Leadership Shares: Ray Clarke on Building High Performance Secondary Schools
Ray Clarke is a quiet achiever. A humble man and deep thinker. A patient and caring leader who understands the complexities of school transformation and knows that genuine lasting change is a marathon not a sprint.
As the Principal of Emerald State High School, Ray has worked tirelessly on the school's improvement agenda and has achieved some very impressive results in both academic achievement and staff and parent engagement. Carrying the burden of responsibility discretely whilst openly encouraging and praising the efforts of his leaders and teams, Ray demonstrates the humility and wisdom of an extraordinary school leader. In this article Ray shares his leadership journey and the challenges and rewards of building High Performance Teams across every layer of his school.
1. The Butterfly Effect
Q: Do you believe teachers are having a larger impact in society beyond the classroom?
A: Teachers are the engineers of social change. Their teaching practices and values are under scrutiny in every classroom they enter. They are the ones who deliver academic instruction across a wide range of subjects including literacy and numeracy as well as important social messages about anti-bullying and preventing domestic violence. Thus our role as school leaders is first and foremost to enable confident and capable teachers. Teachers who can positively connect with their students in order to maximise their learning and growth.
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: Rural and remote education is the issue that concerns me most. Being a Principal in a large rural school, I want to ensure all of our students are receiving the same education as if they were attending a large inner city school. Our system is making great headway into this issue with an entire Department headed by an Assistant Director General in rural and remote education, however there is still much to be done.
Recruiting of quality teachers for rural and remote settings is still an issue as well as embedding quality training regimes for beginning teachers in our outer schools. It is a mindset predominated by urban thinking that must be constantly challenged by school leaders at all levels especially Principals.
If we don’t speak up for our students in rural and remote, who will? One of the great movements towards a better deal for our students is challenging the mindset that significant financial decisions at a school level should be made on numbers only. Sometimes we, as Principals, have to make them on a needs basis. Just because there aren’t enough students to make an important educational activity financially viable, should we give up on it? I feel we owe it to those individual students to find the funding and make it happen. Only then are we offering a quality education to all students.
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 middle leadership and then subsequently into senior leadership in schools?
A: I started as a teacher straight from University and have spent 37 years in our Education Department. I am proud to be an employee of the Queensland Department of Education. After my teaching Diploma, I completed a degree in Economics and then a masters degree in Organisational Development. Both were completed part time whilst I was teaching.
I started teaching in North Queensland before moving to Brisbane secondary schools, eventually ending up at Maroochydore State High School in the mid 90s. Teaching was an enjoyable career, however at the time, there were not as many demands on teachers as there are today. I wanted to move into middle leadership because I thought I could make a difference. Little did I know how difficult that challenge would be some days.
I started as a curriculum Head of Department at Kenilworth SHS then moved into being a long-term Deputy at Sarina SHS and Mirani SHS. I was lucky to have Scott Cage as my Principal who gave me the confidence to have a shot at being a Principal.
In 2011, I was given the opportunity at Capella SHS and never looked back. I had some definite ideas about quality curriculum and pedagogy that I wanted to implement at a whole school level and Capella allowed me to do it. Capella also taught me how to manage a community.
Then I moved to Emerald SHS and have been blessed by working with some terrific educators and leaders on a daily basis. Here I learned how to lead large staff numbers and set up long-term leadership structures through the High Performance Teams program.
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: My key leadership learnings were that our youth are human beings and they are bound to make mistakes. We can be there either to punish them or help them learn from their mistakes. Sometimes I saw myself as a Deputy trying to prove myself right or defending myself against a student or parent allegation of what I said or what I did. What I missed is that it’s not about me, it’s about the students and getting them to work effectively in the school.
With leading staff, I learned it is crucial to give them clarity in what you want them to do and strong structural support to allow them to do it easily. Coupled with that is an incredibly deep belief that what you are telling staff to do will provide success (i.e., do your research and know your stuff).
I wish I had ignored the advice of some teachers who seemed to talk for most of the staff meetings or for the entire duration of a subject meeting. We really needed High Performance Teams (HPT) meeting protocols back in those days when meetings would go until it was dark.
5. Later Career: Setbacks & Successes
Q: How did your career progress to the role you have today? What has become more important and what has become less important to your school leadership in the last few years?
A: These days for me, leadership is about understanding the staff, students and community then applying a differentiated approach to working with them. When it comes to building leadership capability with my middle leaders I take a flexible advisory approach. If they are a new Head of Department (HOD), it’s about supportively managing and directing them. If they are an experienced HOD, it’s about coaching them to bring about new insights and pathways for growth. At the end of the day great schools are about developing great people. Administrative deadlines come and go, it is the classroom teaching and learning experiences that are at the forefront of our focus.
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 create High Performance Teams throughout the school?
A: For the past few years, the main non-negotiable I maintained at Emerald SHS was that we were implementing the High Performance Teams (HPT) strategies in EVERY team – and that eventually everyone would participate, no exceptions. We started with the senior leadership team of 13 classified officers and by the end of the first year, we had everyone, even the doubters, saying “I believe in this”.
My job was to give clarity to our strategy so we developed a key leadership structure document that was tied to our 4 Year Plan. By the second year we made all HODs lead faculties developing faculty specific data walls and HPT meeting agendas. Every HOD had clear roles and expectations and every faculty had clearly defined targets. We even had target achievement days each term, where the HOD, line manager and Principal would review the faculty’s progress.
Our focus was leadership through the executive leadership team to SLT then to faculties. We insisted on reviewing the HPT readings at team meetings and supported it through coaching and 360-degree feedback. We developed faculty specific action plans, team norms and behaviours. We made every aspect of being a High Performance Team explicit and clear on team data walls (see below). The focus was on clear and concise and supportive communication. Yep, we still have the stop watch out for meetings!
All faculties now have a weekly team wellbeing pulse as well as a whole school pulse, which we review at every SLT meeting. The significant change was the shift of HPT to the faculty and teacher level. It was here that we achieved traction.
In the past two years our data has risen significantly (>10% in some cases) in both OP1-5, OP 1-15, A-C percentages and in the School Opinion Survey. I have no doubt HPT was the key element that enabled us to have a deeper level of common purpose and the structures we needed to improve our quality teaching and learning – and ultimately lift our wider school performance.
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?
A: My past three coaches all taught me something. Shelley Lewis showed me how to keep a school community calm so that students and teachers can focus on learning and teaching without distractions. Scott Cage taught me about strategy and how to chart the “The Big Picture” and Ray Johnston taught me how to coach – through his excellent Principal coaching sessions. They all modelled clearly what to do.
8. Strange But True
Q: What have been some of the more memorable and unusual moments in your career?
A: I was a first year teacher on a school excursion group that scaled the Gillies Mountain range near Cairns as part of an outward-bound expedition in 1982. Wouldn’t be allowed to do it these days but it was a life altering experience and to do it with senior students was fantastic.
9. Personal Inspo: Favourite Books & Quotes
Q: What are you most gifted and/or recommended leadership books to others?
A: I found Wayne Bennett’s book “Don’t Let the Music Die” really influenced how I worked with people. The other great reading is Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
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 prefer to talk things through, exercise via some karate training to give my mind time to process everything and then return to refocusing on the big picture with everything in a better context.
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:Literacy and numeracy levels will still influence the outcomes of our students. However, for many of our future students, it will still be those special teachers at their school who will have helped make the most profound differences in their lives.
Thank you Ray Clarke!
Dr Pete Stebbins PhD