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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

High Performance Schools: Leadership Shares with Foundation Principal Sharon Barker

“Reflect – Teach – Learn – the best teachers reflect on what they have done and then learn from it.” Sharon Barker

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

Sharon Barker is the Foundation Principal of Highfields State Secondary College and has conquered the ‘Mt Everest’ of school culture challenges – building a High Performance School from start-up AND maintaining an ongoing focus on the core values as the school underwent rapid expansion from small to medium to large – all in a matter of a few short years!

 Sharon is first and foremost a deeply committed teacher and advocate of student support and community development. Her leadership journey across urban, regional and rural schools has given her unique insights into the needs of students, staff and parents which grounds her very practical and caring approach to school leadership. I have been privileged to have worked with Sharon on several different occasions and each time I was impressed by her energy, enthusiasm, courage and passion for building a school culture which not only maximised student outcomes but also prioritised effective team work and staff wellbeing...

What keeps you up at night?

“Of all the hard jobs around, one of the hardest is being a good teacher.” Maggie Gallagher

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: I think the education environment is getting more and more challenging. Parents are far more protective about their children and more assertive about what they want for them. We need to let kids fail and make mistakes – this is how they start their learning journey. We need to balance our responsibilities for ensuring students are maximising their learning without denying them the longer-term benefits of personal growth and practical wisdom that comes from making mistakes and taking responsibility for their lives – this is particularly important when they transition through puberty. As educators we face a very big job which can be extraordinarily challenging at times. 

Over the last 10 years I have seen teachers increasingly bearing the burden of wider social needs – especially in regional and rural communities. When I worked in regional and rural Queensland schools I saw firsthand the community shifting away from seeking help from churches and religious institutions to seeking help from schools and the impossibly difficult situations people were sharing and seeking advice on. School leaders in these circumstances have to manage ongoing challenges with community expectations and fallout from our obligations to support each and every child in the local community – many of whom had behaviour problems and/or seek refuge at the school from troubled family situations.

Whilst the severity of challenges in our local community are nowhere near as challenging, none the less our school is very focused on proactively addressing several important issues. I am prioritizing workon community projects such as the “Heart of Highfields Community Common” which will create places where our children can ‘hangout’ aside from fast-food venues and roaming the streets.We need to become much more proactive in creating spaces for young people to interact.

There is also an ongoing challenge about finding the balance between kids achieving well on assessments to gain entry into further study, versus the more complex and ambiguous problem solving challenges and life skills needed to build meaningful careers in an uncertain future world of work.

Junior secondary student care planning is also an ongoing concern where we continue to put enormous effort into giving children transitioning from primary to secondary school a simpler experience with greater teacher continuity as they adjust into the high school culture and loss of a single regular teacher whilst simultaneously entering into puberty and adolescence. 

Leadership Life Lessons....

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. John F Kennedy

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

A: I always played “teacher” as a kid and wanted to be an actor. After high school I went to Griffith University to do a Bachelor of Arts and found I loved media. After completing a practicum placement and team teaching with another student at McGregor State High, I found I loved being in the classroom. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Media) and Graduate Diploma of Education in 1988 and was appointed to Centenary Highs State High School teaching film and television where I worked for 5 years. 

In 1995 I was appointed as a Darling Downs Key Learning Area Regional Co-ordinator (KLARC) - Arts focus – and travelled to schools across the region to support them developing their arts curriculum. In mid-1996, I was appointed as the Arts Head of Department at Harristown State High School and in 1998 was appointed Acting Deputy Principal, and was then in this substantive position from 1999 to 2009. 

In between, I completed a three month Acting Principal role at Stanthorpe State High School (which I also attended as a student). Then, in 2009 I was asked to take a two week temporary Principal role at Tara Shire State College. Tara is a very small community of only 1000 people with a range of challenges that arose afterthe 1970s land giveaway. A community of tree changers moved to Tara but found that the soil was unviable with no power, no water and no sewage on their blocks of land.

Even in 2009, many families at the school were still on unpowered land with no sewage and were living in extreme poverty. The community suffered with domestic violence and child protection concerns, with many children not known to the Department of Communities or census. When I first started at Tara there was severely low morale among staff, a negative leadership legacy and significant behaviour management issues. 

I was really confronted by the extent of the problems in the community and agreed to stay for extended periods on several occasions over an 18-month period. In 2011, the school was scheduled to become a National Partnership School which brought with it increased resources. I made a long-term commitment to the role of Principal and for the next few years worked with a fantastic team to turn the school around to be much more sustainable for both staff and students. 

Tara laid the foundations for some of my key learnings of how I wanted to be a Principal. I learnt a lot about managing staff, saying no to unsuitable appointments despite staff shortages, calling people on behaviour and having difficult conversations, managing parents and students and collaborating with multiple stakeholders. I also learned the hard way that it is better to have to juggle a shortage of teachers than to appoint teachers who did not have a passion for teaching and empathy for the challenges the students were facing. 

However, despite the challenges throughout these incredibly difficult years, I was fortunate to be a part of a long serving group of high performance teachers who cherished our school values and vision for building a high performance culture. Many of the current popular ideas such as data walls and differentiation strategies were simply essential survival tools to bring out the best in our students at the time.

Having worked in the Darling Downs for many years I heard there was opportunity to lead a foundation school in Highfields – a challenge I was really interested in and in 2014 I applied and was appointed as the Foundation Principal of Highfields State Secondary College.

High Performance Schools....

Q: When it comes to building a school culture from the ground up, what were some of the challenges and opportunities you faced?

A: Opening Highfields in early 2015 was an enormous logistical challenge which I reveled in. I loved the complex array of project management, infrastructure, community consultations and human resources – but most of all the opportunity to build a school culture from scratch.

Looking back, I realise now that it’s easier to ‘edit’ a culture than to ‘create’ it from scratch – but creating it has been far more worthwhile! I also reflect on the importance of collaboratively developing the HSSC pedagogy, good practice and curriculum in the early stages of the school foundations. But one thing I would have done differently was to start with a baseline of policies and then reviewed and edited these over time, rather than working collaboratively to build up these processes from scratch.

I made it an early priority to collaborate with parents, students and staff to establish clear school values and ‘kindness’ was one of five values we chose to be a significant part of the culture of the school. In fact, we acknowledge students who demonstrate these values every week through “Values Certificates” 

Staffing ramped up quickly as well. In 2014 we had 5 staff preparing for the opening and in 2015 we opened with a total of 32 staff. I prioritised team development from the very beginning. This meant that we had developed our High Performance Team Protocols BEFORE we started working together so that we could commence on the right foot with no negative backstory or history to contend with. In the second year, I didn’t put as much energy into the induction which caused some concern during the year so I subsequently upgraded the importance of induction and have continued to make this an essential part of the school’s annual cycle of activity. This explicit and consistent focus on school values leads to a lot of positive infusion of values into teacher conversations, lesson plans and student conversations in everyday life.

In 2017, we now have 82 staff teaching from Grade 7 to 10 with 680 students. By 2019 we will have our first year 12 graduates and are predicting 1000 students and 110 teaching staff.

This year we also began the process of re-examining our communication processes to cope with a much larger parent, student and staff community. We went from one staff room to three, so informal drop-ins and chats become more difficult with staff needing to make appointments with each other. We quickly had to upgrade our communication processes, so we introduced a weekly communique and updating tool which all leaders can input into and weekly short stand-up meetings to talk with staff about updates noted on the communique and have an opportunity for staff to engage in a wider Q&A session and Hot Issues discussions. 

We also do “good fish / bad fish” (based on Stephen Lundin’s “Fish Philosophy”) and “tweet” of the week with associated prizes and certificates. This has been a brilliant, time saving, low cost strategy to keep everyone up to date and accountable. People can also easily stay up to date with areas of the school they do not regularly work in and engage in the wider whole of school conversation. You know it is working well when people grumble about being told too much versus grumbling about being left out! Faculty meetings have also benefitted from a more structured approach to communication particular the use of “hot issues” discussions to ensure everyone has a voice. 

I believe it is vital to link everyone in the school back to our core values and ensuring that we have the right people in the right seats. I also strongly believe that the leadership team set the tone and carry the message for the school. 

We continue to conduct regular learning walk-throughs and ask kid the 5 visible learning questions about what they are learning (1. What did you learn about? 2. How did you go? 3. How do you know how well you did? 4. How can you further improve? 5. Where can you go for help?) This forms a thematic representation of all the classes and we then discuss this as a leadership team. We also conduct student meetings with those that are trending down in two or more subjects and try to espouse a whole child environment where we talk to the students and ensure we know something about each of them. 

We also make sure we prioritise professional learning, and as part of the Developing Performance Plan, staff can nominate any HOD, not just their direct line manager, to assist them in their learning and development goals. We also conduct 4 observations across the year including a pre-observation conversation, areas of focus, three positives and a polisher. Each one is conducted by the Principal, a Deputy, their HOD and one other HOD. Every teacher also has an interview with their Deputy or myself each term to discuss their professional highlight, best lesson this term, what they would like to improve on in their pedagogy, what they think we should improve at the school, anything else they want to improve and their one word barometer. 

Advice To Your Younger Self...

Q: What advice would you give your younger self about school leadership (and also share with up and coming school leaders today)

A: I live by several key quotes that help me continue to build strong leadership teams and grow my own leadership…

  • “It’ll be alright in the end – so if it’s not alright – it’s not the end.”

  • “You don’t have to be in such a hurry.” – you’ll get there when you’re ready and rushing creates its own problems

  • “Leaders need credibility and credibility comes from experience and experience takes time.

  • “Experience is priceless when leading other teachers.”

  • “Failure first so then you know what success really is” – many people avoid experiencing failure which denies them the opportunity to grow and truly embrace success.

  • “Bad days are normal and not to be discouraged. They need to be embraced in order to grow.” Sometimes you have to make the ‘captains call’ and necessary adjustments. 

  • "If you’re not learning, you’re not growing”

  • And lastly, two things: (1) "You don’t have to know everything" and (2) "You don’t have to make an instant decision". Looking back, the snap decisions I made were a sign of inexperience and anxiety and I now take my time and seek advice as is needed to make the best the decisions for longer term performance and outcomes.

Thank you Sharon Barker!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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