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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

Building High Performance Schools: Leadership Shares with Kay Kirkman

" is ultimately about having a genuine regard for students... ensuring that our school leaders & teachers have the confidence & competence required to enable all students to achieve their full potential..."

In the HPS Leadership Shares series we interview school leaders nominated by their peers as exemplars of excellence in building High Performance Schools.

Kay Kirkman, Assistant Regional Director is one of the most respected and experienced school leaders I have met. I have spoken to many school leaders across Queensland who smile glowingly as they describe their encounter with this wise servant-leader who transformed their approach to school leadership. Kay has an unwavering commitment to supporting student wellbeing, building high performance teaching teams and mentoring up and coming school leaders.

The Butterfly Effect...

Q: Do you believe teachers are having an impact in society beyond the classroom?

A: Yes, absolutely! Two weeks ago, I came across both the grandmother and mother of a past student. We chatted, they shared photos and spoke excitedly of his latest achievements. These achievements were particularly poignant given some of the significant difficulties he had faced along the way. Both ladies expressed their gratitude for the opportunities and support he received during his schooling, support of which the result is a confident and competent young man with a bright future ahead.

Last week, one of my former Deputy Principals emailed me the following: ‘Kay, you asked me on a recent visit – how do you know you have made a difference to a child today? I thought I’d share a moment from an inter school sports event last week… Before the game, a young man came up to me and said, ‘Hello, Miss, do you remember me?’ I looked up and wondered who this articulate and well-presented young man could be. I then realised it was a particularly vulnerable child we taught when working together in a previous school. You would be so proud of him, Kay and how far he has come. Maybe we did make a difference…’

And this… just this week, I received an email from a past student. This student is now a highly successful businessman. He had come across a local child in need through his business. He asked for suggestions as to how he could help the family and finished off with … ‘You may not realise but I was in a similar boat until I turned up in your classroom, you literally changed the entire course/path of my schooling.’

It is these moments that remind me (and others, I’m sure) of why we do what we do. We can and do change little lives every day, and they and their families do remember the support and kindness afforded them.

What Keeps You Awake At Night?

Q: What are the big issues school leaders face in the current state of play and what are the emerging challenges on the horizon?

A: To put it simply, students. Our team has a mantra: Our work is to ensure that every student in every school has access to the curriculum at level and achieves results truly indicative of their ability. We are talking about all students here. 

Regardless of background or ability, we need to make sure that each and every one is engaged and progressing. That is our job. A large part of that job is ensuring that we are meeting the learning needs of our staff and also attending to the wellbeing of both staff and students, an increasingly difficult role.

I firmly believe in the age old wisdom of the three imperatives for student success:

  • At least one teacher who cares for them.

  • A genuine friend at school.

  • Enabled to work and learn at their own level.

For me, it is ultimately about having a genuine regard for students and a passion for my work ensuring that our school leaders and teachers have the confidence and competence required to enable all students to achieve their full potential.

The work of a school leader is complex. The challenge is how to remain focused on the right work, how to coach each and every staff member to in turn enable each and every student to remain engaged and progress both academically and socially to reach their full potential.

However, in amongst all of this, Principals and teachers need to try to find some sense of balance and retain their resilience. Now, more than ever, they need to ensure that they remain connected with colleagues and their ‘teams’, and make time for themselves and their families.

Your Brief History Of Time...

Q: Can you give us a snapshot of your life journey in becoming a school leader?

A: I didn’t particularly enjoy primary school, which started with having to enter three Year 1 classrooms in three different towns in one year. Because of my early disenchantment with schooling, I vowed that I would become a teacher and that every child in my class would love school, love learning and feel loved. In fact, at age nine, I conducted my very first lessons for the neighbourhood children in the backyard, using a real blackboard made especially for me by a beloved uncle.

After Year 12, I completed a Diploma of Teaching at what was then called the Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education. At this time, it was a requirement that you had undertaken a year of teaching prior to commencing your degree. So during my second and third year of teaching, I studied for my degree, completing four hours of lectures two nights a week. 

Following the birth of a son in 1986 and a daughter in 1990, I returned to teaching and eventually applied for and won a part-time Deputy Principal role at my school. A short time after, I secured the position of full time Deputy at a larger nearby local school. 

During my years as a Deputy, I was seconded to the local District Office as the Performance Measurement Officer, after which I took on a number of Acting Principal roles in Band 8, 9 and 10 schools. Following this period, I was once again seconded to District Office, this time as Principal Advisor, Education Services.

Upon returning to my base school, I applied for and won the Principal role. The school grew by 200 students during the next two years, taking it to over 930 students and into the Band 10 realm. 

I have since moved from the Band 10 Principal role to Assistant Regional DirectorDuring my time in this role, I have also acted as Regional Director for the Central Queensland Region.

Leadership Life Lessons...

Q: What were some of your key early career leadership learnings and experiences?

A: As a Deputy Principal in the early days, I believed my role was to ‘fix’ every issue that came across my desk. It took quite a while for me to learn that I was ‘taking away the learning’ of others. If you keep fixing or solving things for others, the learning opportunity is diminished or missed altogether. Better to ‘coach’ towards a solution. 

In later roles, I also learned that most issues can be divided into two categories - that is, fix or manage. Once this is understood, we can expend our time and energy efficiently to work towards a reasonable rather than perfect outcome.

On a separate issue… for many years, and with the assistance of highly respected colleagues, I led the district induction program for all new teachers to the area. I always believed that it was important for these young teachers to understand that it is their rhetoric that can make or break their school’s reputation and that of our education system. If we speak positively about our school/department, then the community perception usually aligns. Of course, the opposite also applies. The message was to be proud of who we are and who we represent and to ensure that we promote and enact that both inside and outside the school gate. Be and act like a professional and you will most likely be treated as one.

On Being An Effective Principal…

Q: What were some of your key leadership learnings as Principal in building high performance schools?

A: Firstly it is vital to understand the School Culture across the layers of students, staff and community. My staff would say my forte is relationships. I prided myself on knowing the names of every student (not easy in a very large school!), and, in the majority of cases, their families and personal interests. I am always genuinely interested in children as little people and enjoy really getting to know them on a personal basis and making them feel special. The same goes for staff and the school community. Everyone feels valued, everyone matters. I believe it is important to model and enact the values of the school at every opportunity.

Within that frame, it is also very important to be able to both support and challenge people in an effective manner. Leaders need to have an expectation that teachers/staff know each and every student as individuals both academically and socially. They should be able to readily discuss student progression and any concerns or celebrations relevant to the child’s personal life. 

Case Management is another important key to success. A good example of this is where school leaders ‘adopt’ students with less than 85% attendance. This means knowing who they are as individuals, why they are not attending, checking in on them in a positive way when they are at school, setting targets, monitoring, tracking and reporting back to the remainder of the leadership team. There must be a plan and there must be accountability. However, it’s the relationship and the valuing/caring that makes the difference.

Having a child-centred responsive pedagogy is very important if we are to fulfil the mandate of ‘Every Student Succeeding’. Enabling teachers to form professional learning communities (where teachers share evidence of their impact on learners), with leadership members as professional guides/coaches, ensures that discussions and actions are child centred. Teachers need to know each student’s current skill set, their ‘learning zone’, the next set of skills they need and the appropriate pedagogical response to enable progression towards the desired outcomes. An added bonus is if students enjoy the experience and understand ‘why’ they are learning particular skills.

Data is important! For school leaders, it’s also important to know individual, class, cohort and school data. This is about knowing what data is important to determine the ‘next most important steps’/responsive actions, for each of these layers. Succinct analysis of the right data enables us to do the right work. 

School leadership teams need to be aware of, and accountable for, their roles and responsibilities. However, the key to ensuring success is for each member of the team to be acutely aware of where their accountability lies. In Hattie’s words, ‘Know thy impact.’ As leaders we are accountable for building teacher capability and student progression. We need to have measures - for example, dashboards - in place to regularly assess both our individual and team success in these areas, high expectations being inherent. We must continually ask ourselves, ‘How do you know you are impacting and what’s the evidence in support?’ - that is the ‘so what’ question, to keep us focused on progression at all levels - leaders, staff and students.

Finally I think we need to adopt a differentiated approach to capability building in our staff. We need to have ways for staff to self-identify their needs. As leaders, we need to work with them as individuals to identify what already exists in their toolkit, what they need, and sometimes, what’s holding them back. From here, we identify what they can do to progress their own learning and what they need from us and how best to deliver accordingly. It’s not the ‘sheep dip’ approach that brings success. We must match our expectations with the level of support required to enable each and every one to be successful. 

On Mentoring New School Leaders…

Q: Given your extensive experience in managing and developing school leaders what are some of the most effective strategies you use?

A: I use a combination of Leadership Forums, Skip Level Meetings in Schools & Australian Curriculum (AC) Bootcamps

Leadership Forums

Leadership Forums: We use Band 7-10 forums as a means to deliver key messages around topics such as the Australian Curriculum, Data and Pedagogical Responses, Strategic Plans and Leadership. Specialists in all areas are usually on hand to add their expertise. 

The forum is immediately followed up with one and a half hour visits to each school over the next few weeks to enable more focused discussions in individual contexts. The Small Schools Capability Coach attends the initial forums and consequently takes the key messages to the small school cluster groups and works with them in their context.

Skip Level Meetings

Skip Level Meetings: These are entirely voluntary and offered as a supportive strategy. Usually conducted in term 2, this process involves firstly meeting with the Principal to determine what they believe I will see and hear with regard to the implementation of the improvement agenda whilst meeting with students and staff later in the day. This is also an opportunity for the Principal to identify any burning questions he/she may have that I can further explore with staff and students. Principals see this process as an efficient way to obtain a ‘good read’ of the level of embededness.

I then spend a number of hours talking to individual students, teachers, HOSES (Head of Special Education Services), HOCs (Head of Curriculum), DPs (Deputy Principals), Coaches etc to ascertain if the messaging is consistent and easily understood and if the expected processes and strategies are being enacted. The day ends with a second meeting with the Principal to provide feedback (not from an individual perspective), unpack any issues, determine the next most important steps and to make a plan together going forward.

Two weeks prior to the visit, I send out the proposed timetable and protocols as well as the exact questions I will be asking. The Principal can then make any adjustments required and staff and students are free to opt in or out of the process, as is the Principal.

A written report is compiled for the Principal which includes key feedback, the actions we have agreed upon and offers of support from either myself or the State Schooling team.

AC Bootcamps

AC Bootcamps: These are designed collaboratively with the Principal and Principal Education Advisor (PEA-AC) in order to meet the needs of individual schools. This generally consists of a pre visit meeting/teleconference to establish the success criteria for each stakeholder. 

The boot camp itself is designed to not only assist the school team to develop a planning process/model but to also build the capability of the leadership team and/or cohort leaders. Essentially, we are advocating the Gradual Release Model.

The process sees entire cohorts and their support staff released for a half day. There is also a member of the leadership team in attendance. The teams are then guided and coached by the PEA-AC to unpack and plan a unit.

The final stage is for the ARD to working collaboratively with the PEA-AC and Principal to plan the next steps for the school. This often involves the PEA-AC observing and providing feedback to a school leader/cohort leader running a similar planning session as previously modelled by the PEA-AC.

Your Proudest Moments…

Q: What have been some of your proudest moments and greatest passions as a school leader?

A: My greatest passions have always been teaching and children and my proudest moments are always linked to these passions.  I continue to take enormous pleasure and pride on witnessing the excitement when a student, teacher, staff member or school leader succeeds on any level. 

I am most proud though, when I see a little life transformed because someone cared enough to notice, cared enough to do ‘whatever it takes’, and persisted long enough to enable that young person to take their rightful place in society. We are indeed a privileged profession to be afforded this opportunity. On a personal note, receiving an Australia Day medal for my contributions to teaching and learning would also have to be a highlight.

Into The Future: Sliding Doors....

Q: Fast-forward 20 years from know – what will the school leaders of today have done to create a successful future?

A: Twenty years from now we will have a thriving and successful society because the children we are teaching now have grown up to become resilient, respectful, and adaptable problem solvers.

The school leaders of today, were able to do this by balancing the tension between teaching (and testing) skills for academic achievement with teaching skills for life – the most important of which is giving students a love of life long learning!

Thank you Kay Kirkman!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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