Throughout my principalship at Catholic College Wodonga I have always attempted to write about what is front and centre in my mind about the role. It is interesting that over the past two years I have moved away from themes related to curriculum and leadership development, too themes about our community. I believe this speaks to my desire to reach our community on the here and now, and impact of the pandemic on our community. But since late November I have challenged myself to consider what I have learnt as a first-time principal over the past eight years. Whilst the following are in no order of importance, the order reflects my journey. I have certainly learnt more than six lessons over this time, and I have half a dozen journals which reflect my experiences.
Lesson 1 – Patience and Vision
I have placed patience and vision together deliberately because if you arrive at the front door and immediately begin highlighting your vision, without some background understanding of the school’s culture and current direction, a new principal can come across as arrogant and disrespectful. It reminds me of the saying, “A leader with no followers, is just a someone out for a walk.”
Regardless of what your experience has been before you become a principal, regardless of the size, sector, or the roles you have had previously, we all start “green.” The unique experience of sitting in ‘the chair” cannot be underestimated and every new principal must understand the bedrock, the foundation upon which the community they are entering, is built on. A colleague once said that understanding the 11th Commandment was the most important: the commandment of the corridor. It is the culture of the community in the day-to-day interactions of those who live and breathe the day to day, and not that which is broadcast on the annual review or a glossy strategic plan which is important.
Gaining a deep understanding of the community can only be done through forming meaningful relationships with all staff. This relationship will give a window to what has happened and where the staff want to go. But this takes time, much more than one term. On reflection, I feel that I could have taken more time to fully understand the journey the community had undertaken to develop the Learning Mentor system which is a key pillar on which Catholic College Wodonga is built.
Importantly, understanding a school and its culture then allows you to explore your vison with a full understanding of how to navigate the course to fulfil the vision.
Lesson 2 – Trust
Developing trust in teams is critical in creating a community which can engage with each other at a level that allow for consistent growth. Leadership literature is awash with statistics and charts on the value of trust and honesty. It is consistently seen as the most valued characteristic in leaders by employees. Developing trust is a journey and it is something that all principals, new or old, must take the time to develop. My mindset on this has changed over time. Once I believed that trust is evolved through interactions and happens organically through day-to-day interactions. This is true, but leadership must consider how to develop trust across large groups of staff and make sure that is more than a “start of the year” norming session. I used the work of Paul Browning which is accessible for free at https://compellingleadership.com.au/ as a starting point to explore how we could develop trust in our new leadership team. Over time we have continued to revisit Paul’s work as well as taking the opportunity to use consultants such as Brendan Spillane and more recently worked with Jenny Donohoo exploring collective efficacy amongst our community.
A key feature of building trust in continuing to communicate a clear and consistent vision for the community, whilst also providing the opportunity for all staff to buy-in. Buy-in can take many forms and over an eight-year period we have had to work hard to find multiple ways for staff to engage in our vision. Whether that be through project teams, surveys, focus groups or whole school consultation; this must be strategically planned over an extended period, because when communication is poor, questions will be asked. These questions can be an indicator to a lack of transparency. Therefore, all principals must consistently communicate with staff so that we continue to build trust across the whole community.
Lesson 3 – Leadership can be situational
Leading from the front is necessary at certain times and I believe that our response to COVID 19 over the past two years has highlighted the need to be clear and consistent providing one voice for our community. At the same time, I cannot be at the forefront project teams, focus groups and other strategic initiatives as principals today should not micromanage their communities. Instead, they need to understand the style of leadership required in any given situation. I have learnt over my time at Catholic College Wodonga that leadership can be situational. There are times when I will be at the back of the pack and allow others to lead initiatives but at the same time making sure that I support and coach them through the process. This allows leaders within our community to grow and develop within their role as they get the opportunity to navigate the ups and downs of leading strategic initiatives.
Lesson 4 – Networking
I believe networking is more important than ever. The style of networking I am most invested in going forward is physical, not virtual. Getting out seeing what others are doing, to see what new opportunities are available to our community. Many of the great initiatives that Catholic College Wodonga has taken over the eight years has had their origins in things that we have seen and researched in schools external to CCW.
The longer I have been in the role, the more I have been invited to be on committees or groups e.g. Albury Wodonga Educational Deal or the Victorian Catholic Secondary Principal’s association committee. These give me the opportunity to be at the forefront of current educational initiatives, in turn strengthening the opportunities available for our community.
After two years of lockdowns, we are now ready and keen to see how other communities have responded to enhance learning opportunities for all students, God willing, we will be able to journey to other communities to see this in action and create new networks that will create new opportunities for our staff and students.
Lesson 5 – Visibility
“Get out of the bunker”. I would love to know how many times I have told myself this over the last eight years. There will always be days where for one reason or another I am unable to move out of my office. The challenge is to make sure that one day doesn’t move into a week. I have learnt over the eight years with the support of my executive assistants to allocate time for movement about the College to the point where at times we will schedule an hour working in different areas of the school that are highly visible to students and staff.
Visibility is so important because it creates connection with all members of the community. Another challenge for me in the space of visibility is to rely on a mantra that I developed in my second year ‘that for every email from a staff member, I must have two conversations.” My reasoning for this is that emails should be confirmation of a conversation, not the start, middle or end. Whilst this is difficult to achieve in a school this size, aiming high gives me a better of chance of moving me out of the office and connecting with others.
Lesson 6 – Developing Leadership from within
Living and working in reginal Victoria has many advantages, however, there can be disadvantages as well. In 2016, I developed the Leadership Development Series as a response to a growing frustration as our staff had to travel to capital cities to access high quality professional learning. For our staff this could mean up to three days away from home and family as well as added expenses of accommodation, meals, and travel. Since 2016, 45 staff have participated in the Leadership Development Series – this has allowed me to foster stronger relationships with staff as they commence their leadership journey or look to develop their skills as a leader. I believe Principal’s must provide a platform for staff to enhance or develop their leadership skills withing our community. Being a part of that journey with our staff has been one of the great joys for me over the eight years. I look forward to continuing this at Galen Catholic College and will continue to invite staff from CCW and other schools to participate in the series.
I recently watched the 1989 the film ‘Field of Dreams’ which has the stirring line repeated throughout the film, “if you build it, they will come.” I have reflected on the possible parallels that come over the eight years I have been at CCW where we have seen enrolments move from 1040 at the time of my appointment to being close to 1300 by end of my journey, but one word needs to change. “If we build it, they will come.” At the heart of principalship is “we,” not ‘I.” Its not “my team”, its “our team” and most importantly it is not my school’ it is ‘our school’.
I believe that for the past eight years I have been blessed to be a part of an innovative, engaged, and welcoming community. I deeply thank all students, staff and families for the care and commitment they have shown me over my time at Catholic College Wodonga.
P.S. If you would like to watch the video created by our Media Team member Rhys reflecting on my time at Catholic College Wodonga please see below