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School educators as leaders - and the art of deviating from the norm

posted 8 Mar 2020, 21:06 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 8 Mar 2020, 21:08 ]
"All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think." Sir Ken Robinson

"For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men (and women) how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain." Dorothy L. Sayers

Vision attributed to: 
<a href="">School photo created by freepik -</a

School educators as leaders is one of a series of articles I have written on leadership over the past two years. Previous topics include governance as leadership, artists as leaders and the need to lead ourselves and not wait for the “perfect boss” to come along. This article is arguably the most important as it involves children, who are our society’s future leaders, and teachers, a profession that in our country is increasingly beset by mind-numbing process and bureaucratic nonsense. What right do I have to make these assertions? I am chair of one K-6 school and am on the board of an independent start-up school that is commencing in 2021. I meet regularly with a peer group of low fee independent school chairs. As a board director I sign off on endless reams of mandatory education policy. I also hold three tertiary-level education qualifications. I am part time and unpaid but am not ill-informed. The following thoughts are my own.

Teachers as leaders
Teachers are one of the least recognised leadership cohorts in our community. Day in, day out they stand before our children and strive to create an environment that stimulates those before them to learn. Not that children only learn in the classroom, but since the 1870s when mandatory schooling started being introduced around the world, teachers have become the group of adults that children spend the most time with apart from their parents. For many of us, a teacher is the first person outside the family home that we come to admire, emulate and even quote verbatim. In my case, that teacher was Miss Hole, the legendary teaching-principal of Moss Vale Infants school. Miss Hole was strict yet kind, fair and generous. She taught generations of children to read and write in her no-nonsense style. Miss Hole believed we could all learn and so we did! She lived into her 90s and still rode a push bike around town in her 80s. 

Teachers exercise leadership in so many ways: they impart knowledge, encourage interest in sport, music, science, reading, drama, dance and much more. They are often mentors and counsellors to their young charges and advisors to their parents. Does this mean that all teachers are perfect? Of course not, I am talking in generalities not specifics. I simply wish to highlight the leadership and service attributes of the teaching profession and to celebrate their immense and varied contributions to individual, family and community life. 

The bias against educational creativity
If teaching is not in crisis, it is on the verge of one. Although the “greying” of the profession, driven by Baby boomer teachers retiring, is coming to an end, new teachers do not stay in the job. Between 40-45% of teachers resign withing their first five years, a very high attrition rate. Teaching is in theory a profession. According to the Professionals Standards Councils, a profession is “a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards. This group positions itself as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and is recognised by the public as such. A profession is also prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others.” Being a professional generally means being granted autonomy and acting with minimal supervision, although in some cases such as high-risk engineering projects and medicine, structured peer to peer supervision is put in place. Yet the evidence I see almost daily in interacting with teachers and school executives, and in dealing with the myriad governance and regulatory demands that weigh down our schools, is that Australian teachers have less professional autonomy than ever. 

As our young people continue to drift ever lower in knowledge and application in comparison with their global peers, Australia seems hell bent on being more and more prescriptive in regard to: 1. What teachers teach; 2. How they teach; and 3. What aspects of student learning are measured and reported. Leading nations such as Finland have done away with centralised curricula: we have become more centralised and prescriptive than ever. There is, I believe, a very real if at times unconscious bias against educational creativity and curriculum innovation. Schools dealing with regulatory authorities are advised by those in the know to submit bland, compliant documentation so as to minimise complications and maximise the chance of being “waved through.”
Nationally, our state and territory education systems have drifted to a mediocre middle ground. The leadership skills of our teachers and educational leaders are atrophying or being sucked dry in endless compliance exercises. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps, but talk to a teacher and you may be surprised by what you hear. How do we break our addiction to educational monotony and entrenched mediocrity? How do we put teachers back in a place of leadership and autonomy? Should we back massive innovation, small scale experiments or both?

The art of deviating from the norm: Richard Gill and the Richard Gill School, Muswellbrook
Towards the end of February 1978, I met a remarkable man, musician and music educator: Richard Gill. For the second half of my teens all I wanted to do was to study music. I practiced day and night as a classical guitarist. Unable to study HSC music at my local rural high school, I took theory lessons on the side and bluffed my way into the Music Education course at the then NSW Conservatorium of Music. My theory was so poor when I was accepted that I had to enrol in an intensive tutorial week before the rest of the students arrived. In those days Richard taught ear training and took several choirs amongst other subjects. He was, of course, a force of nature, several forces of nature in fact. The man was dynamic, talented, opinionated, loud and passionate. His love of knowledge and learning was so real you could almost touch it. Even when Richard was wrong, he was interestingly wrong! 
If there were agreed norms for tertiary music educators of that time, for the most part, Richard gleefully ignored them. He did so from 7am to midnight each day and all the hours in between. He pushed himself and he pushed us. For several years he and I lived in the same suburb of Sydney and often caught the train to and from “The Con” together. Richard had a legendary gift for relationship and for remembering names. I was but one of thousands of musicians and school educators over the decades that he encouraged, tutored and, at times, berated – in a well-meaning way! We remained in touch over the years and even though I left music as a profession in my late 20s, he also knew my musician wife, so we kept up through her. But he never forgot my name. He rarely forgot a name. 

The point of these memories is not to write yet another homily to Richard but to build on his example. The purpose of education is not to passively achieve mundane norms, comply with centralised precepts and slavishly document everything one does as a teacher or administrator. The purpose of education is to excite, challenge, expand and go beyond. This does not mean teachers and educators are unaccountable and do not need to ensure their charges learn the basics, but rather, to ram home the fact that the basics are just that - the very minimum. Nobody criticises a leading surgeon for having lower infection rates and higher survival rates than her peers. We do not train our engineers to barely meet the most basic standards when designing bridges and roads. Why then would we encourage anything less than excellence and over achievement from our schools and those who teach in them? Why would we choose to dull the hearts of those whose passion is to teach and fail children who enter their school years with “sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think." (Ken Robinson)

I know for a fact that Richard detested centralised curricula and control and had a marked distaste for standardised testing. Perhaps he overstated his case at times, but the rationale behind his distaste was correct in my view. Norms are an abstract concept. The average does not actually exist. So why not encourage deviation from the norm as the norm?
Ever the risk taker, just before he died, Richard Gill gave approval for his name to be used in founding a new school in Muswellbrook, in the Hunter Valley three hours north west of Sydney. He also gave his blessing to his long-term friend and former student, Kim Williams AM, as founding chair and to the appointment of several other directors, including myself. Although he was already very ill, Richard dialled into our first board meeting. His passion for the new school was palpable. I found it hard to hold back my tears knowing that this slightly raspy, enthusiastic voice with its unique inflection and boundless energy would soon fall silent. For good reasons, he wanted this school, his school, to be different; it is our job to ensure it is.

The vision
The vision for a new arts and music school in the Hunter comes from Muswellbrook Council and its Mayor, Martin Rush. Council has been very generous in supporting and encouraging the school, the board and staff. Richard Gill School is not for profit, independent, non-denominational and non-selective. We will open our doors in February 2021 under the leadership of recently appointed founding principal, Chris English. It will be 43 years that month since I met Richard Gill. Chris is a Hunter Valley boy born and bred. He pitched for the job of founding principal with a passion and creativity that knocked our socks off. Chris has big shoes to fill but is, I believe, up to the job. It is important to remember that school education in this country does not need more Richard Gill clones. It does, however, need more leaders who, like Gill, are innovators, experimenters and appropriate risk takers. And we need educational administrators, boards and communities to encourage and reward those bold enough to chart new paths.

Our curriculum will focus on music, movement and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Richard himself drafted our school philosophy aided by Kim Williams. In that philosophy he emphasises the leadership role of teachers and his belief that they should hold the maximum level of autonomy possible within the school. As we at Richard Gill School believe teaching really is a profession, autonomy and accountability go hand in hand. We exalt both.

It is our vision that over time Richard Gill School will become a place for young teachers to learn, experiment and grow. We aspire to be a part of a rising cohort of schools that set new standards of excellence – and norm deviation. In doing so, we hope that a whole generation of schools and teacher-leaders will rise up with a passion to break the rules for that highest of high purposes: the true and deep and enduring education of our children.

Philip Pogson FAICD, March 2020.

Philip has been a company director, Chair and business owner for more than 20 years. Alongside the music enterprises he runs with his wife, he consults and advises on strategy and governance across a range of business sectors. He is chair of one K-6 school and sits on the board of another. The views in this article are his own and do not represent the position of any organisation he is associated with.