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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

High Performance Schools & The Power of Feedback: Leadership Shares with Roselynne Anderson

All school leaders need to prioritise the use of simple, effective systems of feedback to maximise both teacher development and peer support. Roselynne Anderson

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

Recently we were privileged to have an in-depth discussion on the importance of peer feedback in driving school improvement with Roselynne Anderson, President of the Queensland Association of Special Education Leaders (QASEL). Roselynne is a true exemplar of an education leader who strives for excellence and building High Performance Schools.

Roselynne has over four and a half decades of invaluable experience in the education sector with skills and experience that extends across the full range of classroom teaching, school leadership, education administration and policy arenas. However, like many wise education leaders, her most powerful reflections extend beyond policy directions and strategic planning into the heart and soul of daily school life and the feedback conversations that shape a school’s culture and the subsequent outcomes for students…

What Keeps You Up 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?

“Leadership is deliberate - you don't accidentally have successful teams." Frank Kearney

A: Throughout my career I have seen society, parents, and sometimes even teachers loose sight of what we truly owe to our students. We owe it to them to expect more of them – to expect that they can do better tomorrow than they are doing today. When our students reach benchmark results, it can be easy to become complacent, satisfied that they are doing well enough, but if we do this we are selling them short. I know this because I’ve seen time and time again that if we increase the level of challenge, our students will rise to meet and surpass it regardless of economic background, where they live, or disability.

To me, the idea of a high performance school is fundamental because the true role of teachers is to keep raising the bar. And, if we expect this of our students we should expect no less of ourselves. 

I’m pleased to say that right now the education sector is taking steps in the right direction. Compared to the past, I’m confident to say that very few, if any, autocratic school leaders would survive in today’s schools, especially those demonstrating highly effective inclusive practices. I think that this is because of the realisation that for a school to be able to support students to their fullest, we need schools with a healthy school staff culture where teachers collaborate. We are now seeing the outstanding results that can be achieved by collaborative teaching teams use systems of feedback that (1) promote teacher wellbeing, (2) increase professional knowledge and (3) refine and improve classroom teaching skills.

The widespread use of teaching teams in schools represents a significant shift because for a long time teachers were left alone in their classrooms, with little expectation or encouragement that they should work together. Our professional identity was that of the expert - needing to know all the answers. As a result, we haven’t always acknowledged out loud that “there is still more that we need to know”. We know now that the best teachers are also the best learners, as they model the way in striving to meet their full potential by collaboration with and learning from and together with their peers.

Your Brief History of Time...

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

A: I grew up in New Zealand , born in Christchurch and grew up in a smaller city Invercargill. When I started my journey to becoming a teacher I was the first member of my family to undertake and complete a University degree. Like most entering the teaching profession, I wanted to make a difference in the lives of my students. My commitment to making a difference was solidified while working in my first teaching role where I taught two students with hearing impairment. In those days, less was known about supporting students with disability so I decided I would specialise to bridge the gap in my professional learning

Following further study in disability support I put my feelers out for roles that would allow me to contribute the most and make best use of my skills. For me this was an important lesson in self-leadership and a case of “if you don’t ask you’ll never know” because soon after I was asked to create and work in the new role of Resource Teacher for the Deaf. This lesson held true when I moved to Australia, fortunately securing a position in an SEU in Toowoomba with only a telephone interview before leaving New Zealand!

In 1988 our family moved to Brisbane where I was an Advisory Visiting Teacher of the Deaf/multiple impairments/intellectual impairment. Subsequently, over the years, I had the opportunity to act in several leadership roles, small school Principal, Teacher In Charge of an SEU, Curriculum/Policy (students with disability) Consultant Central Office, Industrial Officer at the QTU and Deputy Principal primary and special roles before securing a permanent Principal role in a Special School.

Looking back now I’d say that my leadership journey has been driven by my belief that I have something positive to contribute. Because of this I have always felt a responsibility to put my hand up and take on roles where I can make the most difference. Currently, I’m in my third year as State President of QASEL, and while I’m proud of all that we have accomplished as an Association to advance the agenda for all students with disability, I know that there is still much more that needs to be done. My leadership journey will continue...

Leadership Life Lessons...

Q: What were some of your key leadership learnings and experiences around feedback in schools?

“To teach is to learn twice over.” Joseph Joubert

A: For me one of the lessons that I hold dearest arrived early on. I was at my first school, as an early primary years teacher, and like all new teachers I was still finding my feet and feeling slightly unsure in my ability as a teacher. It had been several months and I had not had any feedback from my senior colleagues. One-day mid-lesson the Principal arrived and stood sternly in the doorway and proceeded to observe my lesson. As the door was at the front of the classroom the students could see him standing silently and became unsettled – acting as nervously as I was feeling on the inside. Soon after, he said “good job” and turned and walked off.

Following the lesson, I reflected on the situation and why it had made me, and my class, so uncomfortable. Two things stood out for me. Firstly, the incredible power of body language, including the lack of acknowledgment to the class at the outset of the interaction. Secondly, I could count on one hand the number of times I had spoken with the Principal prior to this interaction – we simply hadn’t built up a strong collegial relationship yet.

Although I believe that leadership doesn’t depend on title, I was certain that I would one day become an ‘official’ school leader. I also knew that when that happened I didn’t want to be seen the same way that I saw my Principal that day.

I realised that leadership and providing feedback was a specific skill set and that I needed to develop my skill set through self-reflective practice and seeking out professional learning courses and opportunities.

I also recognised the need as a potential leader to build strong relationships first and foremost. If I didn’t have a relationship with the people I would lead and provide feedback to, there would be no chance that they would feel that they could trust me as a leader.

For me building strong relationships is knowing that those around me can expect consistency in how I behave. It happens one conversation at a time and through listening, not interrupting or giving advice and it happens through consultation. It’s very empowering when you create a space of trust to allow teachers to engage in honest reflection on their practice – the light bulb just goes on!

Overcoming Barriers To Effective Feedback...

Q: What are some of the barriers to effective peer feedback in schools?

A: For a long time teachers have been operating in an environment that views them as experts needing to know all of the answers. Because of this, many within the profession haven’t always acknowledged out loud that “there is still more that I need to know”. Thankfully this is changing.

I’m especially encouraged with the number of schools that I interact with now which have formed teaching teams and are utilising structures such as Professional Learning Communities as I see this as an extremely effective approach to furthering teacher education and skill development.

If we isolate teachers away in their classrooms as in times past, we will never have high performance schools. As school leaders, we need to encourage formal and informal teacher interaction as much as possible to facilitate the sharing of knowledge between teachers. The best teachers are also the best learners and responsiveness to feedback is a key indicator of their success.

The best teachers are also the best learners and responsiveness to feedback is a key indicator of their success. Roselynne Anderson

Q: How can School Leaders increase their effectiveness in providing feedback to staff?

A: I think the most important thing a leader can do in the feedback process is to continually check in to see that everyone in the feedback conversation has the same understanding of the conversation. Unfortunately, just like in the classroom when teaching, we can sometimes assume that others understand the same way that we do – without consciously checking in and asking the person you are conversing with to explain back in their own words, you can walk away with very different interpretations of what was said and what it means.

Also school leaders need to utilise the full spectrum of feedback tools available – we have a range of fantastic feedback tools and processes in schools. Individual 360 assessments, live observations, peer and professionally led coaching programs, performance appraisal and development planning tools, professional development programs, team and partner teaching strategies to name a few. All school leaders need to prioritise the use of simple, effective systems of feedback to maximise both teacher development and peer support. Too often the use of these powerful feedback strategies are often sidelined amidst the ever present day-to-day challenges and crises with the ‘urgent’ winning over the ‘important.’

Sliding Doors - Into The Future...

Q: What positives do you see for the education sector moving forwards over the next 20 years?

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today." Malcolm X

A: I think there are many positives; however linking back to our main discussion on feedback, I believe that some of the biggest positives in education we are seeing now are coming through teachers and leaders engaging in feedback at all levels. An example of this is the recent Queensland state school disability review. This was a wide-ranging review involving input and feedback from all levels across the state, and we have been given a strong commitment from the government that all recommendations will be adopted. I don’t think that you would have seen a feedback process or outcomes like this in years past, and to me it is as strong an indication as ever, that the feedback culture in the education sector is becoming more mature. This bodes extremely well for a future where all students can truly have the opportunity to reach and exceed their own goals.

In the years to come it is my hope that all schools will use healthy systems of feedback to further develop a sharp and narrow focus around both the results that we achieve for our students, and the ways that we engage as staff to support each other in the pursuit of excellence. If we do this, every student in every classroom will have the best opportunity to reach their potential!

Thank-you Roselynne Anderson!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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