Leadership Shares: Tracy Egan on Inclusive School Culture & High Performance Teaching Teams
Tracy Egan is one of the most dedicated and committed school leaders I have met. Her unwavering determination to create a High Performance School is built on having a clear vision and purpose, strong systems and processes, dashboards, and a deep understanding of team dynamics.
As the foundation Principal of Mango Hill State School she has shown significant courage and determination in building an inclusive school culture where each child is able to reach their potential. While she has incredibly high expectations of her staff and students she also balances this with empathy to truly support staff and students to be their best.
In this edition of the HPS Leadership Share series Tracy opens up about the challenges and complexities of building high performance schools – the leadership lessons she’s learned, the value of revisiting your vision and purpose, having consistent processes and protocols, and the importance of relationships and focusing on each and every student…
1. The Butterfly Effect
Q: Do you believe teachers are having a larger impact in society beyond the classroom?
A: Yes, absolutely! Children in our school come from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures. Their relationship with their teacher is a critical success factor to maximise their development academically, socially and culturally – to strengthen not just the child’s development but also the wider family’s sense of inclusion and value in the school community.
We want all children to have outstanding teachers by choice not by chance and to ensure that every teacher who comes into contact with the child helps them to succeed – as a ‘whole child’ not just in their ‘academic achievement’. Supporting children’s wellbeing so they can flourish also greatly enhances other child development issues such as finding their place in the world, developing healthy social-emotional boundaries and strengthening their sense of self-identity.
The journey of childhood development can either be joyously enriched by teachers or inadvertently diminished or depleted. This becomes especially true for diverse learners who may have additional disability, culture or gender based needs that must be considered otherwise we may unwittingly reinforce or give a message that they are less valued in school or society. As a school leader I believe everything we do must be fully inclusive being mindful that the often quoted statement of ‘every student succeeding’ really must mean ALL students.
At Mango Hill State School we have been identified as a school with outstanding data for kids with disability and diversity. We achieved this distinction by having high expectations of our school community and staff to challenge the status quo as well as high expectations of every child, regardless of their background, to find their aspiration and make the relevant adjustments so that all children succeed.
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: I believe the biggest issues in education currently is how we ensure each and every student succeeds – particularly children who have more complex needs in terms of behaviour or disability. How do we maximise inclusive education within finite resources and how do we make sure we balance the focus of our teaching and learning to cater for the full spectrum of student needs without inadvertently over or under focusing on students at the extreme lower or upper ends of the achievement continuum?
How do we support our teachers to make the adjustments to deal with the challenges of the complexities outlined above – ensuring teacher wellbeing amidst the complex challenges of differentiating to ensure every child succeeds? How do we further build teacher skills and capacity to manage students with complex needs and ensure teachers feel confident and supported in the classroom? I worry more and more about the need to build systems to provide collegial support to our staff, to enhance communication and ensure input from parents to create true partnerships (as they know their child best). I want everyone surrounding a child to be working on the same team to do whatever it takes for the student to succeed.
Inclusion is more than just equality – as not every child ‘equally’ needs the same thing. We work hard at building the capability of teachers to know every student in their classroom. How do we balance supporting them to be their best as a teacher and challenge them to question their ingrained ways of working that may not be best practice whilst being respectful of their skill for complex challenges?
I also think we need to consider how to attract the right people into the career path of teaching – particularly in light of the aforementioned challenges. We need to lift the status of teaching and leading schools – recruiting and retaining high quality staff in complex roles so they can see the absolute joy of working with young children and helping them be their best and succeed. Progression of careers is also a critical issue by supporting new and middle career teachers, and aspiring middle and senior leaders, and helping them to remember their true passion and why they went into teaching.
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: Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. I still remember as a child playing teacher with my dolls. As a teenager I enjoyed sport and had some early leadership learnings coaching netball teams.
After finishing High School I went straight to teacher training at the Brisbane College of Advanced Education graduating in 1989. I started my teaching career in Moura in central Queensland before returning to South East Queensland. After 5 years teaching, I applied for an Educational Advisor role in English as I was very interested in teaching literacy. After working as an Advisor I was itching to get back to classroom teaching so commenced at Caboolture East State School (CESS). Whilst there I became the Literacy Coordinator – which was a teaching and coaching role then moved into the curriculum co-ordinator role, then Head of Curriculum. I really enjoyed building the capability of others which created a natural evolution into school leadership roles.
In 2007, I acted as Deputy Principal (DP) at CESS having been at the school for 12 years. This was a big step up for me despite the fact that I had skills in curriculum, planning and teaching, in the DP role I also needed to learn the skills to manage parent concerns and student behavior so I endured a very steep learning curve. My next role was as a permanent DP at Kippa Ring SS. I further developed my school leadership skills over the next 2.5 years. I was particularly focused on learning new skills to build more effective relationships with parents, manage complex behaviors and strategically set the agenda around teaching, learning and curriculum.
At the same time, my Assistant Regional Director also encouraged my leadership development by sending me to an Emerging Leaders Course which helped me further understood myself as a leader. In late 2009 I was asked to act at as Principal of Lawnton SS. This was a fantastic opportunity to put my leadership skills to the test. I was very focused on my relational skills in getting people on side, managing underperformance, developing systems, financial management and quality teaching and learning. I was ready for the challenge and over the next 18 months I was able to support some significant improvements for staff, students and the local community. In mid 2011 I was appointed as the foundation principal of Mango Hill SS which is my current role.
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: We’re in the people business so you need to bring everyone with you – win their hearts and minds and get them to ‘buy in’ and be a part of the decision making or improvement agenda. We can’t boss people into doing it – relying on a stick or carrot won’t get you far. Focus on purpose – connecting with the ‘why’– they’ll do it if they believe. I am continually amazed at the extraordinary efforts of staff when they believe it will make a difference to their kids.
Understanding personality types and strengths is crucial for leadership success. If you’re not naturally high on red (relational traits) you must work hard at that. Even if you are highly system focused and action orientated (blue) it can’t be about systems all the time. Know thyself – make the most of the tasks and situations that favour your personality and dig deep and persevere with those that are more challenging. For me it is the Red/Blue challenge – ensuring the systems are great whilst getting the relationships right and persuading and influencing – and developing a shared sense of vision and purpose.
Be kinder to myself along the way and don’t beat myself up about the mistakes – mistakes are there to help you learn and grow. Try things and take risks along the way. Think it through and plan the best you can but don’t let your fear of mistakes stop you from taking risks. There are no short cuts and you will always pay dearly for simply taking the easy comfort zone decision. Finally, do what gives you joy.
Advice to Ignore:
Some bad advice I’ve was once told was ‘You’ve got to be hard on kids at first’ the treat ‘em mean and keep ‘em keen idea is total rubbish – we’re in the relationship game first and foremost. We need to bring people with us by showing genuine care and concern. Leadership is not a cartoon role play of what a factory boss should be.
5. Later Career: Setbacks & Successes
Q: 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: One of the recent setbacks in my career was the plateauing and decline of our 2017 NAPLAN data. I was devastated that we didn’t get a lift and shed many tears about the results. This was an incredibly good learning because it highlighted that you can’t just keep doing what you’re doing – you need to be proactive in getting the next lift. It’s easy to be a good school, but to be a great school you need to plan strategically – particularly in a large school like Mango Hill. We worked exceptionally hard in the teaching and learning of reading and we got back into classrooms to have our eyes on the ground and I reengaged with how I worked with my leadership team. This was such a challenging time but we regrouped and saw a significant improvement in our 2018 NAPLAN data.
My learning in this is that you can’t sit back and sook about it. Find out what you’re not seeing, have different eyes on the game, plan strategically and YOU CAN MAKE IT HAPPEN!
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 enable your own leadership team to create High Performance Teams throughout the school? How do you use meeting cycles and dashboards to maximise staff and student performance and wellbeing?
A: Building a clear and consistent culture across every staff member in every team within the school has been the biggest success factor behind our school’s high performance journey.
Taking the time on student free days to workshop the purpose and vision with the leadership team and then collaborating with staff to further sharpen and strengthen our combined sense of purpose and vision as a whole school was very important. Having teachers buy-in and being part of the vision has been enormously powerful for teachers and strengthened subsequent performance development and improvement processes. Another important aspect of our school culture was around leveraging diversity – and getting people to understand the complexities of personality and team relationships especially within larger cohort teams and developing ways of working together and protocols for managing unhealthy tension or conflict.
With a clear sense of purpose and vision and a deeper understanding of each other we naturally progressed to goal setting and action planning. We have created a ‘road map’ for the whole school and for each and every team which is displayed on team data walls which we refer to as our ‘team boards’. These team data walls have become very powerful drivers of performance in our school. At every weekly meeting, teams review their data walls focusing on the school’s vision and purpose, ways of working together, progress on goals and targets, and opportunities to stretch what is possible to maximise student outcomes.
By using HPT systems and meeting structures we have accountability right across the school and collectively have a language and consistent way of working. The leadership team worked hard on this consistent model so that all teams across the school have the same vision, meeting structures, protocols, reporting processes, values and language so that there is a strong sense of confidence for teachers because regardless of the what meeting it is, there is consistency across the school.
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?
A: Every leader is influential in some way. We can learn from each leader – sometimes what not to do! The traits I look for in a mentor is someone who listens really carefully about what my concerns are. They help sort out your thinking and give you tips about how they’ve done things. I also look for mentors who have expertise in things that I don’t and can provide advice or practical strategies to build my toolkit. Unconsciously I might not know what is possible so a mentor is able to fill the gap.
When I was a beginning principal I had a fantastic mentor who I could ask ‘where to begin and what I should be paying attention to’. She had a generosity of time and was incredibly helpful – even to the point of driving over to my school at the time and talking through some challenging situations, clarifying my thinking and offering advice from her years of experience.
8. Personal Inspo: Favourite 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?
A:There are a lot of leadership books that really resonate for me. In particular, Michael Fullan’s work on system leadership and Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset – in particular building the capability to be in a mindset that we can all be a little better each day.
At the recent Principal’s Conference I was really inspired by the keynote address by Olympian Anna Meares. Her story about improving by only 1 second from one Olympics to the next really resonated with me – to be that tiny bit better each day – if only by a fraction – it all adds up.
I am a big believer in Dylan William’s quote “If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve” and I have this displayed all around our school – in my office, in the classrooms, and in the collaboration spaces.
9.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 do a number of things to cope with stress. I always try to focus on what I achieved during the day rather than focus on what I didn’t do. I also try to have something to focus on and enjoy each day, be that going out for dinner, listening to music, having coffee as well as having something to look forward to – a holiday, seeing family and friends, a weekend away, massage etc. I try to maintain a positive focus and make a difference each day.
10. 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 biggest key to success in education will be investing in the wellbeing and work demands of teachers and leaders. The more we can hold up teaching as a career of choice where we can attract quality leaders and teachers, the better the education system will be. In addition, our ability to build inclusive school cultures, that focus on each and every student and their individual needs, goals and aspirations, and what we need to do to support teachers to achieve this, will result in strong communities and growth and learning for all students.
Thankyou Tracy Egan!
Dr Pete Stebbins PhD