Leadership Q&A: Leading by example

Pauline Kubat is Principal of Epping Views Primary School in Melbourne's north, a school with a large enrolment of 1350-plus students. But, she has also had the experience of being Principal of one of Victoria's smallest schools – a school with just seven enrolments. In today's Q&A, she compares the experience of being the leader of each of those schools, and shares insights into her approach to collaborative leadership, how she overcomes daily challenges as a school leader, and her recent experience in the Principal for a Day program organised by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

Could you start off by sharing with readers more about your school's context?

Epping Views Primary School began in January 2008 with 30 students on the first day and our enrolment has been as high as 1465 students, at the end of 2016. The department installed a strict zone around the school for 2017 and with a new PPP (Public Private Partnership) school commencing in January 2017 our enrolment has begun to decrease. The school is in the growth corridor of the Epping North, Wollert area and encompasses a very diverse multicultural community. The school won an award for the design of the buildings, although we now have 27 relocatable buildings that have been added to the school site.

Epping Views Primary School has a really collaborative approach to leadership with five people in the principal team. How does this work in practice?

For the first three years I operated without an Assistant Principal (AP), so when I did advertise for an AP I was looking for someone who would team well with the existing staff and who would bring some skills to the school that would assist the continued growth and development of the programs, organisation and leadership role. Since my initial appointment of our first AP we have gone on to add four others, each bringing with them some knowledge and skills to add to our repertoire.

Each year we look at strengths of the team, the time that certain roles take, as well as the need to make the team sustainable so that if one person was to leave we could carry on. We use a Venn diagram to set out the roles so that the team and the school staff can see at a glance who they should direct their questions to. My role is to be aware of their activities so that I have a sound knowledge of what is happening in the school. This year we have added an ‘early in the week' briefing to our meetings so that we are aware of any support that the Prin Team may need to provide to each other during the week.

Leading a large school, what are some of the daily challenges you face and how are they overcome?

One of the challenges of being a Principal in a large school, apart from knowing every staff member, is to ensure that people know who they can talk to, to seek advice, report information and gain access to information. As a Principal you need to be able to switch your mindset very quickly as you deal with a multitude of information and calls on your time, knowledge and decisions each and every day. You can be talking to students about their great work one minute, dealing with a finance issue with the Business Manager the next, then a plumbing issue when the toilets get blocked, then a prospective parent tour followed by a DET (Department of Education and Training) phone call seeking some information.

Even though we have a great Wellbeing team, often parents want to speak with the Principal so that they know that I am aware of things that may need attention or sorting out. I have an excellent Prin Team for support as well as a very good SEIL (Senior Education Improvement Leader) and colleagues and friends that I can talk things over with. And I cannot forget family – my husband and children are a great support.

What would you say are some of the most enjoyable parts of your role?

I love seeing children succeeding. It is often the most challenging students that need us the most and when you see them succeed you know that you are doing a good job. I love walking around the school seeing the various programs we have in place, feeling the tone of the school and sharing the successes with staff and students as well as parents. When I am on yard duty it is great to be able to greet our multicultural community members with a significant greeting such as ‘happy Diwali', ‘happy Easter' or ‘good luck in the footy finals' etcetera.

Interestingly, you've been Principal of both Victoria's smallest and largest schools. What are some of the most significant differences between the two schools? What were the similarities?

Obviously I knew all the students and parents names when I was a Principal in smaller schools. Once we reached about 750 I am afraid I cannot remember every student's, or their parents', names. I found that hard to begin with as I was so used to being able to approach anyone and strike up a conversation knowing their names. I was Principal of a small school that had seven students so I used to regularly take them to the other small schools in our district so that they could meet up and socialise with other children and adults. When one family moved away the school became too small to be viable so I spent some time transitioning those students to their new school.

Now I visit the secondary colleges to see how our large cohort of students are transitioning into the next phase of their schooling. The difference between the various sized schools I have worked in is that here I have a lot of support and a far greater budget to maximise teaching and learning opportunities, whereas in my much smaller schools there was me and maybe one or two other staff. It was up to me to make sure that we provided the best opportunities for our students and community and I probably did a lot more of the administrative tasks after hours. I still needed to keep abreast of DET policies and changes as well as manage the finances, plan the curriculum, contribute to the local community. I lived close to the community then as I do now so I still meet with our families whilst I am out and about shopping, at sports events and so on.

Having been a Principal for nearly 30 years now, how would you describe your personal approach to leadership?

I am very much a collaborative leader in that I want people to be able to add their ideas and contribute to our decisions. Of course there is a difference between people actually knowing what can be done and what they would like to be done in terms of allocating money, journeys to take, approaches to implement. It is up to me to get the right people on board the bus, in the right seats for their skills and then to navigate us to the end destination. I don't ask my staff to do things that I wouldn't do and I lead by example. I model the values and have high expectations of myself and others.

As a school leader, how do you support and develop emerging and current leaders' leadership capabilities?

We encourage leadership opportunities by allowing our staff to step up if people are on leave whether it is for a day, a week or longer. We utilise leadership programs offered by our network, [The Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership] and DET. We go out and visit other schools and take a variety of staff so they can see what is happening in other schools and how we might be able to incorporate good things into our school processes and programs, or to just reaffirm the good things that are happening in our school.

We tap people on the shoulder if we think they have some leadership capabilities as well as appoint staff to minor leadership roles such as House Leaders or Sustainability Leaders as they build their skills. We have mentors for young leaders as well as provide coaching from the Prin Team. Our school has a very strong feedback ethos and staff are asked to give feedback on the Principal and leaders so that they are able to give as well as receive positive and constructive feedback.

You participated in the Principal for a Day (PFAD) program last year organised by the Australian Council for Educational Research. Could you tell me more about this experience?

I have been involved in several PFAD occasions and the thing I most enjoy is being able to share with the PFAD participants our school's journey and the uniqueness of the community. Every school community is unique and for the last two years we have been able to share our time during PFAD with immigrants who are active in their communities and who understand the multicultural aspect of our school.

Most importantly they have been able to give our team and leaders an understanding of the journey they have come on and how this relates to many of our families. The social media continuation of the partnership means that we are still able to stay in contact and know that our community are also in contact via the school's social media page which means that they can see the difference and the role that the PFAD participant is having in today's society.

Drawing on all your experience, what advice do you have for teachers who aspire to work in a school leadership role?

If you have a genuine passion for wanting to help children succeed in life then leadership is the next step. It's not about the workload, the money or the prestige but about the difference that you can make in the lives of students, their families and your staff. The time that you invest will be paid threefold.

As a school leader: How do you support and develop emerging and current leaders’ leadership capabilities? How would you describe your own personal approach to school leadership? What advice would you give to those aspiring to work in a school leadership role?