily the case.
On the one hand, Governments set educational parameters around outcomes that are measurable by Australian-wide tests. They increasingly impose national curriculum for systems and schools to follow.
On the other, the local community’s expectations are more toward schools
being comfortable and accommodating places for children and students. While valuing competence in literacy and numeracy, the community wants learning to be offered in comfortable, controlled, secure and safe settings. They want their schools to be unique, special and not stereotyped.
It also seems that schools are expected to enter the realm of child development like never before. It has become a case of ‘picking up the bringing up’. Functions that used to be managed on the home front have been hand-balled to our schools.
School Principals have to recognise and accommodate both sets of expectations. They need to encourage student growth and development without discounting the way young people feel about the education being provided.
For a Principal it often seems there is a mismatch between system demands and community requirements. This means that Principals need leadership skills which enable the building of connections between all those with a stake and interest in educational outcomes. The aim is for oneness and unity that meets expectations without compromising standards.
NT Principals are not tenured
Unlike permanent school staff members whose positions are guaranteed under the Public Employment Sector Management Act, their Principals are employed on temporary contracts with a maximum tenure of four years before renegotiation is necessary. Unlike most of the States, our Principals do not have a fallback position. If contracts are not renewed, Principals have no automatic right of return to a public service position at a lower level. Technically they are cut loose.
During their periods of contract tenure, Principals undergo an increasingly rigorous performance management (PM) process. If they come up short, contractual continuation is in jeopardy. While PM follows guidelines, the process is long on both time and paperwork completion requirements. It can be distracting and has the potential to avert the attention of the principal away from elements of duty in order to focus on positional security.
Principals and all members of staff need to be accountable. However if accountability is over the top and school leaders are constantly stressing about meeting all expectations, a great deal of independence and joy in leadership is lost. My worry is that the essence of school leadership is fading. The last thing systems need are Principals whose effectiveness is reduced. Strong school leadership is an absolutely essential need.
‘DEPERCHMENT’ AND ‘UPFILTERING’ THREATS TO EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP
Over the years I have become aware of two alarming and rather disturbing phenomena. They have a negative impact on education but other organisations are not immune. Both are hard to guard against and both can destabilise quite devastating.
The first, “deperchment”, is a major upsetting phenomena. Deperchment is unpredictable in terms of when it will occur but is almost guaranteed to impact on every leader at some stage of his or her career. The higher within an organisation the leader, the greater the likelihood of this upset. In a school context it is about the Principal, seemingly secure within the school, being suddenly ‘shot at’ usually from the ground but sometimes from above. The aim of deperchment is to de-position the leader.
Deperchment is usually covert. The leader doesn’t know it’s coming until he or she has been dethroned. Invariably principals have been assessed as suitable for their leadership positions. Performance Management may have been quite recent and the leader either confirmed or re-endorsed. Suddenly however the leader is deemed unsuitable and displaced as Principal. Sometimes it happens because personalities clash, followed by magnification of some leadership issue which is generally taken out of proportion. Sometimes the deperchment may be only a minor setback for the leader who is shuffled sideways or shunted into some other position. On other occasions it can be devastating, leading to resignation. Invariably deperchment leaves a very bitter taste in the mouths of those who are derailed.
The second issue revolves around a paucity of information made available to Principals and system leaders because of “upfiltering”. Upfiltering is the withholding of information, by accident or intent, needed by leaders to support rational, logical and informed decisions. It follows that if fully detailed information is not available to leaders, those decisions are likely to be based upon poorly researched or misinformed judgements.
I believe within education at school and system level, data needed to support decision making and direction setting is not always available. I would like to think that the non-availability of information is accidental, but believe at times it is not conveyed because of alterior motive.
It follows that poor decisions made by leaders as a result of upfiltering can and do lead to questions being asked about leadership competence. Upfiltering has a macabre connection to destiny because decisions that are poorly made can and do lead to “deperchment” of leaders.
Without doubt, organisational leaders, within schools and otherwise, occupy a precarious position. Tenure is insecure, even if performance management processes and outcomes suggest otherwise. Our leaders are so often pre-occupied about their future they become the “frightened class”, not willing to make significant decisions, lest they be penalised
Support may have two faces
Principals and system leaders are helped if, by their consistency and fairness in decision-making, they earn the respect of those in the school or workplace. However, determining whether ‘respect’ is genuine or otherwise can be fraught. It is not uncommon for people to declare support for leaders to their faces while telling an altogether different and negative story behind their backs.
It is hard to guard against this possibility. Those declaring leadership allegiance can be motivated by altogether different agendas. Not the least of these might be based on jealousy and envy. Sometimes subordinates believe they have been overlooked for senior positions or would do a better job than their leaders.
In schools, this can play out with dire and destabilising consequences. In can also result in chaos at higher head office level, manifest in what is sometimes referred to as ‘musical chairs’ or seemingly unceasing leadership changes.
My hope is that leadership earned through legitimate selection and promotion processes brings stability to schools and our educational system. For that to happen the offer of sanitised information to leaders, which can lead to their dismissal from leadership must cease. Honesty must be the best policy.
NT GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS ARE GOOD SCHOOLS
Our Northern Territory Public Education System is often put down and held to be of lesser quality than its interstate counterparts. I think that is an unfortunate and inaccurate misconception.
One of the things that confronted me as a school principal was that enrolling parents coming from elsewhere, assumed that Government Schools in the Territory were inferior to those they were leaving behind. I am sure that still applies in 2013. I do not believe that tag and perception be be fair or accurate. In fact, public education in the Northern Territory is quite superior. Principals and teachers deserve a lot more bouquets than the few they receive. The propensity to “brickbat” our public schools is unfortunate and quite often un-deserved.
It’s generally believed public education in the Northern Territory is free of cost for parents and primary caregivers. That is not really true; however charges and levies are quite minimal. I believe at times members of community think that ‘free’ means mediocre and second rate. “If you don’t have to pay for a product, it cannot be much good”, seems to be what some people think.
Over the years when accepting enrolments from interstate, I adopted the practice of letting people know we had a very good public education system. Comparatively speaking, the Northern Territory Department of Education does not have a big network of schools. However small and distant from the rest of Australia does not make it in any way inferior. Rather, the reverse. We do our schools a disservice if we are apologist about who we are, where we are and how well we operate. A lot of hard work, care and commitment is devoted to education within our schools and students are winners.
Two anecdotal but frequently manifest propositions validate this point. The first is hearing from parents leaving the Northern Territory and going interstate who, in retrospect, uphold the quality of public education offered by Territory schools. I know of parents transferring west, south or east, who have moved their children from NT Government Schools into the private system. They suggest that is in order to provide them with an equivalent education to what they were receiving in the public system up here. Outcomes can always improve but we ought not overlook the many good things happening within our public schools.
The second phenomena relates to attitude. On more than one occasion I became aware of parents whose take on public education was extremely negative. On exiting the public system and going private within the Northern Territory, they became keen and proactive supporters of their children’s new schools. This leads me to contend there are those who believe that Public Education is inferior because it is cost minimal. Private education is deemed superior because it has to be bought.
Regardless of school classification, public or private, it is unfortunate that system controllers put so much emphasis on academic outcomes, downplaying pastoral care and holistic development. While balance can always improve we ought not discount the overall care offered to students in all Territory schools. In this respect pastoral care provided by private schools within the Northern Territory may be superior. However, the quality of concern felt for students by teachers and support staff within the public domain is empathetically based.
Distractions put on schools by system administration can detract from pastoral care. That in turn is forced on Education Departments by Governments at both Federal and State/Territory level. The major priority held for schools is about literacy and numeracy outcomes along with a fairly narrow group of academic ambitions. Academics are important. So too is the development of student character and personality. Private schools being somewhat “independent” of government demands, do a better job in this domain than their public school counterparts.
Public Education in the Northern Territory is not a lame duck when compared to its interstate counterparts. Over the years our schools have graduated many fine students who have gone on to become Territory and Australian leaders in every walk of life. We should be proud, not ashamed of our system and the great historical and contemporary work done by our schools and staff.
SUN 17 2
‘THANK YOU’ TEACHERS
Friday, 25 October 2013 is being celebrated as World Teachers’ Day. Recognising and saying “thank you” to teachers is happening in Darwin, Palmerston, all around the Northern Territory in every other part of Australia and across the world.
Teachers and school staff members have enormous responsibilities. High-level expectations are held for them. The tasks they undertake every day, week, term and semester of the school year are significant. Increasingly, teachers are people responsible for a great deal that goes beyond academics. They are advisors, counsellors and friends. They are responsible for social, emotional and moral aspects of development in young people. They share a real partnership with parents and primary caregivers in the nurturing of this world’s most precious resource – our children.
Teachers are providing an invaluable service in every Australian context, urban, town, rural and remote. They are often the only providers of professional services in far-flung Aboriginal Communities, lonely inland centres, isolated places dotted along distant highways and remote stations deep in our Territory and Australia’s geographic hinterland. Where they cannot physically reach, they are present through Schools of the Air and more recent Information Technology Networks. Theirs is one of the most significant and enduring of professions.
There are two myths about teaching that need to be dispelled forever.
The first is that teachers work a six hour day five days a week for forty weeks each year. The amount of time teachers spend “on tasks” over and above that time means the public is only aware of the “tip of the iceberg”. There is much, much more to teaching than the “30 hours per week with 12 weeks holiday” theory.
Preceding teaching periods are significant hours of planning and preparation. Teaching is followed by assessment, upon which revision and extension programs are based. A growing aspect of these requirements are the countless hours the system demands of teachers and support staff for the sake of data inputting. Teachers can be found at their schools early in the morning, late at night, on weekends and during holidays. Many take work home with them. What is seen of teachers’ work by the public at large is a small percentage of their total commitment.
The second myth is that teachers focus only on academics. Although the “3Rs” are very important (and seemingly the only thing that counts from the determination of many in high ‘policy setting’ places) there is much more to the development of children than Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. To the credit of most staff in our schools they recognise this to be the case. Further, they work to accommodate both system priorities and their concerns for the development of students in order to prepare them for entry into life’s world.
The aim of school educators is to work with parents to develop well rounded students who have the confidence and skill necessary to master the challenges of preparing today for the world of their future. They aim to offer children the chance to succeed and celebrate.
Recognising Northern Territory Teachers
The Northern Territory Government, the Department of Education, the Northern Territory Independent Schools Association’s and others will recognise teachers and school support workers for the contribution they make to our community. This once a year celebration is, on the part of school staff members, repeated from the viewpoint of the commitment every day of the school year.
This Friday media, along with other organisations, will pay tribute to teachers, support staff and others connected with education across the length and breadth of the Territory. This recognition is richly deserved.
There can be no greater or more significant work than what is done by staff in our schools. The destiny of our children and young people of today, the leaders of tomorrow’s world, is in their hands.
I hope our Territory as a whole takes time this week and indeed every week, to acknowledge and say “thank you” to our teachers and support staff members for the great job they do individually and collectively, in our schools. They are members of a critically important and indispensable profession.
TELL THE STORY
It says in the Bible that we should “never hide our light under a bushel” (Matthew 5.15). That means if we have a good story to share, we should share it.
People could be forgiven for believing that very little happens in our public school system in the Northern Territory. Stories that focus on “good news” coming from our public schools are infrequently shared in the pages of newspapers, on radio or via television.
Contrawise, stories about private school educational outcomes are far more frequent. They make good reading and certainly uphold the positive qualities of schools, staff and students about whom they are written.
I admire the forthrightness and the willingness of those within the private school sector who share their good news stories. It’s hard to believe’ on the basis of publicity, that celebratory learning takes place within the public school sector. Yet it does!
A major impediment to sharing stories about what’s happening within government schools, is the process principals are required to go through in order to get good news stories into the public domain. It’s required that those wanting to share publicly have to take their story outlines to the Media and Marketing Section of the Department of Education in order to get clearance for that to happen. Story outlines going into the section then have to go through a number of internal clearance processes before Media and Marketing can authorise the school to go ahead with the item for public release. That takes time. Great news is old news before it gets into the public domain.
Policy change needed
I personally believe that anything to do with policy must always go through formal channels and processes. However, if schools have good news stories to share about what’s happening at “their place”, why should there be a hold-up to them being able to share the joy? Principals and schools should be trusted in terms of telling their stories.
There seems to be a belief within our public schooling system that all publicity is bad and should therefore be avoided! As a school leader, I never adhered to that philosophy. Rather, the schools in which I was privileged to lead and the NT Media shared many celebrations, ranging from student accomplishment to school anniversaries.
Many years ago the Northern Territory News Chief of Staff, Julian Swinstead, was invited to speak to a meeting of Darwin Principals on the subject of publicity. He shared two very important points with the gathering.
Mr Swinstead said that newspapers had to sell. As sensational stories, usually negative, have the potential to draw readership they had to be published. That was a question of marketing. However, print media was also interested in sharing good news stories. His second point was that media doesn’t know everything about what’s going to be happening within schools or elsewhere within the community. He told us that we (principals of schools) needed to let the media know what was happening in order to arrange coverage. His advice could also be applied in terms of radio and television outreach.
Becoming Media Savvy
There are lots of good things happening in public schools within the Northern Territory. But you wouldn’t know it! I believe it timely for our Department to consider allowing Principals to make contact with media outlets in order to arrange coverage of “good news” stories without needing to get permission for that to happen. I would encourage School Principals and others within school leadership teams to have the courage to go out and to share the positive outcomes of their schools with the Northern Territory public at large. If this happens, their schools and students will be the winners. A new, positive face to our Territory Community on public education is long overdue.