What drove you to specialise in school leadership and was there a particular catalyst for this?
I’m an organisational psychologist, so I started out thinking about how organisations shape behaviour and how people’s behaviour, in turn, shapes the organisations they work in. I began teaching in those areas, and then I slowly shifted to leadership. It was a time of considerable debate in academia about the importance of leadership, with many academics expressing scepticism by writing about the “romance of leadership” Their view was that leadership was best understood by studying the way people attributed leadership to others, rather than by studying the behaviours of the leaders themselves. So that was one thing that held me back, and the other thing was that I didn’t think I had enough leadership experience myself to teach in this area. That feeling changed when I served as Head of the University of Auckland School of Education between 2002 and 2005. A week after I assumed that role, I learned that the University of Auckland and the Auckland College of Education, which was the biggest provider of teacher education in New Zealand, were going to amalgamate under the Government’s new policy that all teachers’ colleges should be part of a university. So, I was now not only leading the School of Education, I was leading it during the amalgamation, and I think that experience gave me the confidence to teach leadership and taught me how important and real leadership is.
What was your own experience at school like, did you have inspiring teachers and school leaders?
I come from a family of teachers; my father taught me at intermediate school, and he then became a school principal himself, and my mother taught me at grammar school, and that was wonderful in many respects but also very scary in that I had to be well behaved! But beyond that, when I think about the teachers, I remember both the bad ones and the good ones. I remember a physical education teacher who got my attention when I was talking too much by pulling on my ear. In those days, one was allowed to be a bully. I remember also a wonderful school headmistress during my time at Auckland Girls Grammar. I liked her because she cared about and really understood “her girls”. And I can remember when I was in Year 13, our English teacher came in with some tests or essays that she’d marked, and began to berate the class about how we weren’t good enough to get scholarships, and weren’t working hard enough etc. We were so pressured for exam success and I felt her behaviour was so unjust, that I walked out of class and went down to the headmistress’ office to complain about this teacher. The headmistress listened to me, and understood, and said that she would speak to the teacher. I don’t know what happened, but I just remember on that occasion, that she was prepared to listen to the students and not feel the need to defend her teachers, which some leaders do feel. She wasn’t putting that teacher down in front of me, but she was open to the possibility that there had been some injustice and bullying. So that I remember, particularly.
That sounds like a really good quality for a headmistress or school leader to have...
I call that being 'student-centred', and I’ve written a book about student-centred leadership. At times the wishes of the adults conflict with the interests of the students, and being student-centred means that you always have the wellbeing of the students at heart – not in opposition to your teachers, but when needed, you’ve got the courage to uphold the standards for the treatment of students.
Based on your research and what you’ve seen in schools around the world, what are some of the common problems that school leaders face and how can they tackle those?
The common problems are time, overload, stress, and being distracted from doing what leaders themselves believe is important, which is leading the improvement of teaching and learning. I see a widening gap between public expectations of schools and the resources available to them. By resources I mean more than money. The biggest resource gap is expertise, and it has arisen because teachers are asked to meet increasingly ambitious goals for the learning of students who have more and more diverse needs. I don’t think that policy makers and even professional leaders realise how big the gap is and the depth of ongoing professional learning that is required to close it. I put it this way: it’s like we’ve got this incredible workforce of well-meaning, dedicated and, in many ways, highly skilled orthopaedic nurses, and we’re asking them to be orthopaedic surgeons. And that’s how I think about this workforce capability gap. How we resolve it is a big policy problem, because it is impossible and unrealistic, on multiple levels, to expect every teacher to be an orthopaedic surgeon, but we need a whole lot more of them than we’ve got now.
Do you think the way the New Zealand education system is currently set up is allowing for the development of good leaders, and how, besides reducing the workload, can we develop more effective school leaders?
I do a lot of work in Victoria, Australia, where there is a dedicated leadership institute that has over 100 staff supporting the ongoing professional learning of leaders ranging from teacher leaders to system leaders who work across networks of schools. Even though it is an institute that sits within the state department of education, it is not a top-down, tell-leaders-what-they-need-to-do-and-know sort of process. There is co-construction of a leadership development policy, framework, curriculum, and a whole array of in-school and out of school programs, including coaching and mentoring, and wonderful online resources. Now you compare that to New Zealand, where the Education Council and Ministry of Education have just released a new leadership framework and strategy as initial steps in developing a system of professional learning for leaders. We are a long way behind.
What’s it going to take to fix that?
It’s going to take some leadership from the Ministry of Education in conjunction with the profession itself. Now it may come out of the current reviews that are happening – I hope it will. I would see Victoria as a model because after about five years of sustained effort the investment in leadership development is starting to pay off in student results. The other thing that needs to happen is that the professional learning needs to happen intensively, persistently, and at a very high quality. Professional learning that is a mile wide and an inch deep is not going to provide the profession the capability that it needs to address the significant challenges that we have in many schools. We can’t have it both ways - we can’t expect teachers to teach hugely diverse classes and to learn how to do that in a preservice program that runs for 12 to 18 months, and in a few hours of professional development. It just doesn’t work like that. So, we do need, I think, to structure schools and timetables in a way that allows for much more professional learning for both teachers and leaders.
Now that you’ve retired from the University of Auckland, what are you planning on pursuing next?
I’ve just published a book called Reduce Change to Increase Improvement (Corwin Press, 2018), which is selling extremely well and has already been translated into two other languages. I’m using that book and associated video resources to help leaders in Australia and Scandinavia to lead improvement in their own school, and I’m doing that through a small business I’ve set up. And the other thing is I’ve started writing my next book, which is on leadership capabilities. I focus on expertise, problem-solving and relational skills and the character virtues that enable those three capabilities to be woven together in ways that produce excellent leadership. It’s an exciting project for me as it is taking me into new territory about virtues and character.