Teacher Staffroom Episode 26: Looking at leadership

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Teacher Staffroom, where we catch you up on the latest evidence, insight, and action. I'm Dominique Russell.

In this episode, we’re looking into leadership. Many educators are engaging in leadership practice as part of their day-to-day work, no matter what position they hold in a school. So, whether you're a principal, a leading teacher or an aspiring leader, there's something for you in this episode.

Like each edition of Teacher Staffroom, I'll take you through these topics, along with other noteworthy stories. I'll also be posing some questions throughout this podcast, so feel free to pause the audio as you go, gather some colleagues and discuss together how these stories could be relevant to your school context. Let's jump in.

The first story I’d like to take you to is all about the Catholic Education Diocese of Cairns tackling teacher supply and demand issues. Vicki Bell, Director of Leadership and Professional Learning at the diocese discussed with our editor, Jo Earp, about how their strategy was to initially target the attraction, recruitment and retention of beginner teachers.

The First-Year Teachers Program focused on the recruitment process of beginner teachers, and how to retain these teachers beyond their first three years in the job. In the article, Vicki Bell shares what they’ve learned since the program’s inception in 2017, but here is a little of what she had to say about how she’s adapting her recruitment process using what she’s learned:

For example, I used to present to final year pre-service teachers focusing on employment conditions – permanency, additional allowances etc. Now I focus on the support offered to early careers teachers, the ability to fast track to leadership, ongoing professional growth opportunities, flexible employment opportunities and teacher wellbeing.

So, this topic brings me to something for you to reflect on as a school leader. What are the challenges you face in recruiting and retaining staff? How do you support beginner and early career teachers? When was the last time you reviewed your induction program? And, do you gather feedback from teachers on the support programs available?

Now, just on the topic of recruitment and retention, you might have seen an infographic we’ve published sharing some of the data to come from the annual Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey. The survey had over 1800 responses in 2020, and these respondents shared information on their years in service, their age, and their retirement plans.

It showed that 27 years is the average years of experience for school leaders, and almost 7 per cent plan to retire in 2021. If you’d like to review more information about the demographics of school leaders in Australia, you’ll find the link to the infographic in the transcript of this podcast, under the podcast tab at teachermagazine.com.

Moving onto another topic now – and I’d like to highlight a podcast episode we published just before this one. I spoke with a team of academics in Western Australia about a really interesting pilot study they completed which looked at how schools can reduce their carbon emissions. The part of their pilot study I found most fascinating, was the fact that 60 per cent of the activities the schools employed to reduce emissions were completely cost free. So, the actions were not only effective, but they came at little imposition to schools. Here’s one of the academics, Portia Odell, on one of the most successful cost-free initiatives implemented by schools:

So one of the most successful actions that schools did that involved no cost was actually a switch off protocol for the end of school day, weekends and over school holidays. So when we looked at the school’s energy consumption during the school holiday periods, both before and after they implemented the switch off protocol – which basically just meant someone was in charge of making sure all the lights and computers were off and nothing was running – the schools who implemented this protocol (which was 10 of the schools we were working with) reduced their energy use by an average of 12 per cent. And the financial savings that were associated with that varied because some of the schools actually had rising energy costs and others had just a bit of a different context. But that’s a good example of the type of initiative. That was definitely the most successful initiative in terms of carbon emissions and a reduction in costs and in consumption. Which is great, because it was actually quite a simple thing to do, as long as someone was taking charge and leading the way.

So, think about this. As we just heard, schools involved in this study that implemented a ‘switch off’ policy reduced their energy use by an average of 12 per cent. So, do you make sure you turn of your computer and any lights you have been using when you leave school for the day? Is a switch off policy something you could consider for your school community? How could you empower students to champion a policy like this?

Another recent story highlight for me was the story of a school leader in New South Wales who acted on student feedback about their desire to improve the toilet block facilities in a pretty creative way.

Paul Cuthbertson, Principal at Russell Vale Primary School in the northern suburbs of Wollongong, enlisted the help of a local artist to liven up the area of the school, following feedback that the area felt quite dark. He worked closely with the artist to decide how they could brighten and bring colour to the area, and decided on painting the external building with colourful depictions of local wildlife.

The entire school community loved the work so much that they commissioned the artist for a second job, this time concentrating on the school’s sports shed. In the article, Paul discusses why it was important to display local wildlife and how it’s brightened student spirits.

So, Paul’s experience brings me to an interesting point to consider. Think about an area in your school which has been identified as one that needs some physical improvements. How will you decide which improvements you will make? How will staff, students and parents be consulted? Has the use of colour or art been raised as an important element? And how could artwork be used to reflect the school community in this particular area?

We also heard from Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the OECD who shared some initial findings from the organisation’s survey on how schools responded to the pandemic. In his column, he talks about tracking education developments during the pandemic, the impact of school closures and instructional time lost, communication with families, going digital, assessment, and the impact on teacher work.

So, he certainly covered a lot in his column. To read the entire article, you’ll find the link in the episode transcript at our website, but in the meantime, here’s a nice summary from Andreas:

It will be crucial that the many good experiences learned during the pandemic will not be lost when things return to ‘normal’ but provide inspiration for the further development of education. That is also about finding better ways to recognise, reward and celebrate success, to do whatever is possible to make it easier for innovators to take risks and encourage the emergence of new ideas.

On this same topic, we shared the story of how the leadership team at St John’s Catholic Parish Primary School in Melbourne relied on their firm focus on staff wellbeing that was in place before COVID-19 hit, all through the pandemic.

As Melbourne went into lockdown, the team continued to facilitate their scheduled staff meetings. During these meetings teachers were able to complete the wellbeing surveys; the leadership team reviewed the results and used this data to plan meetings to meet both the wellbeing and professional learning needs at the time, with a focus on technology. Here’s what Principal, Maureen Stella, had to say.

We knew from our regular check-ins with staff that our teachers were feeling overwhelmed. As a leadership team, we discussed how we could best support them … We decided to put their existing professional learning targets on hold, and instead, addressed the urgent challenges: we provided supportive wellbeing, tech and professional practice learning opportunities to equip teachers with the skills and strategies they needed to do their jobs well.

So, thinking about this story, consider these questions. Does your school have a staff wellbeing policy? What support networks and programs are in place for staff? What impact does this have on student wellbeing? And, as a school leader, do you regularly set time aside to focus on your own health and wellbeing? What support networks do you have in place?

And finally, I’d like to take you to a recent episode in our Research Files podcast series which was a recent highlight for me and has some really important takeaways for school leaders. I spoke with Minami Uchida about a recent study she conducted looking at the experiences of casual relief teachers across the country. Her survey of teachers working in casual relief positions showed they enjoyed the flexibility of the work, but needed some more support in accessing professional development.

On the topic of inclusion, the survey showed a mix bag – some teachers felt welcomed and included, and others didn’t at all. On this point, Minami had this to say:

I think in terms of why they felt excluded or included, one of the main things was it was just really dependent on the atmosphere of the staff, in particular the executive staff. So usually when casual teachers are hired by schools it’s from the deputy principal or the head coordinator, so that’s their first point of call and, you know, if they don’t feel welcomed by those executive staff, then that really sets the tone for the rest of their school day. So that was one of the main things, just feeling like they are valued by execs was really important.

Minami also went on to share what her survey uncovered in the way of practical strategies that can help mitigate these concerns for casual relief teachers. There were three that emerged: inductions, having a classroom folder with important student information readily available for casual relief teachers, and informal mentoring.

So, as a senior staff member, reflect on the last time you welcomed a casual relief teacher to your school. How many of these three supports did you provide? Is there room to improve how you are currently supporting casual relief teachers?

That's all for this episode, and you're now all caught up on the latest evidence, insight and action in education. Links to all the content and resources I've mentioned will be in the transcript of this podcast, available at our website, teachermagazine.com.