SLI Advisory Board in conversation

This series of videos features SLI Advisory Board members Professor Bill Louden, Ann McIntyre and Dr Simon Breakspear in conversation about a range of educational leadership topics.

They discuss:

  • how the School Leadership Institute is helping to build system leadership across the NSW public education system, and why that matters
  • how middle leaders can build strong school teams
  • domain-specific knowledge for school leaders
  • effective strategic planning
  • the importance of leader and teacher learning
  • relational trust in school leadership teams
  • the positive impact of great leadership on student outcomes
  • the unique nature of the NSW public system .

These videos can be used by current and aspiring school leaders to reflect on their own practice and gain insight or new ways of thinking.

The board discusses the importance of building leadership capacity at all levels of the system, and the role of the School Leadership Institute.

Simon Breakspear

- And I think whilst we, of course, need strong principals part of the vision within the School Leadership Institute was to build leadership density across the system. And so of course, we want strong principals leading a culture of learning, both for students and for the adults who work in the building.

But we also had aspirations for middle-level leaders and teacher leaders, leaders who were going to sometimes be still teaching in the classroom but also leading peers, and particularly leading peers in expert teaching teams, thinking about how to more effectively teach the curriculum, how to utilise evidence-informed strategies, and how to ensure that not only every student is making progress, but also that every adult in the building is also having an opportunity to make progress in their craft.

Ann McIntyre

- That's actually a really significant point when you're thinking about the work of the School Leadership Institute.

Because when we think about school leadership, we're thinking about a continuum of practice. We're talking about teacher leaders, we're talking about middle leaders or people in executive roles who are not only responsible for their own classrooms, but also what's happening in the classroom next door.

And it's also talking about school leaders. So school leaders who are in the principal's role or in deputy and senior roles, who are thinking about how to make a difference across a much broader span of influence.

And importantly also, the School Leadership Institute has a very important role to play in the development of system leadership. And system leadership in New South Wales public schools takes many forms.

We have formal system leadership but we also have system leaders who are highly experienced and highly competent principals, who have the commitment to the growth and development of other school leaders, be they current school leaders or our future school leaders.

And that's one of the strengths of actually working as a system of schools, to really make sure that the organisation is well-prepared for the future. Another element of future-focused.

Simon Breakspear

- So there's often three areas that come up when we think about what we're trying do as an institute. One of them are, who are the leaders in the system and we've got a broader view of the who: leaders and teacher leaders, middle leaders, senior leaders, system leaders.

And then we're asking, well what do we want them to know, do, understand, and be? And so as an institute that's interested in leadership development, we've got a real interest in the capabilities that those leaders need in their context to have that impact.

And then if we know who they are and what we want them to know, do, understand, and be, we've got to ask, well how are we going to make a contribution to that?

How are we going to design leadership programs that can actually build that knowledge and skill and ensure that when they move beyond the scope of the program, that they have the capability to enact that within their context for a difference.

Ann McIntyre

- So when we were thinking about the design of those programs, some of the key things that we were very mindful of, is the need to ensure that we were very much focused on the key accountabilities that people need to have for the particular roles they're in as school leaders.

But as well as that focus on the key accountabilities, we were not only focused on what you need to do to comply, but also what you need to do to really be making a difference. So the focus for all the programs is actually on improvement.

But as well as having that focus on what it is that you need to learn, there was also the importance of having an evidence-informed judgement. That's both, well, it's easier to say but it's also quite complex because it's thinking about what is the impact of your current work now and how can you actually build upon or learn more to have a greater impact? And how can you use that evidence to be guiding your learning?

The third thing we knew was that things like that do not happen quickly. So we know from our research in professional learning in New South Wales, that in order for professional learning to have an impact on practice and to have an impact also on student learning outcomes, there needs to be a sustained focus over time.

There needs to be the opportunity to learn about new skills, apply them, test the impact of those actions that you've been involved in, and go back and refine. So sustained judgement in learning over time was critically important.

And the other thing we know is that no teacher, no school leader works in isolation. We all work together. So where there can be that element of collective learning, it was actually providing another level of depth and another level of strength to be thinking about the impact that we can have through the development of professional learning programs that will actually be preparing people for roles or enabling them to have a greater influence in the roles that they are currently in.

How middle leaders can build strong school teams

Ann McIntyre

It's interesting when we're looking at leadership and the spheres of influence one of the things that is actually quite interesting is the transition that you make, when teachers move into a formal middle leadership position, because they're identified on the basis of their teaching expertise.

They then come into a position where they're thinking, hang on a sec, I feel comfortable in terms of what I need to do with my class. How do I make a difference for the classroom next door?

So the skills of leadership actually come together with the skills of curriculum and assessment and pedagogy in a very interesting way.

But some of the things that I think are really critical is looking at the fact that most of them are leading a faculty or leading a stage or particular area within a school, and to be thinking about how they work with teams.

So that focus on team leadership, the ways of developing an analysis of what's happening and what needs to happen next and co-developing goals and learning to work in a way that is actually interdependent and having some shared responsibility for outcomes.

All of those things I think are particularly important coming from that domain expertise area.

Bill Louden

It's tricky Simon when you're leading a team that you are part of.

(everyone laughs)

Which is what where middle leaders are.

Simon Breakspear

I think so. And you kind of, you're always thinking, oh someone's just told me in a leadership program to have courageous conversations about practice improvement but I'm going to have my lunch next to this person tomorrow. Is it really worth kind of entering into that challenging space?

And so it's one of those things, you know, when I'm working with middle level leaders in New South Wales I'm often saying, yes, there's going to be a lot of the getting the nuance of the interpersonal discussions right.

But let's think about how to what Michael Fullan I think first termed use the group to change the group.

And so rather than going straight towards trying to improve individuals, firstly, I'm thinking about how do I set up some team routines? What are our team routines of, how do we program together?

How do we look at data together, our team routines if we do have an observation and feedback schedule and so, normalising the sense of what are our team routines and what are they for?

Secondly, I'm a big fan of protocols to support professional conversation. So rather than, you know, somehow I've got, I've just come from teaching five periods straight in a secondary.

And now I've got a 3:30 meeting with my faculty and we're meant to have a conversation about practice improvement and data.

I'm a big fan of using protocols because protocols often help structure a more disciplined conversation. And particularly if we've got some sort of way of capturing it, you have a third point conversation.

So you and I aren't in this relational kind of looking at each other's eyes, which could be quite challenging, but actually we're both talking about, you know some sort of improvement.

So protocols like visible thinking routines or other protocols, like a clinic protocol, a tuning protocol.

I say this as a middle leader, almost like a set of cards that you carry around and you think, what kind of conversation do we need to have as a team right now?

And how might I use one of those structured protocols to have a 20 or 30 minute discussion?

And then lastly, you know, I'm a big fan of middle leaders thinking about how I can, how they can support their colleagues engage meaningfully with evidence.

So rather than it being about, well I'm the hierarchal position now technically, but maybe I have less experience in the subject or less experience in the school.

And now I'm trying to convince you to teach more like me.

What I prefer to do is to have some evidence out, some evidence like Rosenshine's principles of instructional evidence, like the What Works Best.

And for us to meaningfully have a discussion about what does this evidence suggest about practices that might be more effective with our kids?

How is this similar or different to what we're currently doing? Are there areas that we might need to adjust our practice, stop doing?

So I think that idea of like using routines, using protocols, having disciplined discussions about evidence can sometimes de-personalise some of the work and allow it to be, I think easier to do If you're going to be working in the same space as someone.

Bill Louden

And some of those things are less challenging, easier to do. Most people will be happy to look at other classes students work, and look at each other's work and then maybe do some cross-marking and then have a think about what the cross-marking taught.

So all the time you're looking at the student's work, not at the teacher's behaviour, but there's a lesson for us all in seeing what other people's kids can do.

Ann McIntyre

That's right. I've found exactly the same. So it's in the work with schools, the point that is less confronting is actually looking at student work, unpacking then behind it, what teacher actions actually brought forth those outcomes is then the interesting point of analysis.

So at its most fundamental level and like you I think having protocols to work with gives you a structure for some deeper discussion.

But I think also at a fundamental level one of the things that I found is most significant is when teachers are planning together, when they're teaching together, when they're assessing student work together, they identified those as three of the strongest points of learning about their own practice.

So it's coming down to some things that sounds simple but are so fundamental in terms of how you work together collaboratively. And how you inquire about the impact of your teaching on student learning.

Bill Louden

Yeah. So there's easy points, easy places to start and there's hard places, but I mean eventually you have to get to some of the hard places.

So, you know, I'm happy to recommend that everyone goes on looks at that what works stuff because I think it's right.

Getting people to look at that and ask, well am I beginning with a daily review?Am I being sufficiently explicit? And am I breaking things into small enough steps for these kids? Am I reteaching often enough?

And so on, that that's the harder end because it goes much more to the heart and practice of the person.

But maybe if you start with looking at kids' work, you can get there.

Simon Breakspear

Yeah. I think one of the things I would say is take a longer term perspective that, you know, maybe the first time you try to engage with evidence, you know people don't go into that deep reflective discussion.

You say, well, where do we want to move in our team health this term, you know, can we moderate some work together?

Could we look at one piece of evidence and build some knowledge even if it doesn't change practice, could we have a better programming kind of session?

And then you think next term, well we might've stabilised some of those ways of working and we can sort of slowly edge up into deeper levels of psychological safety, willingness to learn together.

And look, you may not win the whole team, but you know, you probably can get some key allies to come further and further and sort of change where the norms are in that group.

Bill Louden

And zooming right back out to where we were talking a bit earlier about long-term and short-term goals.

That's a perfect example of a set of short-term goals. How can we in our next 10 weeks, what can we do about our norms of collaboration and then something beyond there. But that, you know, 10 weeks progress on norms of collaboration will be worth doing.

School leaders need to have domain-specific knowledge as well as leadership skills

Simon Breakspear

One of the things that's starting to emerge is this discussion we're having aroundleadership skills or teaching skills aren't generic.

So whilst we often talk about these as being effective leader of teacher learning, well, no you can't do that unless you have the domain-specific knowledge in the area that you're leading.

And I think that's been quite a big shift actually away from thinking about generic leadership knowledge and skills, generic teaching knowledge and skills towards saying, well, actually, no.

Vivian Robinson would say, you know using knowledge to solve complex problems.

And there's been a growing focus now around needing to have that specific domain knowledge to be able to then guide teachers and guide the re-organisation of the school around those goals.

So I think we're seeing a real flourishing now of school leaders, not saying, well, I'll be the principal or I'll be the senior leader and I've got a literacy expert in the school  elsewhere.

Yes, I don't need to be the literacy expert but I need to build up my domain-specific knowledge so that I can think about what are the strategic investments I should be making.

That I could demonstrate, or at least point to that high quality practice so that people have a mental model of what good looks like.

Not as general teaching, but in the teaching of phonics or in the teaching of vocabulary, or the teaching of reading comprehension.

And then when we're looking at the evidence we're using our knowledge about literacy or knowledge about mathematics and numeracy to make good judgments about how we're, how we're going.

So I think that building of the skills of leadership what we might say, generic skills, but then also bringing up the need to build domain-specific knowledge in the areas that we're leading in.

And sometimes for leaders, it's about saying it's okay to be in the job and not feel like you have sufficient knowledge in the area that you're leading but learn alongside your staff and try to get a little bit out in front about building up your own understanding of that area that you're working in.

Bill Louden

And there's a real risk for us all that in trying to lead teachers and support them, we'll be working from our own domain knowledge, not you know, and that's not what's required here.

So I'd be moderately helpful if we're talking about smallish children and about literacy but a little bit less to say about teaching of foreign languages, actually zero.

The SLI Board discusses strategic planning and how school leaders can maximise effectiveness

Bill Louden

I think it's really important when you think about how to make an impact as a school leader that you think about culture and strategy. Now some people say, that it's all about culture. Well, cultures are important, school culture is important.

But school culture can be organised in ways that are really helpful for improvement of kids' achievement or it can be organised around keeping the kids quiet. So culture is important and we need to work on culture.

But we also need to work on strategy. And I think the best improvement comes when you keep your eye on both culture and strategy. And by strategy I mean, really long-term thinking.

Persistence is a very undervalued characteristic in school reform. Nothing that you're going to do that will make a big difference is going happen this term. You'll have to do some things this term and next term.

And it’s handy, if you know what you're trying to do with this term and next term. But the strategy needs to lead you out over years. All of the schools I know that have been big improving schools have had a long-term plan and long-term tenure of senior staff.Nothing happens quickly. Nothing that's really important to happen as quickly.

But when it does happen, it happens in a culture where people are really keen to learn together, to work together and where the strategy lays out where are we trying to get to and here are the bits on the way that we need to pay attention to.

Simon Breakspear

Yeah. I really love that idea of, sometimes I describe it as sort of horizons for improvement.

And so there's this maybe a four year plus horizon within our system, there's a four year SIP that you've written your school a strategic improvement plan. We've got that view of where we might want to be together in four years.

And there's something nice about four years because it makes us feel like we could take on something that's a bit complex and a bit messy and human. And there's going to be a sort of non-linear kind of journey that we're not quite sure about all the steps yet but that's where we want to be there.

But as you said, Bill, I love this idea that we might want to be there but what do we need to do in the next 50 days? And it's that capacity to move between the aspirations for improvement, often on complex messy things that are going to take a little bit of tinkering and experimentation and adaptation.

But then that real need to, what are we going to do this term? What are the next most important things to do? And I think that strategic thinking at those multiple horizon points are crucial.

Where are we heading? What are our bigger aspirations? What needs to be done in the coming term? And leaders who can really kind of master the mundane that every kind of couple of weeks in the bits and pieces, what do we need to push forward? How does that add up to that broader kind of aspiration we might want to hit over a longer term.

Bill Louden

And one of the risks of those long-term plans is that the plan becomes the thing and the people who've made the plan and put all the colours on it and thought about the fonts and got to print on the page nicely and then gave it to whoever they're giving to think that I'm done now, I've done the plan.

Well, you will have to do a plan and someone is going to want to look at your plan. But what are we going to do in the next 10 weeks? And how does that 10 weeks get us towards where we'll be in four years.

Simon Breakspear

And after 10 weeks, do we need to update that thinking? We'd hope so. So rather than strategic thinking being a once in every four year kind of thing, it's really strategic doing.

I do some thinking that get in, we implement together for a term. We say, "Hey, what's worked, what hasn't worked? What are the early indicators telling us about the effectiveness of that strategy? And then how do we update that thinking?”

And it's that iterative collective learning process over multiple terms and years, that's the path to those more complex improvement challenges.

Ann McIntyre

And it's interesting when you're thinking about impact because one of the most crucial things is to develop a clear understanding of what's happening now and why it's happening.

And at that point, when you're thinking about what's happening, what are the results of our current actions that you begin to be formulating goals or formulating targets, which sit at the essence and the heart of the plan.

But the interesting thing is that in order for the plan, as you've said, to become something that is active rather than a document, it needs to be embedded in people's thinking, it needs been embedded in their way of doing.

And one of the things that is most critical I believe, is that how, in fact, I've constantly found that how people go about developing goals has a clear impact on three things.

It has an impact on people's motivation, it has an impact on their ownership of the process and it has an impact on their efficacy, so that belief that they can make a difference.

So I think at the heart of this is that notion of inquiry that it's a part of an iterative process of thinking about what did we do? What was the result of what we just did? What do we need to do in the future?

And the interesting thing in terms of measuring impact is that it is not only a point of thinking about the impact together we're having as a school, but for each person to be thinking, what does this goal mean in terms of the expectations on what I need to do in my classroom tomorrow?

And for each person to actually have that understanding of how it relates to their own practice so that it can be both personalised as well as collective impact.

Bill Louden

Yeah, and the trick is making sure that when you have the grand plan and you pull a string at the four-year thing, what tugs at the other end is something that's happening in a classroom.

It's so easy to have plans that are about all kinds of other stuff, but I'm not interested in any plans or I can't see, how would this plan provide an incentive for this teacher to do something even better than she's doing at the moment.

You’ve got to be able to pull the string at the top and see something happening at the other end.

Ann McIntyre

 And I love that analogy, the connection. Because one it's great to have a plan. It's great to have your goals. It's great to have the ambition of what it is you want to achieve. But as you've said, unless it's actually actualised in classrooms in the work that people are doing day to day, then it's simply is a document.

Bill Louden

And sometimes of course the string gets pulled to the other end. The teachers are trying and improve things and they can't see their place in the plan. So that continuity between the two ends is really important to me.

The Board discusses the importance of learning for leaders and teachers and the impact on student results.

Ann McIntyre

And it was interesting, from that work, the clear things that we learned was the power of providing feedback for teachers that was actually more regular than external testing was at that time.

The second thing that we learned was the need to be taking what we know about effective leadership. So if we say that effective leadership at its most fundamental level, actions that we know are going to impact student learning.

So we know that establishing goals and expectations and motivating teachers is a primary function of school leaders.

We know that putting your attention on to a focus on the professional learning of teachers, and the impact of that learning on student learning, is important.

And we also know that re-aligning the organisation in terms of personnel, time and resources to be supporting your goals, matters.

Providing schools with an opportunity to actually analyse their leadership practices, provided what the educational measurement team saw as a level of sustained improvement in student learning outcomes that they hadn’t seen before.

What was different was that what we realised was that there’s something more than curriculum and assessment that we need to focus on. And that is the skills of the leader to be motivating, drawing teams together, establishing meaningful inter-dependent goals, and re-aligning the school to really be supporting what was happening.

So in a nutshell what we learned what that the most powerful impact on student learning involved a focus on student learning, a focus on teacher learning, and a focus on leadership learning.

And it was when those three things came together that we saw results we hadn’t seen in the past.

Bill Louden

That’s right. Leaders can’t influence outcomes directly. They influence them by setting up an environment where teachers get the right professional learning, where they get the right targets and, if possible, where they get some decent feedback and coaching.

Because I take the view, I presume that teachers are always doing the best they know how. So if they’re going to do something different that might be even more effective, someone’s going to have to show them. Give them some examples, have them try something, get some feedback about how close you got to that.

If you think of any other activity that you want to learn to do will – learning to throw a javelin – you know you don’t start just by running around the park. You have a look at how good javelin throwers throw. And then you try and get a little bit like that.

You know teachers are always working and by and large they are doing the best they already know. So if you want things to be different, there’s got to be a role for feedback and coaching.

Ann McIntyre

What we’ve found is that’s exactly the same for school leaders. So the focus on school improvement needs to be the professional learning for teachers and leaders and to have all of those elements intertwined.

Which is why it’s so important to have an evidence-informed series of leadership programs for teachers at every stage of their leadership journey.

The board discusses the importance of building relational trust among school leadership teams and the impact on student learning.

Ann McIntyre

It's interesting we often talk about the core practices that successful leaders engage in. And I think about the key things that they do, that I think we're all incredibly aware of, is it's not only what you do as a leader but it's who you are that matters.

And that any point of action is going to be successful or not very much on the basis of the level of interaction. So that element of relational trust and establishing relational trust is really important.

And it's funny, like culture, you know, trust is actually difficult to pin down. And in so many times, if you think about things, you understand things more when you look at the shadow that is cast in their absence.

You understand health in the absence of health. You understand culture when things are not really operating in a way that's growth-promoting or productive for you.

And the same way, you see trust and the impact of trust most clearly in its absence. So, it's quite important I think, for us to be thinking what actually underpins trust.

It comes down to a fundamental level of respect that your view of the world and the way you see things is actually not the only view of the world. And so the capacity to actually work with people who think differently or see things differently and learn together is critically important.

Simon Breakspear

Yeah, I love that idea of the kind of trust enabling the ability to learn together, to bring a perspective, but to be very aware that there could be other equally valid ways of seeing that situation or understanding what's going on.

You know, one of the other terms that's used in the literature alongside relational trust is psychological safety. And obviously the constructs are really interconnected.

But I think, we've all been talking here about, Bill, you're talking about a culture of internal accountability or responsibility for growth for all. And there's a sense where we're going to have that internal culture around learning, change and improvement.

That's all dependent on that idea that we can be safe with each other. Then it's okay to say, "Well here is actually one of my students' work, and as you can see, they're not moving over the last little while." And that's not a statement of lack of professionalism. That is my statement of professionalism.

Bill Louden

Yeah, here's the work. What are your thoughts?

Simon Breakspear

Here's the work. It's a bit of a tricky one. It's not moving. What I normally do, isn't working here. Or if we're sitting around looking at some evidence and I say, "Oh, well, if that is a better way to cause learning that's not what I'm currently doing at the start of my lessons or in review."

So, I might have to adjust something I've done for 10 years or 12 years. So that building of trust, and then the collective culture of psychological safety underpins, I think, our culture of learning, and improvement, and change over time.

Bill Louden

But it's a very important part of understanding why it's so easy to say what good leaders do, and so hard to be one. Like I can tell you, I can give you, you know, there's the four things that effective leaders do but that's no help.

Because to do each of those things, you have to be able to work with people and develop their trust and respect. Have some respect for them.

Ann McIntyre

It's how you do what you do.

Simon Breakspear

So, what do you do if you're in a team or an organisation that has... You notice it's absent right now. I mean a new team or a new school, there's lower levels of relational trust or lower levels of psychological safety clearly among these people.

What are some actions I can take to get on the path to enhancing it?

Bill Louden

Well you know, I don't know about specifically 'cause, you know, which specific, but start with the easy bit, Simon.

There'll always be an easier part, you know. So, if you've got five people, one of them will be the most difficult one and one is going to be the hardest to persuade. But there'll be someone at the other end, and then you just have to find a bit that you can share.

Ann McIntyre

And I think, the more the people I get to know how you are working or why you're working in that way. It's the old adage that talk is cheap but over time, people watch what you do and they see what you care about by what you do.

And so in many ways, that's the beginning of that element of relational trust. But there's no doubt that that's one of the toughest issues that middle leaders and school leaders deal with.

Bill Louden

But not all of it is just in the soft skills. Sometimes, you need to put some different people in the team, or put some people in the team in proximity to people who are doing a bit better. Or other such, you know.

Things that as a leader you might have the authority to do. It's not only about the interpersonal trust. Sometimes, people just need to be closer to what looks better.

Ann McIntyre

I think the other thing around trust is that what sits behind it is people's past experiences. And that often times there'll be a reason but in many of the schools I've worked with I've seen some new learning that has happened quite rapidly when things like cross faculty teams become the mode of operation or cross stage teams.

And it's like when you travelled to a new land and you have the opportunity to meet new people and see things a little bit differently. Challenges your assumptions, challenges your beliefs and opens you to some new learning.

Bill Louden

And that's why I found myself teaching science once you know with a very modest science background. I wrote a book about it, you could read it.

And I found it really challenging to be out of the area where I was really comfortable. To just teaching kids how to read and write to teaching kids how to do science and learn about science and I learned a lot of things about teaching English as a result of teaching science.

Great school leadership has an impact on student achievement

Bill Louden

Leadership really makes a difference. And when I say makes a difference, I mean it makes a difference to students' outcomes.

To how kids do at school, what progress they make through school, where they end up.

Now principals don't improve kids' performance in a direct way, because they're not normally working with children, but they're working with teachers who are working with children.

So what we need are school leaders, principals, who pay a lot of attention to what it is teachers are doing to lead kids out towards the future.

The SLI's programs are designed for the unique content of NSW public schools.

Ann McIntyre

The context of public education in New South Wales is quite unique. Over a third of the population of Australia live within New South Wales. And spread out across our state, we have very, very diverse communities and very diverse schools.

Some of our schools are large, multicultural schools in the city, through to very, very small schools that are unique in supporting rural and remote communities.

It was important for us to develop programs that were able to be supporting people to be achieving and making a difference for students in those variety of contexts.

A third of the population of New South Wales were born overseas, and a third of the indigenous students in Australia live in New South Wales.

So to have a program that was very much supporting the development of leadership in that range of context, with the fundamental, moral purpose that we can and we are committed to making an impact in the hearts and minds of every child, irrespective of their circumstances, is at the core of the work.

Image: SLI Advisory Board members Professor Bill Louden, Dr Simon Breakspear and Ann McIntyre.
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