Episode 4: Creating conditions for learning to thrive

As a school leader, you prioritise your people, your students, your staff and your community by genuinely showing them that you care about them each and every day. Episode 4 explores how leaders help create the conditions for learning to thrive in their schools.

Episode 4

Introduction (JOANNE)

School leaders play a vital role in providing every student in New South Wales public schools with a great education and the best start in life. They have a positive impact in classrooms and on their staff. They guide teacher development and engage their communities.

Here at the School Leadership Institute our mission is to support all New South Wales public school leaders by providing world-class, evidence-informed leadership development programs and resources. Our School Leadership Institute conversation series will explore the key issues and challenges of school leadership. We'll talk to experts and share their tips and experiences on leading with purpose and impact.

I'm JOANNE, the Director of the New South Wales Department of Education's School Leadership Institute. Welcome to the Leadership in Focus series.


Hello and welcome to our fourth episode of the Leadership Conversations podcast series. I'm Joanne Jarvis and I'm the Director of the New South Wales Department of Education's School Leadership Institute.

Today we'll be discussing how leaders create the conditions for learning to thrive in their schools. And with me today is Chris Brooker, a retired principal and a life member of the New South Wales Primary Principals Association and Fellow of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders.

Chris' expertise is highly valued, so it's not surprising that she still works closely with school leaders to strengthen their educational leadership practices. And also with me is CORINNA, a principal with the School Leadership Institute, who is currently leading the work on middle leadership.

It's a real privilege to have you both join me today. Chris and Corinna, as we discuss this important topic.


It's an absolute pleasure Joanne and a privilege to be here.


Hi, Chris. Hi, Joanne. Lovely to be here.


So let's open with a bit of a narrative around what it feels like to go into a school where you know there is a positive vibe the moment you walk through the gates. There's that sense of warmth, care, shared purpose, strong connections and even joy.

So, Chris, in your experience, where does this start?


Thanks, Joanne. Look, I believe that at the heart of developing positive relationships in a school is the fact that it actually starts with you, the educational leader. So as a leader, you need to genuinely care about the people in your organisation.

And of course, that means starting with the students themselves and the conversations that you have with them on a daily basis. So, look, this is a people business and this very much means that you need to prioritise your people, your students, your staff and your community, by genuinely showing them that you care about them each and every day.

It really means being highly visible, walking the talk and demonstrating your positive interactions with the people on that daily basis. You know, when you visit schools and you walk in the front gate, there is a certain vibe that you get as soon as you're greeted or ignored.

When you arrive at the front office, to the way you hear or see teachers and other staff engage in conversations with each other and importantly with the students who attend the school. Schools are meant to be learning organisations. And as such, it's absolutely vital that a positive culture of learning is established, nurtured, prioritised and developed for both students and the adult learners who work there.

Leaders can actually enable this to happen. They can set the tone, the expectations. They can influence others. They can encourage and further develop that culture so that that learning thrives within that organisation.

It doesn't take much to actually stop and say hello and to interact and genuinely mean it. Joanne I've always believed that people will value what they feel and see, on that daily basis, in the way you treat others, your fairness, your integrity, your honesty, your sincerity and your ability to actually follow through.

In other words, your moral purpose. It's not always about being a 'yes' person, but it is about being consistently fair with the vision and the values that are established as part of school-wide expectations and that dignity and respect in the workplace is truly promoted and valued.


Chris I really like the way you talked about moral purpose, vision and values just then. And so I'm wondering if we could explore a little more how leaders translate their interpersonal qualities to enable this positive culture to grow.


Yes. Joanne. Look, as a teacher and I reflect, and I learned such a long time ago now, but your interpersonal qualities help to actually build relationships first and foremost with your students. They are an important set of tools in your toolkit in this people business, and it's those personal and interpersonal qualities that help you to work with others.

So along the way, you learn from role models what works best, but you also learn from others what not to do in terms of working with people. You can never be complacent in your role as a leader because leadership is a very privileged position.

You know, it's a position of great influence. It's about being aware that you're serving others in a way that helps learners to thrive by prioritising and co-creating the ideal learning conditions for students. As I mentioned earlier, leaders need to be highly visible, walking and talking around the school as they make connections with others, in classrooms, checking in to see how teachers are going, celebrating successes and improvements with their staff, leading, as well as attending professional learning sessions, demonstrating the genuine care and concern they have for their students, their staff and their community.

It's always about being intentional and well-meaning in all that you say and do, and always being aware that you are building relational trust with all, as you lead and you work beside your team. In other words, you prioritise your people.


Yeah, it actually is a real privilege to be a leader, isn't it? And I think we've come to an understanding now that leadership isn't really positional. It's far more a relational role.

And I'm mindful of this quote by a person called Ken Blanchard. And he said, 'In the past, the leader was a boss. Today's leaders must be partners with their people. They no longer can lead solely based on positional power'. So I'm wondering, Chris and Corinna, what are your own reflections on this comment by Ken Blanchard?


Yes, Joanne, for me, I've never liked to be referred to as boss. I found that very uncomfortable. Because that reminds me of someone who just bosses you and tells you what to do. So I remember as a young teacher, I remember those days if the boss says jump, you jumped.

We now know through our own lived experiences that the best leaders, lead by example. They're kind, they're compassionate, they walk the talk and they develop a consensus of opinion by consulting, by collaborating, and by effectively communicating with their people or their team.

This leads to trust. A leader who is trustworthy always makes sure that their behaviour matches their purpose, they're consistent. These are the leaders who are respected as they inspire, enable and celebrate the achievements of their team.


Chris I agree, but I think the notion, sadly, of leadership being hierarchical in schools still exists. We've all heard comments like 'you get paid the big bucks'. So importantly, we need to change that thinking and the way we do it is to build that trust.

Bryk and Schneider's work on the determinants of relational trust, and I'll call out listening and valuing the opinions of others, is one way to start breaking down those barriers. I think also being courageous and showing my vulnerability and my willingness to learn are things I've always practised.

But of course, this doesn't diminish the reality that there are times when principals do need to make the decisions, accepting that not everyone is going to agree. It's the process that enables it to occur.


Indeed, much of what we've been discussing so far really emphasises the importance of being intentional in the way that leaders create connections and strengthen teams and networks within their school. So, I'm wondering then how do leaders build a learning culture and also create the conditions to enable learning to flourish?

Let's start with you, Chris.


Okay. Well, the principal is the leading learner. That's number one. And as such, it's important that you value learning. And this starts with demonstrating that you are a learner yourself. I've always believed that leaders need to be readers and learners themselves, and as such, leaders need to have that educational expertise.

They need to have a passion for teaching and learning and be able to demonstrate and share their deep knowledge around current research, or at least demonstrate a curiosity that's related to the improvement of teaching and learning. Whether it's engaging in professional learning or research or listening and learning from and alongside your staff, the leader, needs to be enthusiastic.

Enthusiastic about the whole learning process to demonstrate that curiosity and excitement for learning, not just talk about it.


Yes. So how do they demonstrate the curiosity?


Well, together, leaders can engage in conversations and reflections with their staff to encourage them to be curious about what's happening for their learners and how do they know? We want to create teacher leaders who are not only curious about creating the best learning conditions for their students, but also teacher leaders who are skilled in leading purposeful and engaging professional dialogue with their staff.

I believe that learning alongside of your staff as you're doing the work, not only builds that trust, but it's being able to ask those relevant and probing questions that actually encourage deeper thinking and truth telling, which requires those trusting relationships and a culture that supports risk taking, debate, professional disagreements, respect, with always a clear focus on what's best for students.


And so by being curious, you mean also moving out of your comfort zone so that new learning can occur?


Absolutely. It means that you're open to learning from and with others. You know, you're actually vulnerable yourself. When organising team meetings, executive meetings, whole school meetings, that you prioritise the learning and you create the conditions that are conducive for professional reflection and dialogue.

In other words, prioritise time to reflect, to share thoughts and ideas around specific and relevant learning topics or themes. Teachers absolutely need time to talk about their practice, their pedagogy, and not to have that time taken up by administration that could have easily been sent in an email or another summarised document.

Our leaders need to ask themselves 'what types of teams and learners do we want to develop across our school?' If we think of ourselves as a learner and we say to ourselves, 'how do I learn best?' And then think about that and go about creating those conditions and the culture for the way we build the capacity within our teams.


I think that's really true and for me, I think it comes back to your moral purpose and what you value. I've always been an advocate for ongoing professional development, and that relates directly to developing educational expertise. Our role as educators is both a privilege and a responsibility.

We impact daily the lives of students in our care. I took the stance as a classroom practitioner where my impact on student learning outcomes was a direct one. And now, as a school leader, where I impact leaders who work directly with students, to always be the best that I can be.


So Corinna, give me an example of what you did.


While leadership is highly relational and as a new principal coming into a school, I was really conscious of the need to build trust. But doing this in a way that was really respectful of whatever already existed in a school, and including the people. The executive had their own thoughts, their beliefs and values and this included fears.

Just like the diagram of the iceberg, I could see what was above the surface, but I had to, to be an effective leader, I needed to discover what was sitting below the surface. I had to build the trust while doing the work.

And what needed to happen initially with the executive was for me to develop a culture of collective efficacy where we could be vulnerable together and learn together. And only when this started to happen were we able to gain some traction.


I think understanding that as leaders we're often dealing with the management of others fears and anxieties is a really important concept too, because it's not always that people don't want to change or work with us, it's just that they're not quite sure what it is that's going to be asked of them or what they might have to lose in the process of, of that change process as well.


Exactly. And as I said, it's often fear.


So once you gained that traction, what happened next?


Well, one of the most courageous things I think I did in that one setting as a principal, was I recommended to the executive that we re-evaluate the whole organisational structure of the school to focus on middle leader practice. So we could really explicitly focus on developing teacher practice for improved student learning outcomes.

Bear in mind, I'd worked really hard to build relational trust with the executive team, and while doing the work we were engaging in research around middle leader practice. We were able to show our vulnerability and really learn together. I learned with the team, I didn't have all of the answers.

So it was important that as an executive, or a professional learning and culture I think we were, that we remained curious because at times confirmation bias crept in. Once we were able to break down the barriers, though, within that executive, leaders then felt confident to work with their own teams, understanding what they now needed to do in order to develop the collective efficacy around improved student learning outcomes within their own team structures.


So you must have got really good at asking great questions in order to remain curious and remove that confirmation bias as well.


And lots of reflection. Lots and lots of reflection.


I agree Corinna. It's important that team leaders get to know their teams in a way they understand the learning styles of their team members. They need to be inclusive in their endeavours to ensure that all voices are heard as they do the work and develop those trusting relationships side-by-side with their people.

But it's also important to have time to get realistic expectations of your team leaders, to be able to build that capacity of their teams and expecting that they will build positive connections with all team members. Leaders need to prioritise reflections around the individuals and or teams learning, encouraging team leaders to share the leadership of meetings, discussions, and always seeking feedback from your teams about what's working well and how do they know. I think that's so important.


It sounds like you're also highlighting the fact that these teams work really well when they've got strong norms and protocols in place to, such as who's going to be leading the meeting at a particular point in time as well.

What does this look like across the school, Chris?


Look Joanne, having strong connections with your staff, both admin and teaching, means you need to get to know them. Saying hello, acknowledging them personally, having an interest in their professional lives, their purpose, progress and challenges along the way.

Have those conversations that really matter and if you are approachable and genuinely interested in their development, you'll find that that will translate in time to professional trust in the workplace. But as I said, it does take time to build trust.


Yes, it sure does. When Corinna was speaking earlier about the wonderful example she used when she was a principal at her school, she referenced the importance of strong relational trust just as as you have done too Chris. And I'm wondering then how important is this in enabling the productive connections and teams to flourish?


Look, Joanne, it's absolutely important. So, so important, that as a leading learner, you have to lead by example. It's not about just telling people what to do. I know that I've mentioned this a few times, but you can never emphasise enough just how important it is to follow through on what you say and do.

Your expectations around learning, using evidence to influence decision making, engaging in conversations around learning and as you build those respectful relationships, both informal and formal. From an executive perspective, you must be seen as things skilful, knowledgeable, organised, but above all, someone that builds trust and respect, someone that your team can relate to.

It's important to use active listening skills to actually be present in the conversation and not always be distracted by the many other priorities you have on your agenda. I believe that it's important that those active, that active listening, and your excellent communication skills, support solving problems of practice, not micromanaging them, and be worried about dotting the I's and crossing the T's.

Building confidence in your team leaders, means using, distributing assured leadership practices whereby expectations are actually co-developed to ensure clarity of purpose and to enable team leaders to flourish as they collaboratively lead their teams and enabling them to develop team spirit with the membership of their teams.

So, you know, always having an intentional focus on improving student outcomes should always be at the heart of the matter because that's why we do what we do.


I just want to pick you up on that comment you made around distributive leadership, because I think that is a really interesting and a very important concept and certainly highlighted in the literature as well. How do you achieve this in a way that isn't just giving more work back to busy leaders?


Yes, and that's always the dilemma, because our leaders, you know, especially if they're teaching full time as well, they're extremely busy. But I think Joanne, intentionally placing leadership responsibility in the hands of the team members to solve those problems of practice, are based and should be based on their observations and using evidence, and that enables independence and interdependency in the team to thrive.

So when we come together as a team to reflect on our current practice, to facilitate respectful conversations, focused on improved practice, and then reflect upon what we've learned, what we're intending to focus on next, we acknowledge and we celebrate the learning process, enabling our teams to flourish.

You know, micromanagement doesn't do anything for building teams' capacity. So as we lead others, we must also remember that it's important to not get too far ahead of your team with where you think the team should be heading. In the words of an African proverb, which I often recall, is that if you want to fast, walk alone, but if you want to walk far, walk together.

That means making sure your team are with you. Walking together is far more important than just reaching a destination and discovering that you've lost your team somewhere along the way.


I agree, Chris, and I think creating opportunities with clear purpose is also important to mention, and I think by this I mean time and space. If we value the output, then as leaders we need to enable the input, for example, going to the trouble of collecting assessment data, are we actually using it or is this just something that we've always done?


And you've both really talked about the importance of having an inquiry stance to our practice as leaders as well, and helping teachers to see themselves as researchers of their own practice. So it's not something that's extra, it's something that they're doing as they're teaching and using assessment as feedback to themselves about what they're doing well and what they might need to change.


It's also having them feeling empowered to ask those questions themselves.


Mm hmm. So, Chris, what's your best advice on how teachers and leaders can continue to develop their leadership skills?


Look, firstly, Joanne, it's not just one thing, obviously, but it's about recognising that every teacher is a leader and that really needs to be emphasised and celebrated. You know, when you love what you do and you're supposed to be the best teacher you can be, then you lead students confidently and purposefully.

Now you make decisions about the students each and every day. You make decisions about your teaching and learning, the resources to use, etcetera. However, you learn from those positive role models or mentors around you, the teachers and leaders who are expert others or knowledgeable others and you know, those teacher leaders you admire and respect who seem to make everything look so simple, especially when you're first starting out.


Yes, absolutely.


So as someone aspiring to leadership beyond their own classroom, you need to be interested in the classroom next door or beyond. Be interested in learning and learning to improve as you refine your practice and share your practice with others.

I always have believed that having a mentor or multiple mentors at any stage of your career will most definitely help you to develop as a leader. Remembering, you need to be willing to learn, to reflect, to accept constructive feedback, to apply your new knowledge to your practice, and to evaluate as you continue to learn with a mentor.

A trusted and knowledgeable other, helping to guide you along the way.


And that's the thing, isn't it? The person that you respect is the person that you're more likely to learn from too. So Chris, what are then the attributes of an effective mentor?


You know, you have to be a people person. That's absolutely number one, someone who enjoys and who relates well to people. Someone who is approachable, non-judgmental and has the time and or who is willing to make the time to engage in the professional conversations with the mentee.

You know, one of the most important attributes for a mentor, is that ability to listen. I mean really listen to what's being said. At times, a silent partner who will listen without trying to fix the situation or add their own narrative as a distraction. You know, narratives are important, but it's knowing when to add an extra example to support the conversation. So it's all a matter of timing.

Mentors who add value to the mentees journey are also often humble. They know that the partnership is not about them, but it's a genuine, supportive role that is all about building confidence and capacity in their mentee.

They have great humility. They have patience, and they're very willing to share their knowledge, skill set, resources, when required. Another key attribute is courage. Being able to ask, clarifying and probing questions, open questions. By helping that mentee to reflect, to respond and find solutions whilst being encouraged and supported in this mentoring relationship.

So as a mentor, you need to be able to give honest feedback, constructive feedback, that helps the mentee to truly reflect on their practice, to take on their advice and ideas, to support their teaching and learning as they move forward.

It's also about making a choice and having the choice and having the confidence to do that. So it's the way you give that feedback Joanne that makes a difference and that's why the mentoring relationship needs to be built on trust.

It's a trusting relationship between the mentor and the mentee, but confidentiality is the key to building that trust.


So to be a mentor, it's a real privilege, isn't it?


Oh, absolutely. You know, it's a position of trust and influence and what you say, how you say it, your willingness to make the time to connect with the mentee, builds a relationship that can really make a difference to their overall career.

You know, we can all think back to that one person who took the time to understand, to listen, to give sound advice and who was always a role model for us, sometimes without them even knowing it. And without a doubt, we all need that one person at some point in our professional life who cared enough to make that difference for us.


On that note, I'm going to sum up as best I can what has been a rich conversation today that's really traversed the educational landscape in so many ways. It's been a rich tapestry of discussion. It's covered moral purpose, our commitment to action, relational trust, and deep educational expertise.

And I think those four things have come through really clearly in many ways. And together they combine to enable all of us as leaders to bring out the best in ourselves, to bring out the best in our staff, and therefore to enable the very best possible learning culture for students in which they can thrive.

I want to thank both of you today for your wisdom and your insights and your expertise have been inspiring to me.


Absolute pleasure.


Absolutely a pleasure. Thanks, Joanne.


So visit the school leadership website for further resources for school leaders or Google the School Leadership Institute and follow us on Twitter @NSWSLI. Thanks for listening.

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