• Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

High Performance Schools Have Explicit & Consistent Cultures: Leadership Shares with PhillipCarleton


“The good-to-great organisations built a consistent system with clear constraints, but they also gave people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system.” Jim Collins


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

Phillip Carleton is the Principal of Gaven State School - a large primary school in south east Queensland, Australia, as well as a passionate supporter of several school leadership networks and industry associations. Phillip is deeply committed to his work in primary education – in particular the development of systems and supports needed to enable a school culture where staff can deliver teaching and learning opportunities that maximise each and every student’s success.Phillip has a deep appreciation of the value of developing a healthy feedback culture in schools through the use of both emotionally intelligent leadership skills AND explicit and consistent systems and processes to support culture and communication.

Phillip is a graduate of the High Performance Schools Program with an exemplary system of explicit and consistent protocols and frameworks that ensure the school Values (Be Safe, Be Proud, Be Respectful and Be a Learner) and Core Purpose (“To make a positive difference for each and every child, each and every day”) live and breath in every conversation and every meeting….


What Keeps You Up At Night?

“After a victory tighten the strings of your helmet...” Ancient Chinese Philosophy

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: Education is an exciting place to work in. We have achieved so much over recent years in deepening the focus on student learning and differentiation. The rising visibility on the importance of wellbeing being integrated into the learning process is another valuable change occurring across the education sector. In many ways we are at the summit of a number of long journeys of school improvement and reform – however, when we look to the near future and radical changes impacting society, we cannot afford to relax but urgently need to prepare for a tidal wave of social and economic change that has already begun.


School leaders today are facing some serious challenges around curriculum, differentiation and staff shortages against the back drop of automation and technology phasing out 5 million jobs in Australia in the next 10-15 years and household debt levels and family breakdowns at record levels.

Advances in technology will lead to 40% of all Australian jobs being redundant in the next 10-15 years.” CEDA, 2015

The financial pressure on many families is unbelievable and family breakdown creates a very complex scenario for educators when children move through multiple schools during their childhood. This limits the ability to deliver truly differentiated learning support amidst constant change.


The changing world is also creating some uncertainty among parents about their children’s longer-term career pathways and a desire to widen the learning opportunities beyond a core focus on literacy and numeracy to embrace other subject areas where schools must expand their curriculum delivery capability.


These twin demands of (1) diversifying learning opportunities to a much wider range of subjects and interest areas and (2) providing a deep and differentiated learning environment for transient students coping with family breakdowns present an enormous challenge for local school leaders who have to solve these problems whilst facing a crisis of teacher shortages as demand far outweighs supply.


As the number of experienced teachers decreases due to career change or retirement the pressure on less experienced teachers increases and the natural consequences of larger classrooms, complex behaviour management problems and diversification of subjects requiring expertise, heightens the risk of stress and burnout.

"...a looming teacher and principal shortage in Queensland and nationally from 2018 will see the demand for teachers fall short of the supply. This will bring its own set of problems..." (Griffith News 20-8-15)

To thrive amidst these emerging challenges, all schools need to develop both a ‘sharp and narrow’ strategy AND an ‘explicit and consistent’ culture. A sharp and narrow improvement strategy is essential to maximise the value of change initiatives by limiting the scale of change so depth and focus is maintained. An explicit and consistent school culture is essential so every staff member and every student can rapidly ‘fit in’ together and focus 100% on teaching and learning rather than worrying about personality clashes and politics.


Your Brief History Of Time....


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

A: I began classroom teaching in 1984 at Petrie State School in the Pine Rivers Shire after completing a Diploma of Teaching at Brisbane College of Advanced Education at Kelvin Grove. My wife was also studying at this time and after she graduated we moved to rural Queensland where we taught in the same schools for a number of years. Initially I worked for 2 years at Julia Creek State School. I was offered a small school principal role at this time but in hindsight was glad I turned it down as I still had so much to learn as a teacher.


I spent 3 years at Inglewood State School where I worked for a fantastic Principal, Terry Ball, who provided me with fantastic structure and systems to fast-track curriculum delivery and also provided deep and insightful feedback to help me grow and develop. In hindsight this was a critical moment in refining my own approach to leadership, which I began to develop in my next role of Deputy Principal at Biloela State School where I spent a further 3¼ years from 1990-93.


I loved the work as a school leader – balancing the administrative and people management aspects with an ongoing connection to the classroom and students and I started a Masters Degree in Education Administration and began applying for Principal roles. In Easter 1993 I was appointed Principal of Barkly Highway State School where I began developing and implementing community consultation strategies, systems and processes with teachers and parents to strengthen collaboration and satisfaction among staff and parents which paved the way for improvements in school culture and student outcomes. I have been refining and developing these ideas further in subsequent roles as Principal of Bribie Island State School (4 years, 1997-2000) and then moving to the Gold Coast to be the Principal of Musgrave Hill State School for 8 years before my current role as Principal of Gaven State School in 2009. In March 2015, I undertook the High Performing Teams Program and in June 2015 our leadership team completed the High Performance Schools program, which was a great opportunity to refine and expand the positive systems and protocols that underpin effective school culture.


Advice To My Younger Self...

Q: What advice would you give your younger self about school leadership?

1. DON'T GO TOO HIGH TOO FAST – Too many teachers get on the promotion train too quickly and end up burning out in senior leadership roles in schools because they have not developed a deep understanding of the roles and demands of the teachers they lead nor the complexities and challenges of management and leadership. Emerging leaders need to be protected from themselves and somehow prevented from over-stretching themselves into promotional opportunities for which they are not ready.


2. LET IT ROLL OFF YOUR SHOULDERS – This advice from a previous supervisor has been invaluable in not taking matters too much to heart and worrying overly about situations that arise and not taking the problem home with you. At school we need to be like the duck on the pond – always appearing calm to your staff no matter how fast your feet are paddling underneath. This calmness is essential for staff to also feel calm and able to collaborate and innovate effectively rather than get caught up in the many daily crises that are part of a school leader’s job.

“You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.” Harry S. Truman

3. BOSS VS LEADER: THE VALUE OF GENUINE COLLABORATION – the school we become a Principal of is not ‘our’ school – never say to others … at ‘my’ school... We are custodians and managers of schools – we do not own them. They are owned by the students, staff and community – we cannot afford to behave like a boss – a dictator simply telling people what to do. As Principals we must be facilitators shaping the experiences of staff and students in line with our culture and improvement plans.

“God gave us two ears and one mouth.” Irish Proverb

We need to be gatekeepers with stakeholders and our community making sure any new initiatives and changes occur in a healthy and positive manner. We need to listen more than we talk and hear the worries, concerns, successes, hopes and opportunities our staff speak of – for in this discourse lies the seeds of improvement and change we can then leverage as leaders.


High Performance Schools: Explicit & Consistent School Culture


Q: Phillip, you have some of the best systems and processes I have seen to build school culture which reflects the school’s values and mission. What have been the benefits of clear structures and strategies on school culture? Has it been a difficult journey and is it really worth the effort?

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Peter Drucker

A: It is definitely worth the effort with a stronger performance culture, higher morale and higher staff satisfaction and most importantly continuously improving student outcomes. However, those early days of trying to get the systems established and clarify roles and responsibilities was initially pretty hard going amidst all the ‘business as usual’ demands we also had to juggle – but these days the cycle of review and improvement is much easier as it is simply our way of life or ‘the way we do things around here’…

Whilst it seemed relatively straightforward at the time, sitting down as a leadership team to review and clarify our collective and individual roles and responsibilities revealed a number of challenges and changes that were needed. Whilst we thought this was a ‘one-off’ exercise we now deep dive (rigorously review) these roles at the start of every year (and anytime staff changes occur at the leadership team level) to ensure we are up-to-date and clear on our roles and responsibilities and ensure any new initiatives or changes at the school are managed effectively and clearly through the leadership teams map of roles and responsibilities.








Team and staff meetings have also been an area where improved structures and processes have yielded tremendous benefit.


By having fixed agendas which also encourage flexibility to share and discuss items and including wellbeing topics and sharing the chairing and leadership of meetings among staff we have greatly improved morale in the meetings as well as strengthen the levels of information flow and cooperation.


Parent and community consultation is also another area that had benefitted from improved processes and protocols. Our school and community meeting process with parents uses a highly engaging framework for parents to co-create the foundations of our core values and purpose to drive school culture with our staff and leadership also participating. This ensures everyone is aligned and on message about our values and behaviours.


Teacher development and feedback has also gone ahead in leaps and bounds as we have improved the structures and processes with a much wider group of coaches and facilitators providing consistent support and feedback across the school.


Staff cultural induction is done both annually and upon commencement of role. We have a highly interactive program of induction to ensure the school’s vision and values are workshopped interactively with all staff in order to fast-track alignment and consistency across the school.


Q: Some people look at systems and processes as rigid and boring – stopping innovation – how are have they been beneficial and what risks and downsides have you seen?

“The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency. The signature of greatness is a disciplined and consistent focus on the right things.” Jim Collins

A: Look, there’s no doubt that effective systems and processes lie at the heart of any successful enterprise – be it a business, a hospital or a school because without the structures and processes which facilitate turning the organisation’s mission and values into daily habits and routines among the staff, a leader will, themselves, be the system – putting a terrible burden on their own shoulders and massively increasing the risk of burnout and tall poppy syndrome when they make a mistake or have a bad day.


However all systems and structures have their own limitations and ‘use-by dates’ and a system which is not flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances is sometimes worse than having no system at all. The trick is to build flexible and adaptable structures and processes to enable values driven behaviour in teams – knowing when the behavioural outputs have reached maximum improvement and then modifying the structures to enable further gains to occur.

“Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.” William Dudley

A great example of these challenges can be found in the evolution of teaching team meetings that are now common practice in Australian schools. When the idea of teaching teams first began to be introduced into schools, open-ended flexible meetings were held to encourage teachers to share their successes and challenges. However the lack of structure or focus inevitably led to the extraverts talking a lot and introverts remaining silent and a lot of agreement around problems with very little solution-focused feedback and discussion.

“The effectiveness of inquiry cycles ultimately depends on the teaching teams underlying culture and attitude towards sharing and learning.” Dr David Turner

To improve the effectiveness of teaching teams, many schools introduced a protocol of sharing ‘problems of practice’ – yet this was often too big of a jump for many teaching teams who were still not comfortable with such intensive feedback processes. Thus, many schools had to take a step back and begin with sharing lesson planning approaches and build trust towards problems of practice and change strategies once this initial protocol had reached maximum benefit. However, even strategies such as ‘problems of practice’ run the risk of becoming so student focused that an accidental blind spot to a teacher’s professional learning and growth in classroom skills could occur. Thus schools need to develop complimentary protocols to extend teacher development once the benefits of the ‘problems of practice’ approach have reached a plateau. 

The key point here is that structures and processes are essential for effective teams and wider school cultures however leaders must take the time to ensure they are implemented effectively (and flexibly) as well as know when to make adjustments to maximise continuous leanings and growth (and minimise the negative effects of complacency through over-familiarity and rigidity).


Q: What advice would you give leaders who feel like they don't have time to address school culture or simply don't know where to begin?

“There are people that will say, “We don’t have time for school climate because we have so much on our plate” and my philosophy is school climate is actually the plate that everything else has to go on.” Peter De Witt

A: It is sad to say it, but many school leaders still see school culture and the systems and processes to enable it as a non-critical, luxury item to address once everything else is going well, which is akin to putting the cart before the horse. Culture eats strategy for breakfast and the failure to invest the time and energy into school culture manifests in ongoing operational challenges caused by lower motivation, confusion and mixed messages among staff.


However all great systems and processes that leverage mission statements and values into living words and actions take time to develop and implement and I strongly recommend school leaders learning and developing within their own leadership teams before rolling out strategies on the wider school. In the case of the High Performance Teams Program – we needed a good 3-6 months of dedicated time as a leadership team developing our frameworks and processes and understanding the boundaries of flexibility in these systems (without compromising the underlying benefits of consistency) before we were ready to begin the conversation and gradual implementation into the wider school culture.


So simply begin with a conversation in the leadership team and start small – perhaps reading and discussing the High Performance Teams book and then trailing the HPT meeting protocols, clearly defining the roles of your team, exploring team dynamics through thinking and communication preferences or completing a vision and action plan review exercise – before digging deeper into the wider team systems and processes that are available.


As everyone in the leadership team becomes more confident and sees the benefit, the wider rollout flows much easier. Also remember the ‘family, village, tribe, nation’ idea – in that you don't have to change the whole of school culture all at once but rather keep gradually introducing your new strategies and processes team by team (i.e., family x family) until it encompasses the entire school workforce (ie., nation).


Sliding doors – Into The Future....


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

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Alvin Toffle

A: We will be successful 20 years from now if we:

(1)  Broaden the base of curriculum offered without compromising the core literacy and numeracy focus so as to prepare students with the widest possible range of skills and interests for the unknown jobs of the future; and

(2)  Hardwire wellbeing and mental health into classroom activities so every child is able to maximise their learning because they are provided with the tools and strategies to maximise their wellbeing on a daily basis.


Thank-you Phillip Carleton!


Dr Pete Stebbins PhD


Contact Dr Pete

3/1 John St Bilinga, QLD, 4225 Australia

drpetestebbins@gmail.com

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