- Leading a school has its own unique set of challenges including, crucially, inspiring and retaining good teachers and support staff. In recognition of the role’s importance, the Australian state of Victoria set up The Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership, which offers bespoke leadership development and training courses.
- Gill Callister, Victoria’s education and training secretary, says that “leading people is probably the most important component of being a school leader,” as well as the hardest to get right.
- When it comes to achieving impact, Callister says that people have to be motivated to change and feel supported to do so – and this means that clear communication is very important.
Do you remember the name of your favourite teacher? Chances are their memory stayed with you long after graduation.
That’s because good teachers matter. They change lives. They open up new worlds of learning and unlock new opportunities by tapping into young people’s potential. When you think about it, few professions are as important.
And good school leaders create the environment in which great teachers can operate.
Leading a school has its own unique set of challenges. You are part administrator and part manager, part financial officer and, critically, part leader of people, able to motivate, inspire and retain the best teachers.
It’s the last of these, says Gill Callister, secretary of the Department of Education and Training in the Australian state of Victoria, that’s the most important – and the most difficult to get right. “I think leading people is probably the most important component of being a school leader,” she says.
“Data shows that teaching quality has the number one impact on learning outcomes, and school leadership has the second most important. Sometimes there is this magical thinking that by applying for the principal’s job and then getting it, you’ll somehow be able to do that job well just by dint of being in it. But it is a very critical and important role, and we should make sure we treat it as such.”
Which is exactly what Callister and her team do, through the work of The Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership.
How Bastow brings out the best in teachers
The Bastow Institute, which is part of Victoria’s education and training department, offers bespoke leadership development and training courses for primary and secondary school teachers, principals, and early childhood professionals.
Named after Henry Robert Bastow, the state’s chief architect and surveyor, who designed more than 900 school buildings in Victoria in the late 19th century, the institute helps Callister and her colleagues address the strategic importance of investing in leadership, given its key role in impacting student outcomes.
And for Callister, who is now three years into the job – after previously serving as Victoria’s secretary of human services – the institute’s importance cannot be underestimated. “To be honest, when I came to the department, I didn’t know it existed, and I would have killed for something like it in social services,” she says.
Key to its success has been its unique role as curator, knowledgeable buyer, co-designer, and quality assurer of the programmes that its providers deliver. And although most of its funding comes from central government, schools themselves make co-payments, thereby ensuring that the institute is responsive to the needs of schools and the feedback from their teachers. No wonder it’s highly respected across the school system as a provider of quality leadership programmes.
“Bastow tries to identify, develop and support the educators who have potential for leadership, identify career progression pathways, and give us a sustainable pipeline of highly ready education leaders,” says Callister.
“It has a whole suite of leadership capability-building strategies,” she adds, explaining that this is of particular importance in education. “Teaching is not super-hierarchical. In some professions, once you are a CEO you get a lot of directional authority – and although the principal has a certain amount, to some extent a school is relatively flat in a structural sense, and so a lot of their role has to be influencing and inspiring.”
Driving impact – Callister style
Callister, for one, knows all about influencing and inspiring. A lifelong public servant, she is no stranger to Victoria’s corridors of power, and has also had a ten-year stint in the community sector working with children, young people and families. These experiences have given her a powerful perspective on how to navigate the often tortuous journey from idea to impact.
“One of the similarities between education and human services is that they are big service delivery systems,” she points out. “You’re trying to deliver improved outcomes essentially through having an impact on people’s practice – in this case, the practice of principals and teachers. You’ve got to understand what drives people’s practice in order to create cultures of improvement and change.”
This means that communication is vital. “I’ve found that people have to be motivated to change: they have to want to and feel capable of it, they have to feel supported to do it, and they have to believe there is a good reason for its implementation.”
She is also clear that impact is not down to the efforts of one person or one team acting in isolation. “One of the things I try and do is engage with as many of the people who play a role in the system as possible,” she says. “You have to draw in partnerships, and not just from the traditional stakeholders but also from other people and groups who care about education and have skin in the game. And so in big implementation exercises and system change, I try and bring together a guiding coalition of people of common interest, and then try and identify that narrative or specific goal which shows the role that we all play in achieving impact.”
It’s about today, not tomorrow
Interestingly, Callister is quick to push back against any suggestion that reforms in the education sector take too long to filter through to the classroom. “I seriously challenge the notion that educational reforms have to take a long time,” she says. “It’s letting ourselves off the hook. Sometimes, because the system is so big and there are so many variables, getting systemic shifts quickly can be difficult, but they are not the only way to measure progress in education.”
And she goes on to say that good school leadership and great teaching in the classroom can turn things around in a single year.
“We work with Ontario’s Dr Mary Jean Gallagher, and she regularly challenges us about thinking that everything has to take a long time. So, for example, if a school has been putting its heart and soul into improving spelling outcomes over a couple of years and these haven’t changed, then it simply isn’t working and the school should do something else. Sometimes it’s hard to know if it’s a good programme being implemented badly or whether you should stay the course, but overall we should not keep on saying that changes in education take a long time. That just takes our focus off the kids right now.”
Callister is convinced that one of the most important levers for addressing this challenge is improving the quality of school leadership. And that is what she and her department, supported by Bastow, are determined to do.
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