In June 2018, New South Wales public school principal Hamish Woudsma participated in a six-day Art of Leadership – Improving Schools course at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. We spoke to him on two occasions – in the lead up to the professional learning experience and shortly after he returned. A year on, the Banksia Road Primary School principal shares which elements of the course he's been able to embed into the teaching and learning at his school, and how he's gone about refining the school's instructional leadership model.
The learning I undertook at Harvard University lives on as I continue to collaborate with the principals from my tutorial group and the course's post-readings provide further insight into effective leadership. With time to reflect, I believe I was naïve to pre-empt the lessons I was going to learn. As it turns out, my learning has broadened beyond my wildest dreams.
Banksia Road Primary School is situated in Greenacre with approximately 50 staff and 560 students, with the main cultural group being Arabic. Our leadership team includes four Assistant Principals, five Instructional Leaders, a Deputy Principal, Principal and Business Manager. We have an actively engaged Parents and Citizens (P&C) and enjoy a close partnership with the entire community who galvanise to support our school without prompting. This is the most supportive parent community I have worked with in my 23 years working in schools.
Since returning from Harvard, I've realised that our instructional leadership model at Banksia doesn't require many adjustments – which is a testament to the leadership of our long standing Instructional Leaders who have committed to the role for over three years.
Essentially our model involves two Instructional Leaders in K-3 and three Instructional Coaches in Year 4-6. The Instructional Coaches strive to encourage teacher ‘buy in' to the school culture and mindset. The Instructional Leaders focus on building teacher capacity to positively impact student outcomes. The Instructional Leaders also work closely with the senior leadership team to build the capacity of the Instructional Coaches.
Most importantly, each Instructional Leader has a defined role statement where they don't supervise or deal with student welfare; their sole focus is on student outcomes. It is my job to deflect tasks not related to instructional strategies. Therefore, the Deputy Principal and I manage student behaviour and parent concerns. The Deputy Principal, Bahia Almir says, ‘We are highly visible in the playground during breaks, at the school gate and in the classroom. This enables us to be proactive and solve issues before they occur and keep the focus of the discussion on learning.'
I believe the model we use works because our Instructional Leaders have the autonomy to take calculated risks and have taken ownership for the results. They also conduct regular surveys each term which ensures constant refining of the model.
Positive changes throughout the school
Since returning from Harvard and based on all the things I learned and experienced, I have been able make several adjustments to the way we teach, learn and collaborate here at Banksia Road Primary School. Here are some of the changes we've been able to make:
Trust and collaboration
We have established positive group norms for teacher and executive teams, which has led to greater levels of trust and a more collaborative work environment. All staff are asked to contribute to the creation of these norms.
Positive group norms are a description of how staff would like people to work and interact with each other. We often refer to these norms when there is a breakdown in trust, so as a whole school we can clarify our collective intent. We also share examples where the positive norms have contributed to a positive outcome.
Sharing success and improving assessment
We have been holding senior leadership meetings (the Principal, Deputy and Instructional Leaders) to share successes and failures of the model, and ensure we are united on this journey.
We have devoted a large percentage of our time together to improve formative assessment across the school and focus less on summative assessment. This instantaneously informs our teaching and is an embedded requirement of the ACARA learning progressions.
This year we have also focused more on staff understanding each other's work style preference. The benefits here are two-pronged. Not only do I have a deeper understanding of my team's work style, but the entire team has greater empathy and understanding when working with each other.
Discovering useful readings
The course at Harvard introduced us to a whole range of readings and texts around effective leadership. I have been able to apply much of the learning around leadership styles and useful analogies in my own school. One which was particularly useful was Leadership That Gets Results by Daniel Goleman. The book refers to six different leadership styles which may all be effective depending on the situation. The research suggests that the most effective leaders use a collection of leadership styles – each in the right measure, at just the right time.
My leadership team used this to reflect on their own leadership and identify areas to develop. Above all, we found the authoritative leadership style is the most effective as the hallmarks are based around passion and vision. Authoritative leaders make clear how the work of their staff contributes to the big picture. They give people the freedom to innovate, experiment and take calculated risks.
I also shared the work of Harvard University's Irvin Scott around leadership and the Inner Work with my team. This focused on the capacity to engage in deep, inner exploration and reflection that leads to increased self-awareness, empathy, insight and self-mastery.
In the past, we have run parent workshops with very little success. We know now that parent involvement in their child's learning is our focus and there is a lot of untapped potential. This year, the attendance at our three-way goal setting interviews was 88 per cent, which is evidence that parents do care about their child's learning. Parents have expressed that they value these interviews as there is a clear focus on learning.
We also ran initial parent workshops for each stage around practical ways parents may help their child with homework. We had 65 parents attend the Stage 1 workshops where parents work alongside their child. We also recorded this workshop and placed the video on our school's Facebook page to expand our audience. We will conduct similar sessions with Stage 2 and 3 parents later this year.
The long-term plan is to run regular parent workshops every Tuesday afternoon where the Instructional Leaders assist parents in understanding ways to support their child with their current homework task for that particular week.
For the 40 or so students attending our Homework Club on Monday afternoons, their parents will attend this Homework Club and support their child, hence applying the learning from the prior session.
Some feedback from staff:
Instructional Leaders say that this new approach allows us to work more collaboratively, make strategic decisions and build adaptive expertise. Here are some quotes from my staff.
Instructional Leader Melinda Holland:
‘Regular analysis of data allows us to make strategic decisions for intervention.'
‘We work in partnership with teachers and APs to build adaptive expertise. Relationships and trust are critical to the success of the model. APs and ILs need to have a shared vision.'
Instructional Leader Sandra Christodoulos:
‘Time needs to be scheduled for our teachers to allow them to work collaboratively with their colleagues and reflect on their practice.'
‘The most effective strategy at Banksia Road that has built teacher capacity has been transferring theory into practice through regular ongoing co-planning, co-teaching and co-reflection cycles.'
My time at Harvard also inspired one of our teachers, Sahar Bedran to successfully apply for 12 of our staff to participate in a three month online scholarship at Harvard Graduate School of Education titled, ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking'.
This aligns well with our whole school focus on the development and implementation of the General Capabilities such as creative thinking and personal and social capability.
This course has only just started, but already I can see and hear the enthusiasm from the teachers involved. They are collaborating remotely with teachers all over the world, much like my Harvard scholarship. They are eager to share their learning as is evidenced by the conversations in the staffroom.
Bedran says to collaborate on an international scale and lend on the brains trust of educators across the globe has fashioned our very own ‘cultures of thinking'.
‘This experience has given us an insight into where education is heading toward and equips us with the necessary skills to facilitate the learning of 21st Century students,' she says.
This online course will conclude at the end of May after which the 12 teachers will begin to share their learning with the staff.
Think about a professional learning experience you’ve recently been involved in.
In what ways did it challenge your thinking? What practical strategies did you take away with you? Is this something that you’ve been able to share with colleagues?