Maya Angelou famously said that people won't always remember what you said but they will always remember how you made them feel. Tania Angus is an inspiring school leader who is building a legacy of care and respect among the staff, students and parents at Newtown State School in Toowoomba, Queensland. In this HPS Leadership Shares article, Tania shares her leadership journey from student to teacher to school leader and the important life lessons that have shaped her leadership journey as well as her insights and strategies in building High Performance Teaching Teams.
1. The Butterfly Effect…
Q: Do you believe teachers are having a larger impact in society beyond the classroom
A: Absolutely! When I reflect on my own schooling experience, it was the positive impact of my music teacher, Ms Wiseman at Centenary Heights State High School in the early 80s, that contributed to me pursuing a career in teaching. Thanks Ms Wiseman! Whilst I did enjoy the curriculum area being taught, it was more about the way she made me feel in the learning process and how she built a professional relationship between the student and teacher that was supportive, encouraging and corrective. This created a sense of reciprocal respect amongst everyone in the class, which resulted in an enjoyable learning environment where relationship and conversation was valued.
Ms Wiseman’s personal and professional attributes in terms of her behaviour, her tone of voice and her attitude towards us were one and the same giving a sense of equal power, not power over. This genuine and authentic manner made it clear that she liked what she did and liked us; she was interested in us, as people, not just as students. The experience of reciprocal respect with my teacher as a young student, laid the foundation for the type of teacher I wanted to be and now, the type of school leader I aspire to be. A leader whose relationships and conversations are based on mutual respect as the platform for the way we work so that children, families and staff develop a connection to our school and that their time with us brings positive experiences and fond memories.
Now in my current role as Principal of Newtown State School in Toowoomba, Queensland, I witness teachers providing excellence in presenting curriculum and pedagogy that is flexibly adjusted and skilfully differentiated to respond to the diverse needs of learners everyday. However, with changing societal contexts, the impact of technology and the range of family dynamics and capabilities, teachers are more than ever having a larger impact in society, again through the relationships with parents, carers and extended family members that are pivotal in supporting the individual student and their family.
As teachers develop their understanding of a student, they can often become the ‘connector’ to enable students to pursue whatever it is that needs to be accessed to propel their learning, from assisting a parent in arranging a hearing test to entering a writing competition. As the relationship develops, teachers willingly seek out and seize opportunities for their students that might not elsewhere be available to them, impacting the trajectory of their future and their capability to make their mark on society and fulfil their lifelong dreams.
2. What are the issues that keep you up at night?
Q: What are the big issues for education in the current state of play and what are the emerging challenges on the horizon?
A: There are many challenges school leaders face in understanding and supporting students. This includes walking the fine line of supporting the needs of an individual within the context of a class, being attuned to staff wellbeing and exercising good judgement and discernment to provide a safe learning and work environment for all.
The altruistic motivations that many educators are driven by means we are at risk of overly harsh self-criticism, excessive self-expectations and prone to unhelpful rescuing behaviour – often to our own detriment.
The prevalence of mental health issues (diagnosed and undiagnosed) in children, parents and staff that is evident right now and having a centralised system that is agile enough to respond urgently to emergent needs when considering inclusive education, industrial requirements, resourcing (adequate and timely) and staff capability. I believe this is an area that requires a lot more innovation and responsiveness as legislative demands and social norms have changed so much faster than the system has adapted.Unfortunately, violent and abusive behaviour of students and parents that can make one feel vulnerable and unsafe in their workplace. Again there is a need, not just for increased personal resilience but also system level responses, supports and safeguards that reduce these risks and provide alternative pathways for parents and students to choose when they are angry or distressed.
These big issues are with us right now. The emerging challenge on the horizon, if not already with us, is staff wellbeing. Despite seeing passionate staff everyday who continue to want to do the best job they can and going to extraordinary lengths to support their students, I also see highly skilled, experienced and resilient people who are being worn down and disheartened by what they are managing on a daily basis. People who absolutely love what they do, but if not for their passion, their friends and family and our school team, who at the end of the day all support each other by leaving a chocolate, giving a hug, or finding humour in a ridiculous situation, might otherwise walk away from a career that does bring so many rewards when you get to work with children, who are our future.
3. Your Brief History of Time
Q: Give us a snapshot of your career to date. What were the early teaching years like and what was the catalyst to move into school leadership?
A: My teaching career commenced thirty years ago after studying a Diploma of Teaching with a specialisation in Early Childhood Education at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education (now the University of Southern Queensland). Whilst studying, I also held a part-time job at K-Mart which provided the training ground for interacting with a diverse range of people of varying temperaments that has proved useful in building my tolerance, patience and resilience in the world of education.
I commenced my career in an Early Education Class at a three-teacher school, Amiens State School on the Granite Belt, ironically at a location where my grandmother used to ride her horse to and from Stanthorpe. This historical family link immediately created a connection to my new occupation, the students and their families and the broader school community. After a year, I was the recipient of a forced transfer to Biloela. I completed my Bachelor of Education (USQ) and a few years later a Master of Education (QUT) with a thesis that researched that Social-Emotional development of a Student who was non-verbal within the preschool setting.
Those early years of teaching felt lonely in some respects. Whilst well and truly an adult and preservice training completed, that feeling of being totally responsible for the education (not so much wellbeing as it is now) of a group of children, made you suddenly feel grown-up! Add in moving away from home, living with an unknown roommate and finding your way in a new community, it was easy to feel alone despite being around people all the time. Creating a life outside of an all-consuming job is important and in those early years, joining a couple of sporting teams and the gym, helped create some connections outside of the classroom.
The catalyst for my move into leadership was probably my disposition which was instilled in me from a young age; a disposition to be open to new challenges and opportunities, even if it was something I didn’t see myself doing! This disposition has resulted, by the most part, in my career seeking me rather than me seeking a direction. I have however, always felt drawn to working in spaces that allow me to maintain a strong connection to children.
I am currently Principal of Newtown State School, a role I have fulfilled for almost three years. Prior to that, I was Principal of Withcott State School for four years following six years as Head of Curriculum. I was also Acting Deputy Principal at Drayton and Highfields State Schools in my career path. I’ve worked across a range of school contexts, in both rural and regional settings and in a number of teaching, leadership, advisory and mentoring roles across the Darling Downs South West and Central Queensland Regions.
Sharing this personal story highlights my value in making connections with the view that when you feel connected to something or someone, you become emotionally invested. Strong connections can linger lifelong and they drive my sense of purpose in being a part of something that has the potential to alter the trajectory of a young person’s life. As a leader, I aim to make connections with and understand the stories behind the students, their families and the staff to provide a mutually respectful school context that is engaging and purposeful, and enables students to become confident and creative thinkers.
My early career as a preschool teacher-in-charge enabled the development of leadership skills for directing and managing a school. In the years that followed, my diverse roles as a District Preschool Curriculum Advisor, Smart Classrooms Mentor and Project Officer with a Technology, Maths and Science Centre for Excellence, enabled me to develop capability in quickly building relationships, coaching and working with a range of professionals in varied school, business and tertiary contexts.
I now hold a position on the Queensland Association of State School Principals (QASSP) Management Committee and prior to that was President of the Toowoomba Branch for three years. I value the opportunity that involvement with QASSP provides, whether it be as a member, as a member of the branch executive or on management committee to have input to, and advocate around, a whole range of issues that affect daily work in schools. I appreciate the prospect of influencing the educational agenda at a policy level that being involved in QASSP provides, as a highly respected professional association. I think being a member of QASSP as an opportunity to contribute to the broader education agenda, utilising my skills as a professional educator in creating opportunities for children, through education.
4. Early Career: Advice To My Younger Self
Q: What were some of your key early career leadership learnings and experiences? What advice would you give your younger self today? What advice do you wish you had ignored?
A: Just prior to commencing my first Acting Principal role, I engaged in the Emerging Principals Program run by the Queensland Education Leadership Institute with a number of experienced principals sharing their insights. One of the standout comments I heard from a Principal which still resonates with me is, ‘in the multitude of experiences and situations you encounter as a Principal, it’s important to be yourself’. It still resonates because in a position that is judged, commented upon, often in the public and media arenas, there is opinion as to how a Principal should ‘be’. The comment ‘be yourself’, gives permission to maintain that sense of self and not be entirely defined by a stereotype of your occupation. It’s all in the relationship…you can’t create connection without relationship. Relationship sets you up for the most optimal outcome, even in difficult situations.
Advice To Younger Self
Observe, listen, but above all trust yourself…’you’ve got this!’
Advice to Ignore
I think all advice can be useful, even if it’s to help in clarifying your own thinking. I do wish I’d challenged those with the opinion that ‘play’ is not of value in early childhood education. We do need to embrace the importance of ‘play’ as an age appropriate pedagogy.
5. Later Career: Setbacks & Successes
Q: How did your career progress to the role you had today? Have you had any setbacks which ultimately created subsequent success?What has become more important and what has become less important to your leadership?
A: Whilst I was Head of Curriculum in my previous school (Withcott State School), I had the opportunity to act in the Principal role on many and increasing occasions as the Principal was transitioning towards retirement. A 6 month stint as an acting Deputy Principal in another school, also positioned me well for aspiring to Principal. I really don’t see myself as having experienced setbacks as such, but I have had some extremely negative experiences (e.g., abusive parents) which ended up providing great learning and growth and ultimately, a more positive and productive relationship. More important – relationships, less important – trying to satisfy the ‘squeaky wheels’ and realising you can’t!
6. On Building High Performance Schools
Q: What have been some of the successes and challenges in building a high performance school? How do you get teams working effectively within cohorts and collaborating across the school? How do your meeting cycles and dashboards maximise school performance?
The enactment of the school’s vision and the clear articulation of just a few priorities, all of which are aligned and reflected in the allocation of resources set the scene for teams working towards common goals.
The use of the High Performance Teams (HPT) tools (meeting protocols, moderator cards, meeting template and update tool) has transformed the ways that teams work and meetings are conducted within the school, giving rise to disciplined dialogue, moderated yet heard voices and agreed protocols. The one word barometer gives everyone in the room a sense of the lens though which a person is participating in the meeting and the conversation starter helps members connect with and learn about each other.
Building teacher capability using the Learning Sprint (Agile Schools) process. This process draws on the collective knowledge and experience of teachers to work as a team in an intentional collaboration model that focuses on a small, specific aspect or outcome to improve with a small number of kids…and by being precise in the pedagogy, increase the impact of that learning. Learning sprints are simply a system for improving an outcome that you’re already working on for a group of kids you already teach.
The Learning Sprint process is based on the premise that the best way to make an impact on student learning is not just to focus on the gaps in student learning, but also the gaps in teacher expertise. When teachers learn how to teach something better with precision practice as part of the 4-week sprint process, they have built their capability to do that again and again into the future. It’s about these small steps of incremental growth that accumulate over time and will give us all a dopamine hit, not only as our students experience success but in the joy of developing greater levels of mastery in our teaching craft.
Challenges - The challenge initially is in staying true to the course and the cause and in being rigorous in the application of the tools (Meeting protocols, Update Tool, Learning sprint process). With persistence and the tools become part of the way of working, they become subtle, yet powerful and allow the disciplined dialogue to occur.
Enabling Leadership Team – Every member of the leadership team needs to be clear on their role, the tasks they are responsible for and the areas they lead. The use of coaching models and Common Planning Times (year level teams, embed sprints), Committees/Teams, using HPT protocols
Teaching Teams Working Effectively - The effective use of Improvement Sprints and HPT Protocols as outlined above.
Meeting Cycles and Dashboards - Again, through more of the above, use of the Mid-Term update tool – teachers reflect on what has worked well in the last 5 weeks and where to next.
7. Influential Leaders & Mentors
Q: Who do you think of when you hear the words ‘Influential School Leader’? Have mentors played a significant role in your career? What characteristics do you find most helpful in a mentor?
Influential School Leader - Mr Paul Williamson, a Principal who I worked with back in the late nineties at Highfields State School. His calm and considered approach, wealth of knowledge and ability to see the big picture yet remain true to his ‘why’, inspired me.
Mentors – yes, in subtle ways, they might not even know…currently I view Mr Ken Green, Principal at Harristown State High School as a mentor, though not through a formal arrangement. Again his calm, considered and respectful approach is admired. He is someone who gives you full time and attention when he engages with you. I remember when I took up an Acting Deputy Principal position at another school, he sent me an email to welcome me into the cluster. I’ve also remembered how it made be feel…to be part of a new group when I didn’t even know him at that point. Nine years later, he still inspires as he demonstrates such commitment to rigorously implementing some principles based on the premises of the Breakthrough Coach to have a career and a life.
Characteristics – They listen, are considered in their communication, and every word, movement and action is representative of who they are and their ‘why’ is clear.
8. Strange But True…
Q: What have been some of the more memorable and unusual moments in your career?
A: The zeal and energy of young children is still so infectious to be around. Their natural curiosity and demeanour to explore is so fascinating to watch and be invited into. A memorable moment, particularly in working with young children has been when they’ve lost their first tooth at school. Some are so excited, some are surprised and some are upset when it’s gone down the wrong way! It’s so exciting to be witness to a child who has lost their first tooth at school!
Many years ago, a young student saw me leaving my classroom and he said to me, ‘where are you going?’ I replied, ‘home’’ to which he asked, ‘don’t you live here?!’ The look on their faces when they realise that you’re a real person with a real life is priceless!
9. Personal Inspo: Favorite Books & Quotes
Q: What are your most gifted and or recommended leadership books to others? What message about schools and education would you put on a gigantic billboard that everyone could see?
Book - Last Christmas, my husband gave me, Start with Why?by Simon Sinek. Yes, I do have everything! This leadership book is written for anyone who wants to inspire others, or to be inspired. I’d recommend it as a book for digging deeper into the importance of keeping the ‘why’ of an organisation front and centre, year after year. The Third Space by Dr Adam Fraser is another ‘gift’ I’ve received that I recommend for leaders. Adam outlines a framework that has been extremely useful in utilising the third space; the space between meetings, events and experiences that allows you to review, rest and reset…it’s a gem.
Billboard - 'Every child matters'
Quotes - Be Yourself…Everyone Else is Taken
Something Else…Inspo…I find using metaphors useful to convey what I’m trying to say and in setting the scene for this year, I likened our students to gemstones; unique and from all corners of the world…that what’s on the outside is only part of the story and when you take the time to see what’s inside, their shine, sparkle and beautiful colour is revealed. I see our job as to walk alongside our students; our precious gems, to reveal their colour, shine and sparkle and my hope is that they will help others to do the same.
10.The Tipping Point: Coping With Stress
Q: When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused what do you do? How do you ‘stay the course’ during lengthy periods of change and uncertainty?
A: Breathe! Currently I am looking into meditation and how it might benefit me as a daily practice.Being conscious in my ‘third space’ and working through that processGo and walk out in playground, spend some time in a classroom – getting amongst the kids and my talented staff inspires me to keep going Get more sleepExercise – maintain the routine or get back into it – run, gymSpend some time with my familyHave a ritual that is just for me (e.g., Saturday parkrun followed by coffee and breakfast at my favourite Café). Talking with family, connecting with colleaguesAsk for help – not easy for me…Find the funny side and have a side-splitting laugh!Staying focused on why I do what I do!Sheer determination!
11.Sliding Doors - Into The Future
Q: Fast-forward 20 years from now – what will be the keys to success or failure of the education system?
A: Positioning teaching as a worthwhile, rewarding and important career of choice.Positioning school leadership as job that is doable.Agility of the system to respond to the emergent needs of schools – especially teacher wellbeing, complex parent and student needs and supporting changes in curriculum.Doing all that is possible to ensure safe working and learning environments so that every staff member is positively challenged and enjoys their work AND each and every student succeeds!
Thank you Tania Angus!
Dr Pete Stebbins PhD