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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

Leadership Shares: Trudy Graham on Principal Forums, Social Capital & Collaborative Empowerment

Trudy Graham is a deeply considered and deeply compassionate education leader. With a lifetime of wisdom accrued through teaching, middle leader and principal roles, Trudy now work as an Assistant Regional Director supporting a large number of principals across a diverse network of schools. I have worked with Trudy for many years and admire her quiet determination and her patient and persistent approach to increasing the strength of collaboration and level of vulnerability and support among principals within her local networks. In this article Trudy shares her leadership journey and insights into raising the social capital and collaborative empowerment among school leaders.

1.    The Butterfly Effect…

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

A: Yes absolutely! I love the quote from Christa McAuliffe, ‘I touch the future. I teach’.

I was a senior in high school the year Christa McAuliffe, selected as the first teacher in space, was tragically killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Her quote has resonated with me ever since. As educators we can make a difference in our student’s lives on any given day. We can change the trajectory of their future lives and we influence future generations

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: Right now, I am really worried about our workforce. How do we develop and support high performing people who can sustainably deliver quality education for our learners? Getting this right creates strength in our education system. 

Attracting and keeping teachers and principals, especially in regional, rural and remote areas is a challenge right now and is only going to get more difficult as the population of Queensland grows over the next decade. 

Hand-in-glove with this issue is the wellbeing of teachers and Principals. Societal changes, growing demands and technology are impacting on the health and wellbeing of educators. 

I believe we as educators need to become more connected as humans, not more isolated. By working together we can support and learn from each other to grow professionally stronger. Now, more than ever we need to find ways to create deeper, authentic connections with our colleagues. 

3.   Your Brief History of Time…

Q: Give us a snapshot of your career to date. Where did you study? What were the early teaching years like and what was the catalyst to move into middle leadership and then subsequently into senior leadership?

A: Age 5: It all started with ‘playing school’. My kid sister and any number of toys were my students. I was always the teacher. Mrs Burchard, my year one teacher spotted my potential early and informed my mother, “She’ll be a teacher when she grows up.”

Age 17: There were tears. My entrance into tertiary institutions in Queensland was unsuccessful. Though, the consolation prize was spectacular. I studied a Diploma of Teaching interstate at Sydney College of Advanced Education.

Age 20: I was appointed to my first teaching position in Proston. Two years later I transferred to Roma Middle School.

Age 24: They called me crazy. With not quite 4 years of teaching experience, I accepted my first Principal position to Burketown in the Gulf of Carpentaria; one of the most isolated and remote parts of Queensland. I loved it. Studying by correspondence, I completed my Bachelor of Education from the University of South Australia while I was there.

Age 30: After three and half years as Principal in Richmond (P-10), I was promoted to Waraburra SS in Gracemere. Establishing the Learning and Development Centre to train teachers in the use of ICT for learning; delivering 16 practicums to 186 teachers across Central Qld was a highlight.

Age 34: I accepted the position at Allenstown, where I spent my longest period of seven years as Principal, before moving to Mount Archer SS. 

Age 45: With 21 years of experience as a school principal, leading five schools in rural, remote and regional Queensland, I was appointed into the ARD role in Rockhampton.

Right now: I support, challenge and coach school leaders in 29 schools across Central Queensland to bring their best game for teachers and kids.

4.    Early Career: Advice My Younger Self…

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

A: One of my early lessons was from Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Be Proactive. Early in my career I found myself with the same undesirable outcome after similar repeated interactions with another person. I changed my response and got a different result. It really emphasised how important it was to be conscious of my choices.

At 29, while Principal in Richmond, one of our vibrant and respected teachers died suddenly and unexpectedly from a brain aneurysm. While dealing with my own grief, I found myself leading the school and extended community through a very sad and tragic time. When I signed on as a Principal I never imagined I would need to deal with such a difficult circumstance. As tough as it was, it made me a stronger leader and a better human being. Sadly, there have been more student and teacher tragedies since then and I now find myself supporting other principals dealing with similar issues.

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?

A: Honestly, I’ve never had a career plan. I’ve taken each role and relished the challenge it has provided me, acquiring knowledge and skills along the way. Then I’ve looked for the next challenge. 

There have been times though, when I have been comfortable and contented in my work and a gentle nudge from a supervisor or mentor who has seen potential in me, has prompted me to consider what I might do next. 

Each time I have taken the next step, considerations for what was best for my family has also been significant. 

There have been disappointments where I didn’t get the job that I really wanted. But in hindsight the way things have worked out are better in the long run. For me, it has become intriguing to watch how people’s careers unfold. After a disappointment, an opportunity presents that they could never have imagined and they end up in a position that far exceeds their original expectations.  I often tell people not to stress about what the next position might be. It’s amazing how things fall into place. You never know what is just around the corner.

6.    Building Capability in School Leaders

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: One of the biggest challenges I have been working on is increasing the social capital between school leaders within my region through School Leader Forum Groups. Social capital is the collaborative power in the group. Education thought leader, Michael Fullen described the value of social capital as “getting the group to lift the group”. When you look at our Department we’re really big on human capital, professional development and building people’s capabilities but the structures and systems in place to actually build social capital is where the biggest challenge remains.

Social capital is very important for Principals as Phil Riley’s research highlights the incredible challenges impacting upon Principal wellbeing. In his report, Phil provides 15 recommendations to improve Principal wellbeing – four of which directly reference social capital. Half of them, and they’re the half that I’ve picked out and highlighted in pink below, reference the type of work that Forums create. 

Developing the Central Queensland School Leader’s Forum Strategy has been a key initiative to address Principal’s wellbeing. It provides mutual support – a community of support among peer leaders addressing many of the issues highlighted in the research.  Our leadership Forum’s purpose is:“By working together, communicating with each other, developing our people, reviewing our performance we’ll ensure our schools are among the best in the world”. 

After several years participating in our School Leader Forum Groups, I’m most proud of the level of collaboration that has been nurtured between school leaders. It is something that I value greatly and missed during my earlier years of principalship where relationships with Principal colleagues ebbed and flowed and the depth of support and care was not as deep as it can now be through the Forum process. 

I believe we are entering a new era in the way school leaders engage with each other. Just as teaching has become de-privatised and no longer hidden behind classroom walls, the work of Principals in leading school improvement is becoming a collective responsibility with colleagues in neighboring schools. Within schools we build expert teaching teams, across schools a consortium of leaders will share accountability for all schools improving. 

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: In some respects I believe leadership learning can’t be fast-tracked. Growth in leadership comes from experiential learning, reliant on large doses of self-awareness and reflection. Learning with and from others is indispensable in leadership. Having people around you who can coach, mentor or be a critical friend is essential. This is where I can support new school leaders, but I also believe it is essential they connect with colleagues. As leaders, I think we underestimate how vital shared experiences and mutual support are in our work and don’t prioritise time and space in our busy lives to make this a priority. I think if we did the benefits would be tenfold.

5.    Memorable Moments… 

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

A: In 2008 I was presented with a Ministers Award for School Leaders and Teacher Excellence in recognition for development of innovative ideas and solutions for education into the future.

6.    Personal Inspo: Favorite Books & Quotes

Q: What are you 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: I was recently asked to recommend some authors or titles to increase personal capabilities as a leader and educator. These books have made my top five because they had relevant lessons that I applied to my work at the time I read them. I also find myself still sharing messages with others and referencing these texts.

To be clear, these are leadership books that apply across any field. They are not specific to education, but have leadership and personal development concepts that are pertinent for educators. 

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek (2011) - I read the book, watched the TED Talkand even did the online course. You’ll also find some other great stuff on Simon Sinek’s website. Start with this book to get a better understanding of why it is important to know what you stand for and what drives you. He has a follow up book, “Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team”. Simon Sinek also wrote “Leaders Eat Last”. This one is on my Want to Read list. It has great ratings and reviews.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey (1989) - This book is the quintessential self-improvement text. I recommend it as a leadership text because the hardest part about being a leader is the work you do internally on yourself, not externally with others. I first read this book in the mid 90s and had light bulb moments. I re-read it again late last year (more than 20 years later and with a whole lot more life and leadership experience) and I took more lessons from it.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936) - Two words – A Classic. I bought this book early in my career when I was struggling to have difficult conversations with people I was supervising. I had to address growing issues, but wanted to maintain a positive relationship. This book had what I was looking for. Keep in mind it was published in 1936, so you’ll find the language rather formal, but it’s full of sage advice. It is #19 on Time Magazine’s List of 100 Most Influential Non-Fiction Books.

Good to Great by Jim Collins (2011) - Don’t be put off by the big American corporations that are the foundation of Jim Collins’ research for this book. I have applied many of the ideas in leading schools. I’ve also heard other presenters reference theories from this text, so chances are you have too. The flywheel effect, hedgehog concept, and getting the right people on the bus all originated from “Good to Great”. For the record, I still aspire to Level 5 Leadership.

Dare to Lead by Brene Brown (2018) - I’ve just started to listen to “Dare to Lead” as an audiobook. I like to think Brene Brown is reading this to me, personally, as I exercise. One chapter in, and it’s brilliant. I have made notes in the audio app but I need to acquire a hard copy. There will be pencil notes in the margins and sticky notes hanging out the sides when I am done. There so many great quotes… here’s one of my favourites about schools:

“What we can do, and what we are ethically called to do, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack and open their hearts to truly being seen. We must be guardians of a space that allows students to breathe, and be curious, and explore the world, and be how they are without suffocation. They deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale. And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong, even one where they can take off that armor. It can, and often does change the trajectory of their life.” – Brene Brown

7.    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 have found keeping a journal to be a brilliant strategy to not only manage times where I might be feeling overwhelmed but also keep me grounded about the many positive things that are happening in my life as I tackle the challenges that everyone of us must face.

I am also a firm believer in regular exercise and jogging is a great releasing activity for me.

I have also been fortunate to be part of a School Leadership Forum group which has been a great source of both support and accountability.

8.   Sliding Doors - Into The Future....

Q: Fast-forward 20 years from know – what will be the keys to the success of the education system?

A: The strength of the teacher-student relationship will be a critical point of stability which in turn will enable faster adaption to an increasingly faster paced state of change in the world. Concurrent to the emphasis on teacher-student relationships will be the increased level of peer support and professional development of school leaders across neighbouring schools.

Thus the future success of schools hinges upon our ability as system leaders to develop and support high performing school leaders and teachers who can sustainably deliver quality education to each and every student.

Thank-you Trudy Graham!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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