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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

Leadership Shares: Nick Burnett on The Future of School Leadership

‘Have you crossed paths with Nick Burnett yet?’, ‘You know you should really talk to Nick….' The number of times Principals I admire and respect have said something like this to me in the last four years has been staggering. So many hard working dedicated Principals building High Performance Schools have benefited from Nicks patient ear and wise words.

When I finally did get to meet Nick I felt as though I was sitting with a wise old (but still young looking) wizard. Charmed with the grace of easy conversation and a genuine interest in others combined with extensive experience as a school Principal and many years since spent mentoring and coaching school leaders around the world, Nick is a leader of leaders in the world of building future ready schools. In this article Nick shares his leadership journey and some important insights on the future of coaching and leadership development.

1.   The Butterfly Effect…

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

A: Without a doubt. I do believe it is the most important job in the world. H.G. Wells is quoted as saying “Education or Oblivion!” Whilst that’s probably overplaying it somewhat, without doubt, the quality of education impacts on the quality of an individual’s life, and the quality of education is down to the quality of the interactions students have with teachers. Another quote that comes to mind is from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” As teachers we must remember the impact our words have on individual students, both positive and negative, and the ripple effect this can have not only on the individual but also those the individual interacts with.

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: Luckily very little keeps me up at night but that’s not to say there aren’t some significant issues for education in the short, medium and long term. 

In the short term, I think a significant and growing problem is that we are expecting all the leaders, teachers and students within the education system to do more with less, both in terms of time and resources. The expectation of constant improvement in everything they do is, in my view, unrealistic and unsustainable. This is not to suggest that we expect anything less than all of us doing our very best but to think this will mean outcomes will improve term x term or year x year does not recognise the complexities of working with human beings.

In the medium term, the focus of education needs to shift from ‘recalling content’ to ‘applying competencies’. We are living in a time when we have access to content 24/7. As such, there is very little need to focus on how to recall content (much of which is freely accessible online) but rather an increasing need to focus on the competencies needed to apply content to answer specific questions and solve specific problems. Yet in most education systems today, the curriculum and subsequent assessment is still over-focused on ‘recalling content’ and under focused on ‘applying competencies’. There are indicators of a move to recognise the increasing importance of competencies and this can’t come soon enough as the pace of change in society and industry seems to be outstripping the pace of change in education.

The long-term issues are linked to both the short and medium term issues above. There are some linkages between mental health outcomes and the expectations of continuous improvement associated with the attainment focused measures that underpin many school systems. In parallel to this expectation of continuous improvement in schools is the 24/7 world of social media constantly streaming images of social, physical and intellectual perfection. In many cases these twin pressures combine to create an unrealistically impossible self-expectation for children and teenagers which increases their vulnerability to emotional exhaustion, stress, anxiety and depressive disorders.

In relation to the school system, I’m not confident that our attainment focused approach will prepare students for a largely automated future where the idea of a career is largely redundant (no pun intended). However, as a realistic optimist and futurist, I don’t believe ‘the robots are coming to take all the jobs’ but the skills, qualities and competencies we’ll all need to thrive in the future are unlikely to be linked to our current approach to curriculum and assessment.

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: Apart from a variety of part-time jobs as a teenager I’ve been in education all my life. This is in spite of my parents, who were both Principals, trying to encourage me to become a bank manager! Like them, and my eldest daughter, we all started out as PE teachers due to our love of sport. Then, more by accident than design, I moved into Special Education, which was a really good fit!

I spent 13 years in a variety of roles in Special Education in the UK starting at a Residential Special School, before working for 6 years at Longdon Hall School where I progressed from being a PE Teacher to senior Teacher. I gained by first Deputy Principal role at Kingfisher School in Abingdon where I had one of my most challenging times in education as we lead the amalgamation of two special schools. At this time, I also started the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) and met a range of aspiring leaders and knew I wanted to pursue my goal of being a Principal. 

I applied for the Principal role of one of the largest special schools in the UK, Addington, and was amazed coming away from the 2-day interview having got the job at the age of 34! I had an amazing leadership team and in the 3½ years I was there we moved the school from a ‘satisfactory’ OFSTED report (UK school inspection body) to an ‘outstanding’ report, and I was also recognised as being an ‘excellent leader’.  I was the first Special School Leader to be awarded a Research Associateship with the National College for School Leadership, which brought me to visit Australia to study Special Education leadership. The visit to Australia ignited a passion in me to want to move and live in a different country, even if only for a few years. Fourteen years later, I am still here and have thoroughly enjoyed my journey from School Principal to now working with, and supporting others, on their leadership journey. 

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? 

A: Some of us learn by observing great leaders, some of us learn how not to ‘lead’ by observing not so great leaders. My desire to move into middle leadership was largely driven by the belief I could do a better job than those above me. Having said that, I often say there is a thin line between confidence and arrogance, and I’ve been very conscious of that throughout my career – or hope I have been.

Throughout my career, a key leadership learning has been to be really clear what’s important to you – understanding your ‘hedgehog’. This will be challenged by staff, parents, students and other leaders so being really clear on your ‘why’ is critical during difficult decisions and conversations. I also lead with the mantra “If this was my child what would I want the teacher / leader to do?”. Whilst this didn’t make the difficult conversations easier – it gave me the courage to have them in the first place – particularly when it was aligned to my ‘why’. 

I would also want to tell my younger self to have some of those difficult conversations earlier than I often did – otherwise the elephant in the room tends to get bigger! I remember one particularly challenging time when I excluded a student with complex needs as we were unable to keep her safe due to her self-inducing seizures. We also knew there was another environment close by that could better meet her needs. By spending time with her parents and having the difficult conversations, we were able to come to a positive conclusion for the student. 

The final two pieces of advice that have been instrumental through my career was to firstly ‘give things a go’ and secondly, to have a Plan B. Giving things a go led me into Special Education and gave me the courage to make the move to Australia. I also always knew I could go back to the UK or mainstream education if things didn’t work out following my move. In saying that though, I never had a long-term plan associated with both these major changes. For me, I believe in looking at things in 2 year cycles and seeing what emerges during those 2 years to influence my next steps and decision making. 

5.    Later Career: Setbacks & Successes…

Q: In your career, have you had any setbacks which ultimately created subsequent success? What has become more important and what has become less important to your school leadership in the last few years?  

A: Throughout my career I have faced many challenges however there are a number of examples that ultimately taught me some great lessons and opportunities to grow. When I was at Longdon Hall School I was unsuccessful in my application for the Senior Teacher position. However I was given an Acting role where I took on the day-to-day staff of the residential school. This allowed me to really understand the strengths and areas of development of the staff in the context of both their work and life and allowed me to build relationships and trust to explain to staff why I had to move them as opposed to just moving them. 

Another example of success from challenge came when I was at Kingfisher School during the implementation of significant change strategies regarding out-of-date practice. A key turning point was when I was having difficulty with one of the senior students and a very experienced member of staff just ignored what was happening and walked off. This really brought home that I needed to draw on my inner strength and talk through with the Principal how to move forward. What emerged for me was the need to initially focus on some small wins, and to support those who were most open to change. This took time, but I could start to see more staff moving to my perspective and approach as opposed to staying with the ‘old guard’.

When I was appointed as Principal at Addington School, there were three Deputies, all with more experience than I had and all who had applied for the Principal position. Looking back there were a couple of key decisions that had a significant positive influence on what we achieved at the school. Firstly, I spoke to each of the Deputies saying I knew they had applied for the Principal position and wanting to check that it wasn’t going to be a problem for us working together. I also gave all staff the opportunity to meet with me 1:1 to share any thoughts and concerns they had. Not all took up the opportunity but offering and having these conversations enabled me and the school to move forward pretty quickly.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier I am a realistic optimist which helps on two fronts. First, I believe I will work something out no matter what challenges come my way and secondly, I expect there to be challenges so am prepared to face them when they arrive. Linked to that I have always actively sought and nurtured a network of people I can turn to for support and advice as needed.

6.   Leadership Capability & High Performance Schools

Q: What have been some of your successes and challenges in improving the capability of school leaders to enable them to build high performance schools? 

A: Throughout my career I have been incredibly fortunate to work with some very talented leaders and my advice in this space is to get out of their way and let them lead. In my current work as a provider of coaching and leadership training,I feel incredibly honoured to be able to share some of my mistakes and learnings, both from practice and research, that educators can add to their toolbox to be the most effective leaders in building high performance schools. 

One of the major challenges facing current school leaders is having so little time to focus on what’s important rather than what’s urgent. Being able to remain focused on the important without neglecting the urgent is an immensely difficult leadership challenge. The school leaders who succeed all have one thing in common: they have a clear understanding of the ‘why’ -  their core purpose at an individual, leadership team and whole of school level.

At the risk of missing the many successful people I have worked with, a few standout leaders are Llew Paulger, now Principal at Kelvin Grove State College, Stephen Auer, Principal at Hercules Road State School, and Heidi Phillips, Deputy at Currimundi Special School. These leaders have all taken their existing strengths and qualities and drawn out the best in others through a commitment to having better conversations and being clear on their drivers and purpose.

Q: How do you enable new school leaders to fast-track their leadership learning journey to minimise performance risks and maximise the benefits to staff and students? 

A: The key to this is helping leaders enhance the quality of the conversations they are having with their staff, peers and their own advisors. How do leaders leverage the greatest positive impact out of the myriad of conversations they have on a daily basis?

As a result of my many years working as a Principal and then school leadership advisor, I believe the myriad of different types of leadership conversations can be organised into 3 different categories for which the corresponding conversational attitude must be developed by school leaders to maximise quality and effectiveness. I believe attitude is a crucial indicator of quality as it sets the tone and invariably predicts the impact and the subsequent effectiveness of the conversation.

At the bottom of the Attitude Towards Leading Conversations diagram above are the words CANDOUR – COURAGE – CARING. All of these aspects may be needed at any position along the continuum but I think they represent the core elements of an effective leadership conversational approach. Caring to check-in with colleagues at a more general level as to how they are travelling; to having the courage to have the full range of performance conversations; to having the candour to have the compliance conversations in a way that adds value to the relationship. Having an attitude appropriate to the intent of the conversation is crucial. If the leader adopts a conversational tone more to the left of the continuum than is needed by the team, a corresponding decline in both quality and effectiveness is inevitable, leading to a negative impact on performance of the team overall.

Q: How do you make sure school leaders have the capability and confidence to get teams working effectively – both within year levels or faculties and collaborating across the school on important school-wide initiatives? 

A: Capability develops by giving leaders the best tools and frameworks to use with their teams to help them structure 1:1 and team conversations to maximise school performance. Confidence develops by giving leaders the lived experience of using these tools under pressure within a safe learning environment to ensure they can be used effectively in ‘real world’ challenging situations to maximum effect. 

Q: In your work as a coach to Principals, how do you build effective advisory relationships with your Principals when they may have radically different levels of experience and capability?

A: One of the critical success factors in building capability and confidence levels in school leaders is the ability to work with an experienced mentor or coach who works within an ‘advisory relationship framework’ - matching support to the changing needs of a leader as they grow. 

I firmly believe that Advisory Relationships are the next step in evolution of coaching. In recent times there has been a strong push to suggest coaching relationships are THE answer and a corresponding focus on Socratic questioning as the only major form of leadership support. From my experience and from conversations with other school leaders being religiously tied to coaching approaches to communication with leaders is too simplistic. Human beings are complex and the needs of school leaders are increasingly complex associated with the rapidly evolving curriculum in relation to future skills, evolving social landscape and corresponding shift in social and educational outcomes which schools are responsible for. Thus it is not only new leaders who need far more explicit direction and instruction around key leadership skills, it is increasingly all school leaders on different issues at different times. By using an advisory relationship framework in my work with school leaders, I can use a mix of approaches along the managing, mentoring or coaching continuum to best match their leadership development needs.

7.   Influential Leaders & Mentors 

Q: Have mentors played a significant role in your career? What characteristics do you find most helpful in a mentor?  

A: In terms of the characteristics of mentors/coaches/advisors I value the most, it’s about people who have high levels of practical knowledge and experience as well as high emotional intelligence - someone who both understands themselves and me really well and know when to challenge and when to support.

There are many people who have had a significant influence over my approach to life and leading but two particularly stand out, firstly my Dad who always encouraged me to give things a go, and secondly Paul Donkersloot a colleague Principal from the UK who was super supportive in the early years as a sounding board for my thinking and planning.

8.    Strange But True… 

Q: What have been some of the more memorable and unusual moments in your career? 

A: There have been many memorable moments in my career. One of the standouts was my first lesson in a special school when I decided to take 6 students outside onto the fields – wherein they promptly all ran off! Thankfully there were fences but I spent the rest of the lesson collecting them, so next lesson was back in the gym! I’ve also lead an overseas trip with special school students, played one of the Ugly Sisters in a school pantomime (and in turn showing staff and students that I didn’t take myself too seriously), as well as being cuffed with students pouring buckets of water all over me! 

9.    Personal Inspo: Favourite Quotes

Q: What message about schools and education would you put on a gigantic billboard that everyone could see?

A: There are two key billboard messages I live by – one for schools and education and the other about how I live my life. 

In terms of a key billboard message about schools and education I would want it to read “We believe that everyone can and does achieve.” This is at the core of a truly inclusive education system and environment where everyone’s strengths are recognised and celebrated, not just those who are academically able. 

In terms of my personal mantra, I live my life by “Living the width of life not just the length of it”. I don’t want to look back on my life at any stage and think or day “I wish I’d…”

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: I’ve learnt over time there are certain practices that are crucial for me to reduce the number of times and severity of when I feel overwhelmed or unfocused. The list has become more extensive in the last few years but work really well for me:

Exercise regularly.Meditate.Daily Journal – what am I grateful for and what are my top 3 things to achieve.  Plan – weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly! Recognising what I’ve achieved as well as planning for the next identified timespan.Taking time away from work.Music.Holidays.

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: The keys to success or failure of the education system over the next 20 years links back to the long-term considerations I spoke of earlier – the need to move away from content to competencies; the need to balance wellbeing and outcomes; and the need to have a considered view on what improvement looks like for the individual school beyond NAPLAN and other standardised assessments.

I believe education is entering a time when it needs to be significantly re-imagined, and my focus, for at least the next 2-years, is making sure educators and students have a voice in what they think is needed as opposed to ‘big business’ deciding for us. I think we have a great opportunity to influence an amazing future for education and most importantly the students going through the system. But the time to act is now rather than having a reactive focus when something significant comes along and disrupts  to react when something significantly disruptive comes along which may not have the same moral imperative that those of us in education largely have.

Thank you Nick Burnett!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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