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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

HPS Leadership Shares: The School Transformation Journey with Kurt Goodwin

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. 

Kurt Goodwin combines some of the best leadership attributes in his approach to building High Performance Schools – a belief in the future potential of all students and staff and the courage, humility and sheer determination to doggedly (and patiently) persist with the change journey that is a necessary part of transforming a good school into a great school. I first met Kurt when he was in the early stages of stepping into principalship. His tremendous energy and drive for improvement both within himself and in others has never wavered since those early years however, like so many of us, the passage of time and scars accumulated through the setbacks and difficulties inherent in school transformation has further deepened both his understanding and empathy as a leader.

In this edition of the HPS Leadership Share series Kurt opens up about the challenges and complexities of building high performance schools – the leadership lessons he’s learned about building high performance teaching teams, leveraging diversity and building a culture of feedback focused on student centred learning and ‘right sizing’ your leadership approach to match the needs of the staff….

The Butterfly Effect 

“A teacher affects eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops.” Henry Adams

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

A: Absolutely.  Over the past 20 years the value that society places on the educational system has transformed greatly. The burden of responsibility for equipping children to grow up to become successful adults has weighed evermore heavily on schools who now have a much broader scope of responsibility encompassing social, emotional and behavioural development needs additional to the previous narrower focus on academic capability.  

Teachers play a critical role in building problem solving, collaboration and communication skills society requires now and will value even more in the future.  The most significant challenge for teachers today is to provide learning that meets the rapidly changing pattern of society and the needs of children in a highly technological world. I believe at the core of every great teacher is ambition to provide learning experiences that develop students intellect, talent and character.  

What keeps you up at night?

"Planning is indispensable."  Eisenhower

It sounds crazy, but issues that are out of my direct control. I have learnt over the years that if I have simplified management processes, stay up to date with system priorities and I know my staff and students well, I can envisage and positively influence most issues within my direct control.  

However, the complexities of our education system mean that a large number of processes are not directly within the principal’s control. So I find I sometimes spend my “sleeping hours”, thinking of the things that are happening outside my control and what I could then do to make the best of these decisions for students and teachers. 

I have a quote in my office by Field Marshal Moltke, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.  What matters is how quickly a leader is able to adapt.” I love this quote as it is true for any educational program or plan designed for schools and just how important it is for us to adapt our educational programs to fit the local needs of our students and staff if we are to succeed.  So trying to understand the local context of wider educational initiatives as well as planning for adaptations that will be needed to best support our students and staff is the main thing that ‘keeps me up at night’.  

Your Brief History of Time...

"The only source of knowledge is experience." Albert Einstein

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

A:  I started my teaching career in the Torres Strait Islands teaching multi-age classes and being immersed in a cultural world I had never experienced before.  In hindsight I learnt far more during this time than I previously realised, and looking back it was a great experience which shaped my teaching behaviours for many years thereafter.  

I gained my first position as a principal in a small school of 12 students named Winfield State School (SS). In this school I quickly learnt what it meant to be ‘a jack of all trades.’  All small school principals will understand what I mean in that you not only teach, manage school processes but be the cleaner, grounds person and business manager.  

Over the next 6 years I worked in a number of small schools ranging from 12 to 120 students at Winfield SS, Bloomsbury SS and Anakie SS.  My time spent out West in the small country town of Anakie still remains one of the most memorable times for my family and myself as a leader.  

While at Anakie SS I began to explore how my leadership impact could be expanded beyond my school and its community. I actively sought opportunities to work with peers and explored how building teams could drive school improvement across a number of schools within the Central Highlands Cluster and neighbouring small schools. 

When I moved to my first non-teaching principal position at Gladstone South SS in 2014, I was consciously aware of the need to develop my skills to manage teams due to the increased number of staff and my limited experience with managing larger groups.  My focus turned to building high performance teaching teams. 

I have spent the last 4 years working in this space and have learnt a lot from my successes and mistakes. Now as the Principal of Mount Archer SS I value more than ever my progression through small schools and the time and energy I have spent learning about myself as a leader and how to effectively manage a large number of teams.

Leadership Life Lessons....

"Experience is the best teacher of all." Harry Callahan

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

A: Firstly as a small school principal I quickly learnt that the students and community didn’t care how well a document was written or whether or not a report was done for regional office.  Students cared about having a great teacher, parents cared about having a great teacher and the wider community cared about having a teacher who actively wanted to belong and fit into the local community.  

What I took from this learning was that while the ‘management’ part of being a principal is essential for managing the complexities of delivering educational services, it is ‘engagement’ and relationship building that is the tipping point to succeeding as a leader in education. Thus I have always tried to ensure the management systems I use were as simplified (and best practice) as possible in order to free up the time and space to maximise my effectiveness in engagement and relationship building with the school community. I have seen many principals struggle when they cannot effectively juggle the twin priorities of ‘management’ responsibilities to the education system and ‘engagement’ and relationship building activities in the local community.

The second experience that shaped my journey was the aftermath of a cyclone in 2010 which tore through my community in Bloomsbury.  My house was significantly damaged as were parts of my school.  Through this time I worked closely with my community and I found that the connection to the school, even for those who no longer attended the school was incredibly strong. 

During the cyclone clean up, I thanked a local farmer with no children at my school and told him he could go home after volunteering eight hours of work.  He looked at me and said while you are here so are we and he pointed to the other 10 volunteers.  I took from this that a school is a significant place for all communities and having the opportunity to lead within a school should be earnt every day.  

Finally, all principals should spend time to understand who they are themselves as a leader.  Some of the most powerful professional learning I have done has been around developing a greater understanding of how my leadership behaviours impact on those around me.  The trick of course is not just knowing how your leadership impacts on others, it is to modify your leadership to meet the needs of the situation. 

On Being an Effective Principal…

"I think the teaching profession contributes more to the future of our society than any other single profession ." John Wooden

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

A: In my current school I have worked with the administration team on mastering the disciplines of High Performance Teams for six months prior to implementing any High Performance Teams strategies with the whole of staff.  This has ensured that all administration members were on board and knowledgeable about the work but also allowed me time as a leader to identify any issues that I may not have considered. 

This ‘gradual release’ implementation strategy has worked very effectively and ensured all school leaders were committed to the changes that would be occurring.  Additional to this gradual implementation plan I have had to work hard to remove the typical structures within my school that ensured that the principal was the person with the answer and all others simply followed the instructions.  I delegated roles clearly and set expectations for other leaders to deliver on tasks.  Teachers were given opportunities to take on roles and deliver work to peers and were supported by the leadership team.  As a principal you will always have final accountability however with simple and clear delegations and decision trees effective empowerment enables so many decisions to be made at local levels where I am simply kept in the loop rather than needing to continuously adjudicate per se. 

I have also learnt about the importance of creating an environment where middle leaders and staff engage rigorously in debate about the best strategies and decisions around school priorities. I believe strongly in developing teacher capability as a way to drive student improvement.  To build a high performing school you must have expert teachers working collaboratively to improve student outcomes.  To do this well I have learnt that schools need to commit significant resources towards allowing and enabling staff to develop into the educational professionals we want our students to spend time with.  

On Building High Performance Teaching Teams

"Accomplishing the maximum impact on student learning depends on teams of teachers working together effectively."  John Hattie

Q: What have been the critical success factors and biggest set backs you have experienced  in building high performance teaching teams?

A. 1. Principal as the advocate. To develop high performing teaching teams within a school of any size, the principal must be the advocate for any and all changes,  participate where possible and continually model how you want the teams to work.  

2. Timing is key.  Have a plan about what developing high performance teaching teams will look like in your school and then assess the plan based on your staff.  There are two risk factors with this and I have fallen for both over the years.  Implement the HPT too quickly and staff feel overwhelmed and will not totally engage in the cultural changes you are trying to achieve. The second is to move too slowly and staff will feel like they are not getting the full picture or are disconnected from the whole school and that leads to disengagement with the HPT process. 

3. Create time and space. I have had to develop a number of whole school changes to create time for teachers to meet and collaborate within their teams.  In many schools this will mean changing some or many processes that have been in place for many years.  Changing something as simple as a staff meeting schedule can cause unexpected issues. Over-communicating around these changes reduces the change stress and increases the speed of implementation.   

4. Adapt our leadership support. All teams will need a different level of support.  Some teaching teams will be early adopters and others will require more support.  Understanding your teams is key to doing this well. Assessing whether a team should be managed, mentored and coached will guide your leadership support. When I have gotten this wrong teams have stagnated and become disengaged. But when I have gotten this right teams grow quickly and help drive the process across the school.   

On Managing Change & Building A Feedback Culture

"Change is the only constant in life." Heraclitus

Q: How have you successfully managed change in schools – what has worked and what hasn’t? When do you need to speed up change and when do you need to slow it down? How have you increased the level and depth of feedback among staff to maximise student outcomes?

A: Change is something that is frequently occurring in all schools.  Some is forced onto schools and others are led by the principal. The change I have led over the years has been significant for students but not always sustainable longer term for the teachers.  I have found that a number of changes I have implemented within a school have not been continued after I had moved on.  The common element within all of these situations has been my commitment to the tasks.  

While I was in the school and passionately driving the agenda things worked well, but it wasn’t sustainable for the teachers as they didn’t own the process.  After acknowledging this I have worked on managing whole school change differently. I have taken a more patient approach and based all change around developing staff capability and systems to ensure it can be sustainable for all teachers.  

One of the greatest successes with change thus far have been the implementation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) as a framework for building High Performance Teaching Teams and fast-tracking student focused collaboration and innovation.  Through the PLC’s teachers are given the skills and processes to professionally engage with each other around student improvement, teacher wellbeing, solve local hot issues, engage in inquiry cycles, complete observation and feedback processes and progress their own year level strategic planning. There was a large investment in time needed to up-skill staff to give and receive feedback and engage at a higher level within the PLC however this has paid exponential returns with teachers empowered to take turns leading meetings, delivering professional development to peers and analysing student data and pedagogical practice.    

Sliding Doors – Into The Future....

"I touch the future. I teach." Christa McAuliffe

Q: Fast-forward 20 years from now – what have the school leaders of today done to create a successful future for both their students and for the education system?

A: To be a great leader today you must be future orientated. As our society rapidly changes, we must ask the question: What are our current leaders doing to continually seek innovative ways to redefine education for modern students and modern teachers?  Are we building the platform for the success of our students, staff and systems which will last well into the future?  

I believe it is an urgent responsibility for all of today’s educational leaders to continue to refine and reshape the education system to welcome and engage not just the new children who learn within it but the new educators who will drive the system in the future.  

Thank you Kurt Goodwin!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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