School Improvement Episode 37: Leadership, strategic planning and mentoring

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Thank you for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine, I’m Jo Earp.

Hello and welcome to Episode 37 of our series on School Improvement. My guest today is Judith Weir Principal of Our Lady of Mercy College. OLMC Heidelberg (as it’s known) is in the northeast of Melbourne. It’s a Catholic Secondary School with a student enrolment of around 1200 and more than 150 staff. I caught up with Judith last month, at the start of the school year here in Australia, to talk about leadership, strategic planning, how to balance competing priorities, the impact of COVID on student wellbeing and the importance of professional mentoring. Let’s get started.

JE: Hi Judith, thanks for joining Teacher today. You’re the Principal of Our Lady of Mercy College and you took up that appointment in 2018, I think it was? So, how long have you been a principal for and, I’m interested, when you first started out as a teacher was that the intention – to make your way up through the leadership ranks?

JW: I started in 2018 yes and this is my fifth year as principal, and no I had no intention of ever being a principal when I started my journey, in fact I had no intention of ever being a principal until I am one. When I started my journey, I started in a senior school (a year 11 and 12 school) and really at the time all I was focused on was being a good teacher and trying to learn and to become the best I could be. It wasn't until the VCE [Victorian Certificate of Education] came in that I really saw myself in a leadership role and that was more by accident than design. …Because we were in a senior school the implementation of VCE absorbed absolutely everything because it completely changed the way we had to work, and I became really engaged then in student wellbeing and then later in teaching and learning, and that's where I started my leadership journey.

It kind of grew out of the things I was learning and the opportunities I had to be involved and then the ideas I had and the ways in which I wanted to have some influence in change, particularly working with staff and students around how we could be doing the things that we needed to learn better and what we knew that we were doing well that we could continue to embrace.

So, that's really what started me on my journey and then from there I progressively moved into different roles; and it wasn't until maybe six or seven years ago that I entertained the idea that, maybe, principalship was the next step.

JE: That’s interesting that isn’t it? I’m sure there are some people who go into it and think ‘I want to get to this position’ – I suppose it’s like any job, we may have a particular career target when we start and other times it seems to creep up on us, I guess, and we start thinking about different roles or moving up the ladder. You’re one of only six leaders from the state to be awarded a Menzies School Leader Fellowship for 2021-23... what’s the aim of that program?

JW: The aim of Menzies is really around focusing on building a pipeline of leaders to support the skills and attributes that leadership really needs now in the 21st Century … and the complexity and the changing nature of schools (mind you, I don't think Menzies’ anticipated how much change or complexity was coming, but nevertheless) and that's their focus.

So, they’re really investing in working with leaders to both gain insights and understandings from what research tells us are the important attributes and skills. And so, they connect us with opportunities to learn about ourselves personally, our wellbeing and our own leadership, but then also challenge us with ways that we could think differently, work differently to be challenged in different ways so that we grow and develop the skills that we have as leaders beyond where we are now.

I think the fantastic thing about the Menzies program is it really recognises that the kinds of leadership development that we do as principals is really quite often ‘on the job’ learning or is a lot around developing leadership to learn how to do specific components. And this [the Fellowship] is trying to help us to develop skills to be you know really powerful leaders of collective efficacy that enables us to grow our teaching staff and our students so that, you know, as a whole school we are targeting on improving student learning and that all our efforts, our strategies and our programs are focused towards achieving that goal. And in doing that establishing what could be really the benchmark, or the highest quality, of skills and knowledge that people can learn and develop along the way.

JE: Okay, you mentioned at the start of that answer that they certainly couldn’t foresee what was happening with COVID, and I imagine it’s been a particularly interesting time to be part of a program that’s spread over several years. Around the world, but also in Melbourne, we’ve had extended disruption with those long COVID lockdowns. It’s certainly not been ‘business as usual’ for schools. How has that impacted the work that you’ve done in the first 12 months of the Fellowship?

JW: So, fortunately for us (and unfortunately at the same time) we’d started this work prior to the Fellowship beginning. So, the Fellowship is really an excellent opportunity for us to perhaps dive more deeply into it. But it has impacted us in that strategy has sometimes had to take a backseat to pragmatism.

And so really the biggest impact I think it's had is the fits and starts that we have been on through this journey, and while we are coping with COVID, simply the workload and the fatigue that that brought [to] teachers meant that that was about all that they could cope with at different times. So we've had to really think differently about how it is we do the work and when we do the work.

So, it's probably really stretched out something, you know we're nowhere near where we thought we might be at this point in the journey, because it's really stretched out that program. It's also meant that we've had to redirect our focus a little bit, because moving to remote learning actually threw up some new learnings and some new ways of doing things that perhaps were sitting there in the background as something you might do one day but now we're actually doing; and it is having advantages, and we’re seeing gains in student agency and student learning outcomes, in some instances.

So, we really have had to think about what data we're looking at and to think differently about the data, because the benchmarks we used were based on students being in your classroom doing the whole of the curriculum over a period of time – and now we're looking at students who are working home on their own, and even though their teacher is teaching them it's not the same. So we've been trying to really take the opportunity, particularly with our professional learning teams, to look at the data … real data to try and really capture some of these things we have achieved or we might have achieved or try looking for the trends.

So that's a very long-winded way of saying that it's made us refocus to what are the things that we're learning but it's also stretched us out a lot in that it's taking a little bit longer now to get to the places we thought we would be.

JE: And it’s thrown up, like you say, opportunities (unexpected ones as well). So many discussions to come out of it that we just didn’t expect we would be having. With the Fellowship for this year (we’re speaking in February just heading into the school year) you mentioned about having to take a step back and see what’s happened, what the impact has been of COVID and where people are at – is that kind of your strategic priority for this year then? Hopefully we’ll be coming out of COVID, or is there a certain direction that you’re looking for this year?

JW: We are really conscious … so in our strategic directions we have a wellbeing focus and we are trying to improve student voice and bring that into the learning and we've been on that journey for a little while. And obviously at a teaching and learning point of view we're trying to look at focusing on research and data and using that to identify how it is we can move student learning.

And those two priorities still exist, but increasingly we're seeing lots of research, and evidence within our own student population, that we really need to work this year on ensuring that we have ‘wellbeing’ and ‘teaching and learning’ are sitting hand in glove. That we’re actually making sure that those teams are talking to each other and really extending the collective efficacy from beyond the learning and teaching team and the wellbeing team to the team, and looking at how it is we can pick up on the learnings, particularly around student agency. Some students have developed really powerful ways of self-management and are able to regulate their own learning, they're making assessments about where they are and how they are travelling – those are the things that we want to capture.

So that's really how I think it's going to influence, really learning what we can learn from the students about what they've been able to achieve and to use that to educate our staff and to also embrace that for how we move forward in learning and the work we do in the classroom.

JE: Okay, we’ll continue the conversation after this quick message from our sponsor.

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JE: I’m talking to Judith Weir, Principal of Our Lady of Mercy College in Heidleberg. Before the break we were taking about supporting students in both the academic side of things and also the wellbeing side of things. Finding that balance – like you say, they’re both important areas aren’t they, obviously academic outcomes are important and wellbeing outcomes have always been important too but now they’ve really come to the forefront. So as a principal then how do you go about trying to find that balance – time is a big issue I should imagine, but how do you find the balance between the two?

JW: I don’t know if a perfect balance is ever possible, but … schools have always had a really strong focus on wellbeing, and I think in Catholic schools as well, as part of our faith journey, that's always been a really important aspect to the work we do. But I think out of COVID we probably have been forced to pay much more attention to the impact wellbeing has on learning for all students, rather than the group of students that normally present as obviously being impacted by their wellbeing.

So, I think we've learnt during remote learning, and I think there's been quite a number of articles that have come out in the news over the last four or five weeks in the debate about should we return to remote learning … where I think more and more health professionals are identifying that those mental health issues for students (and even not, perhaps, mental health issues, just simply connection issues for students) are really significantly being impacted by not having those regular contact with students.

So, I think we've learnt that. Very rarely do you have a situation where a child whose learning is off the rails doesn't have some other issue going on and, by the same token, very rarely do you have someone whose learning is not travelling fantastically that you can't link learning and teaching to the reasons.

I think it's giving teachers skills and knowledge that enable them to differentiate between when a student is just losing learning confidence, which is what we're talking a lot about at the moment, not so much the loss in learning but the loss in learning confidence. And really that that's where our wellbeing team and our learning and teaching team can bring the best of their knowledge and skill together to support teachers.

So, finding the balance I think is going to be really about finding the opportunities where we bring that conversation into the one place. So rather than just wellbeing meetings and just learning and teaching, it's looking at our structures and where and how do we bring staff together to have that conversation, where we're looking at both sides of that coin.

I often say to the staff, you know, that that little girl who joined us in Year 7 she came to us as one whole person – we can't split her up when she gets here and treat her wellbeing over there and her learning and teaching over there, and hope that at the end we’ve put it all together. Her hand, her head and her heart have to be at the forefront of all we do.

So, it's having those conversations, but it is about strategically and deliberately creating spaces where staff can work on those things in a way that allows us to have the conversation, both of those conversations, in the one space.

JE: Yeah, so having some more efficiencies in that and just making all staff aware of what the different teams are doing. Can I just pick up on something that you mentioned there that’s really interesting about learning confidence – how has that been showing itself?

JW: I think there are a couple of flags. The number of students who are presenting with anxiety, who are anxious about being at school, and it's not that they're not doing well because they are doing well and their grades haven't slipped at all but they just don't feel as confident and they're talking about worrying about not doing as well. And I think one of the things that we've come to understand is, that physical presence in a room where there are other people and the teacher’s right there to check with is so important.

And silly little things like ‘I'm doing the questions and I can see where everyone else is up to’ and ‘oh that’s OK, I'm onto the same thing as everyone else, so I'm not behind’. Or ‘fantastic, I'm a bit ahead’. Those things weren't as obvious or easy for students to see, and I think that fear that when they're back there behind or the fear that they're not doing as well. We’re certainly seeing an increase in the number of students with anxiety – I think like all schools – and certainly I think we believe that there are examples of that. But yes, students are telling us they're not sure that they're doing as well as they are.

And I think the absence of all those incidental things that happen in a classroom, or in a school, when you're all together that are the cues that help students develop and grow their confidence because they can mentally benchmark themselves, haven't been quite as easy for students to access. Certainly, our counsellors are seeing much more of a reporting of loss of confidence.

JE: I’m also interested to hear about how the pandemic restrictions have changed the way you do things for the better at the school. Is there anything that you were doing before that you stopped doing, that you thought ‘okay, let’s just keep not doing that’ and on the other side of the coin something that you started doing during the lockdowns that you’ve decided to keep?

JW: Yeah, so, I guess one thing we have stopped doing, it's probably a silly thing, but we used to have (we still do) have a stop briefing at 8:20 on a Monday morning. And the idea was we all come together at the start of the week and different people speak and we gather together. And it is a good way to start the week, and so we are still doing it, but we've moved it from in-person to online. And I think one of the things we probably didn't appreciate is teachers needed to get to school, get ready by 8:20, rush to the room where the meeting is and be ready to go off to their next class. And, you know, it probably isn't the most stressless way you could begin a week.

So, we've moved it to online … every Monday morning at 8:20 we do it online. And while we are missing the opportunity to gather together, the attendance rate has gone through the roof because it also means people who are part-time who perhaps wouldn't ordinarily get to be part of those conversations, they can turn their computer on and still get their kids ready for school and listen to the meeting and know what's going on, even if they're not going to offer anything for the day.

So, it's enabled a lot more people to actually feel much more informed and connected because they are able to get to briefing because they're not worried about having to race off … and some people just physically didn't make it in time. So that's something that we've hung onto.

And then, for the moment, parent-teacher interviews look like staying online. I think, you know, those of us who are parents, we've all done the rush to the school, tried to find a park, run in and then run all around to all the different teachers and feel exhausted at the end of it. We're finding we're getting a lot of really positive feedback about the online parent-teacher interviews because it's efficient. It means parents who can't get away from work can still connect because it's online, they don't have to physically go anywhere. So those are two things we're still going to hang onto; we haven't ditched them, but we continue to modify them.

I think some other things that we weren't doing that we are doing. We used Google Classroom as our ‘learning management system’ for students and … one of the things I think that we've really learnt is we've seen students being able to manage their own learning in ways that we weren't expecting, just simply by having everything available all the time, that’s accessible. So, that's been fantastic.

And the other thing that's been fantastic is where different lessons have been recorded and used, students have really used them as revision tools as well, being able to go back. And so those are some of the things we've learnt that teachers are continuing to do, and they're using past recordings and making them available, even if they're not the lesson they just did but as another form of revision. And those things are really helpful for students who've missed lessons or who, you know, want that boost in confidence, want to listen to a lesson again, weren't sure that they got it the first time. And those are things that teachers are really continuing to use; they've been a benefit we’ll probably try and find ways to hang onto.

JE: That’s great. Just to finish off then, I want to go back to the Fellowship. One of the elements of the program is working with mentors. How important is it to have that kind of support network as a principal? Is it something that you do for other leaders, in other schools? I’m also interested, do you have a number of mentors that you’ve been able to work with over the years?

JW: Yeah, I'm a great supporter of mentors for two reasons. I've been really blessed in my career to have been privileged to work with a lot of people who viewed mentoring me as important and so were really generous in the way that they supported me. And I honestly say quite frequently that there are a number of leaders out there who should see on a daily basis, some of them coming through my leadership, you know, all the things that I'm doing every day.

And I think as a principal, having a support network is really important. There are often conversations or ideas you want to test that you really can only test with someone in a similar position. And I think that's probably true in any leadership journey – so, it doesn't really matter whether you're a principal or a middle leader I think that stands true, you sometimes can only have conversations with people who understand the journey or the challenge.

Hilary Hollingsworth, who is part of the Menzies program, also was someone I had the opportunity to be mentored by earlier in my career and, you know, sometimes those things are pivotal in helping you make decisions about cementing your own understanding of your values and how those might change over time. So, I think it's an invaluable resource.

And to have such skilled and focused mentorship that we're getting out of the Menzies program is, it's challenging because they're challenging us to move into new places of thinking and possibly moving away from our comfort zones, … it’s helping us understand ourselves better, but also to broaden the skills and knowledge that we have, that we're bringing. Which means we’re mentoring their leaders in our schools differently and hopefully in a better way as well.

When I went into the Menzies Fellowship, I went into it because I didn't think it would just be for me, this is about the value that it will give my school and also the ways in which, I hope, it will enable us to grow, not just my leadership but the leadership of everyone who chooses to lead in my school.

JE: That’s excellent. Well, Judith it’s been lovely speaking to you today. Good luck with the Felllowship and best of luck for the school community this year, it’s going to be another big year. I really appreciate you sharing your expertise with us here at Teacher.

JW: Thank you very much and it was my pleasure, I really appreciate the opportunity.

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You've been listening to a podcast from Teacher, supported by The MacKillop Institute. Visit to learn how we support schools through our Seasons for Growth program and ReLATE model.

Applications for the next cohort of Menzies Fellows are now open. Click on the link for more information.

As a principal, what are your strategic priorities for this school year? Are all staff aware of these priorities and their role in meeting them?

In this podcast, Judith Weir spoke about new and beneficial ways of working, as a result of the pandemic. In what ways did the pandemic force you to change things for the better? What have been the benefits for staff, students and parents?