Teacher Staffroom Episode 32: 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 in education. I'm Dominique Russell.

As a school leader, what’s your response to negative events or difficult situations? Do you smile at colleagues and students when you greet them, and regularly use their names? In the upcoming school year, what areas might you choose to work collectively with staff on improving? We’ve unpacked all of these questions recently at Teacher, so in this episode we’re looking at leadership.

In today’s podcast I’m going to get you up to speed on all of these stories, and also some more of my highlights. And, like all episodes of Teacher Staffroom, I’ll be posing some questions throughout the podcast, so feel free to pause the audio as you go, gather some colleagues and discuss together how these stories might be relevant to your school context. Let's jump in.

A really interesting topic we’ve recently looked at – thanks to a reader who posed the question to us – is toxic positivity in school leaders. The reader asked ‘how do you respond when leaders opt for optimism, in order to skim over dealing with the real issues that your school and community are cultivating, because it is easier to deny they exist? Is there a way of being positive in leadership,’ they asked, ‘as well as show that you can deal with the troubling issues that we can face in education?’

Our editor, Jo Earp, spoke with Professor Brock Bastian, a social psychologist based at the University of Melbourne to unpack these questions. In the article, we look into toxic positivity, how to challenge a constant positive spin, and having open and honest conversations. Here’s what Brock had to say about what too much positivity can actually indicate:

‘If we’re just trying to ignore the things we don’t want to see or don’t want to have to deal with, and just try to focus on all the things we feel comfortable with we’re denying and ignoring people’s realities. I think the reason people do it is they often don’t know how to have those conversations.’

So, that point there brings me to a point to think about. As a school leader, what would you say is your response to negative events or difficult situations? Are you able to have open and honest conversations about them? Are you interested in hearing about the experiences and feelings of staff? How does this help you, as a leader, and your colleagues?

Remember, we’d always love to hear from you about what topics you’d like more support in. You can get in touch at any time by emailing us at teachereditorial@acer.org.

Another highlight article on the topic of school leadership shared the details of a recent research project looking at the attributes of identified high-impact leaders in regional, rural and remote schools. After conducting workshops, case studies and interviews, the research team from UNSW, Monash University and Curtin University identified four key attributes of leaders demonstrating high impact. They are: an innovation imperative; collective responsibility; a focus on teaching and learning; and visibility in and commitment to the community.

In the article, we delve into what the research team found relating to these four attributes, so I’ll leave the link to the piece in the transcript of this podcast so you can have a look at the details. It’s all available at our website, teachermagazine.com. There is one point I’d like to highlight with you though, which came under the innovation imperative concept. The researchers had this to say:

Flipping the question from “are children ready for school” to asking “are schools ready for children” helps school leaders, staff and communities to focus on high-impact strategies … it also provides an opportunity for educators to “think outside the box” for solutions that best meet the needs of students and communities. The result is a shift from short-term to a longer-term perspective.

That’s a really interesting point, so I’d like to pose a question for you to think about with your colleagues. What aspects of your school ethos and professional practice make you say ‘yes’ to the question of whether your school is ready for children? What aspects make you say ‘no’? In the upcoming school year, what area might you choose to work collectively on improving?

Changing gears now, and I’d like to highlight with you a really interesting piece on financial education. We heard from Carly Sawatzki and Jill Brown from Deakin University, and Peter Saffin from the Mathematical Association of Victoria, about ways you can strengthen financial education programs in your school settings. In the article they summarise what financial capability is, and what a holistic financial education at school can look like. Here’s one point I’d like to pick up on, where the authors expand on some considerations teachers can make on lesson topics. They had this to say:

There are simple ways to expand the traditional individual focus of financial literacy to develop an awareness of the impact of personal financial decisions on society and the planet. For example, learning about taxation as a social contract between individuals and governments can foster the sharing of resources. Likewise, lessons that explore ways to spend and invest sustainably, and giving to worthy causes, convey the view that how we use our money can make a difference to others. Related to this, students might explore how social enterprise can contribute innovative solutions to a fairer, more sustainable world. Projects that promote a circular economy through recycling and upcycling resources orient students to reduce their environmental footprint.

We’ve shared some other resources and lesson activities that might be of interest to you in a new three-part series which focuses on the Civics and Citizenship learning area of the Australian Curriculum. Across the three pieces, we delve into student understanding of the importance of democracy and appreciating national values; laws, rights and shared values; and Australian history. In the articles, we go through the details ofthe latest NAP-CC report (or National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship) which shows, for instance, that Australian students’ performance has plateaued when it comes to understanding the importance of democracy and appreciating national values. In addition, the report showed that 6 per cent of Year 6 students and 80 per cent of Year 10 students believe that learning about Australia’s history is an important attribute of a good citizen. As well as this, it showed approximately nine out of 10 students in both these year levels expressed positive attitudes towards Australian Indigenous cultures.

So, if you’re after some new lesson activity ideas on these topics, and you’re wanting to target some student misconceptions, you’ll find a link to each article at our website that goes through all of these things in detail.

We shared some exciting news as well in the way of science education recently – with the winners of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Excellence in Science Teaching being announced. It’s a $50 000 prize and is awarded to one primary and one secondary teacher for their outstanding contribution to science education.

The winners for 2021 are Megan Hayes from Mudgeeraba Creek State School in Mudgeeraba, Queensland and Scott Graham from Barker College in Sydney. Megan is a STEM specialist, and has been instrumental in increasing the participation of girls in STEM. She even organised the first ever ‘Sistas in STEM’ conference in the school’s local area, which local female students attended to hear from female scientists about the industry.

Barker College, with Scott Graham as Head of Agriculture at the school, has seen a tripling in enrolments in agriculture in the past seven years. Scott says he’s really passionate about having students understand the industry, because there a pressing employment needs, and it’s an industry we come into contact with all the time. He made a really interesting point I’d like to highlight with you here. This is what he had to say:

Even if these students don’t pursue a career in agriculture, they are still going to have at least four interactions with agriculture every day. This could be anything from the food they eat to the clothes they wear. Agriculture will have something to do with the students every day for the rest of their lives, so it’s important that they have something to do with agriculture. We want them to be informed about the decisions they make.

So, that brings me to a point to think about. Scott Graham is passionate about sharing the relevance and the impact of the agriculture industry with students living in urban areas of the country. Is this something you do well in your school? How could you better support students thinking of pursuing careers in this field?

If you’d like to hear more about the work Scott and Megan are doing in their school settings, make sure you’re subscribed to our podcast, because we’ll be sharing more about their stories in an episode early next year, where we catch up with both of them.

And finally, to bring you back to our overarching theme of leadership. We recently heard from Ben Sacco from the MacKillop Institute, and the principal and deputy principal from St Pius X Parish School in Warrnambool.

They shared how in the school, they’re responding to the needs of children and young people, developing targeted strategies and a consistent approach among staff, and focusing on the three specific elements of importance: safety, relational trust and shared language. I found the element of relational trust to be particularly interesting. They describe that relational trust in their school setting means ‘considering acts of kindness that contribute to the happiness of students or colleagues and smiling and using colleagues’ or students’ names when you greet them.’ They expanded on this in their article, and this is what they had to say:

The COVID pandemic and its uncertainty has demonstrated to us all the importance of being kind to ourselves and to others. Each morning, Joe or Stacey [the principal and deputy principal] greet children and staff by name as they arrive at school, which is a small thing that goes a long way to ensuring that everyone is valued.

So, that brings me to one last question to pose for this episode. Think about your own behaviour at school as a school leader – do you smile at colleagues and students when you greet them? Do you regularly use their names? How does it feel when someone does the same to you?

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