In this HPS Leadership Shares series we interview education leaders nominated by their colleagues and peers as exemplars of excellence in building high performance schools.
Scott Cage is an outstanding school leader in terms of his passion, commitment and drive to build the Highest Performance School possible! Scott has a deep belief in the potential of all students and staff with the courage to challenge the status quo and the sheer determination to doggedly persist with the change journey that is necessary for genuine school transformation. In this article Scott shares his leadership journey, the set-backs, growth challenges and some important insights about the systems and structures needed to effectively run a larger student focused school...
1. The Butterfly Effect…
Q: Do you believe teachers are having a larger impact in society beyond the classroom?
A: Absolutely – Almost everyone can remember ‘that’ special teacher – the ‘champion teacher’ that literally changed their life! That took an interest in them, cared for them and persevered with them when they doubted themselves or simply wanted to give up. My champion teacher was Mrs Thomas. And I still remember how much interest and belief she had in me. On the flip side, when teachers are unable to relate to a student (or caught up in unhealthy conflict with a student), the damage that can be done can last a lifetime.
The teacher-student relationship is a major influencer on the student’s level of self-expectation and self-belief. Thus, as a Principal, I firmly believe the most important aspect in any classroom is the teacher-student relationship and equipping the teacher to be able to adopt a pastoral care role when needed is a critical component of any High Performance School.
2. Future Tense...
Q: What are the issues that keep you up a night?
A: The ongoing dilemma of how best to leverage new opportunities and managing demands that exceed finite resources ‘keeps me up at night'. I find myself reflecting regularly on the difficult question of how best to evaluate the cost-benefits of our decisions and how to maximise resources to meet all our students’ needs.
What is the best way to allocate our set resources to best meet the needs of all students? How do we ensure that, within the resources available to us, every student has the opportunity to have the best possible result (BPR) and has a pathway to further contribute and be part of society?
Q: What are the big issues for education in the current state of play and what are the emerging challenges on the horizon?
A: Education has the same challenges that other professional service providers must also face. Quality people deliver quality outcomes! And quality people are in short supply and the opportunities to develop staff are not in sync with the demand and expectations of the community – who expect every teacher to already be at their best! Rural areas have the added difficulty of attracting experienced high performing staff and have a higher staff turnover as people leave to return to the S.E corner. This means that professional development is a larger slice of the budget of rural schools than their urban counterparts.
Regarding emerging challenges, I see the use of technology in schools and industry as the biggest issue. The curriculum is very crowded so its challenging to ensure that our students have the appropriate attitude and IT skills to engage and maximise opportunities when they leave school, while also meeting accrediting authority requirements when at school! The challenge in this is twofold – firstly, teaching students to use technology can be its own challenge. Technology, if not used correctly, can increase the cognitive load on the learning process. Secondly, the extent to which accrediting authority requirements and real-world demands align with technology is not always in sync. This creates backward pressure on staff trying to maximise academic results, industry relevant skills and the likelihood of employment. The rise of online learning like udacity.com is an example of industry recognising a gap in required IT skills.
3. Your Brief History of Time…
Q: Give us a snapshot of your career to date. What roles did you have prior to becoming a teacher? What were the early teaching years like and what was the catalyst to move into leadership?
A: Growing up, school was a non-entity for me – socially good fun, but absolutely boring in class. After being a straight academic student in the early years of high school, in the top academic class 8A1 to 10A1 in a large high school, I had a massive reversal of both motivation and performance with total disengagement in Years 11 and 12. As I look back I think this was due to school having no purpose for me in those senior years.
After I left school I had the pleasure of working as a theatre orderly at Saint Andrews hospital. As a theatre-orderly I had to shave men’s groin region in preparation for surgery and this was definitely not a highlight of my working life! I gained a sheet-metal apprenticeship and after six months changed to a fitter and turner apprenticeship with E.I Engineering in Darra, Brisbane. I completed my trade mainly as a first class machinist and then worked as a fitter at various locations in Brisbane.
Starting in 1984, at Q.I.T. (Brisbane), I studied a Diploma of Engineering three nights a week for two years before seeing an advertisement for scholarships to be a Manual Arts teacher. I was not enjoying my contract work as a Fitter installing a Bundy Rum bottling plant at Acacia Ridge so the shift into Manual Arts teaching looked like a great option.
In 1987 I graduated as a Manual Arts teacher and worked in Glenden, a small mining town in Central Queensland before moving to Mirani State High School (SHS) west of Mackay. Whilst I was at Mirani, we introduced the Certificate II Engineering Program as a vocational pathway for students. I transferred to Mackay North SHS in 1994 co-coordinating the Permanent Part Time Schooling Program at both North Mackay and Pioneer SHS. At this time we had up to forty students in Year 11 and 12 working in paid employment one day per week. In my role I was required to find workplaces for students to work in, as well as run tutorials after hours at each school.
In 1995, I shifted to the Mackay School Support Centre where I worked as a Project Officer for the Australian Student Traineeship Foundation (ASTF) creating local workplace committees to facilitate student work placements across a range of locations including Mackay, Charters Towers, Mt Isa and the Sunshine Coast. From 1996 to 1999 I worked as the Senior Schooling Head of Department at Urangan SHS in Hervey Bay before moving to Rockhampton to become the Deputy Principal of Glenmore State High from 1999 to 2008. From 2008 to 2010 I took a secondment working as the CEO of the Gladstone Australian Technical College. My role was to write the forward strategic plan and transition the College into Gladstone State High School. At the start of 2010 I was promoted to Principal at Mirani SHS and have continued in this role ever since.
It’s always interesting to look back on your career with the wisdom of hindsight. For many years I never purposefully intended to become a Principal – however at various times through my career when I was frustrated about the leaders I worked for my wonderful wife would say, “If you don’t like what your boss is doing, don’t whine unless you’re willing to do their job better”– and she was right of course – so here I am now forever trying to do the job of Principal better!
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: Work hard, work late and learn from everyone. Don’t be insular in looking for ways to improve your school. Learn from business people and organisations that are outside education – study what works best and adapt to suit your context. Many great ideas about teamwork, customer service, data management, dashboards, marketing and communication from a diverse range of industries can easily be adapted to an education context – often bringing a whole range of additional innovations and benefits.
Build your networks and remember if you want to move up the ladder – don’t expect people to miraculously see your worth and the effort you put in – you must also seek opportunities for others to see your value. Take opportunities to get involved in boards and committees and actively build relationships with other community agencies. Remember advice – whether good or bad depends on the perspective of the person who gives it and the person who receives it. Challenge your ladder of inference – learn how to see the biases and limitations of your own thinking!!!
5. Later Career: Setbacks & Successes…
Q: How did your career progress to the role you have today? Have you had any setbacks which ultimately created subsequent success?
A: Everybody I know has had knock-backs and been told on more than one occasion ‘that you’re not good enough’. Not only do you have to have the goods to be good enough, you also have to have the resilience to weather the storm and keep going until the stars, moon and tides align to give you the opportunity you deserve. Chin up, keep going and have faith!
In school leadership you will generally not have a problem with most people despite your differences and personalities if you are doing what you believe is “best for the kids.”
I have found that there are two very different phases of leadership required to improve a school over time. In the short term (as ‘the new broom’) a higher amount of direction and management is needed which then shifts to a much less directive mentoring and coaching approach in order to maintain growth over subsequent years.
A career Principal must also change their leadership approach as they move from a small to large school. The leader’s ability to create a vision, systems of meetings and reporting, bring staff on board and delegate is especially crucial for building high performance cultures in larger schools.
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? get teams working effectively – both within faculties and collaborating across the school? How do you use meeting cycles and dashboards to maximise staff and student performance and wellbeing?
A: Firstly – I don’t have the skills that some staff have. Delegate, acknowledge, support and create the structures and environment for them to excel. This ‘Golden Thread’ of alignment is a very important aspect of leading a High Performance School.I spend a lot of my time working behind the scenes building and tweaking our performance reporting systems, meeting cycles, agendas and dashboards, communiques and newsletters – all to make the school environment easier for staff to excel – to make it easier for everyone to know everything they need to know – to be constantly ‘in the loop’This ‘Golden Thread’ of alignment is a very important aspect of leading a High Performance School. and ‘up to date’ giving them more time and energy to focus on their students and their teaching.
Secondly – The leadership team has to know each other well enough to know our individual strengths and weaknesses. This allows engagement of the full intellectual capacity of your team. This then flows to all staff engaging in knowing each other. Team Profiling has been an exceptionally useful process to quickly identify positive and negative team dynamics and collaboratively develop our ‘above and below the line’ team behaviours and protocols to call each other on negative behaviours.
Thirdly – everyone must know their hedgehog – the specific core purpose while they are in a particular team. As most people belong to multiple teams in a large school – their professional teaching team, faculty team, school improvement group, year level or house team – differentiating their role and purpose in each of these different teams enables them to maximise their performance amidst complex and at times competing roles and agendas. They must know the purpose of each team, have clear and consistent meeting, reporting and communication protocols to maximise the limited time and energy available. Time is precious but don’t undervalue the purposeful conversation to connect and give value to others.
Finally – Make sure that your systems and processes are documented, understood and enacted. Staff engagement in data must be targeted and poignant to them. Very sharp and have meaning. It is too easy just to put up data. Data walls must inform action. Make your team systems and documentation accessible in multiple electronic and hard copy formats for easy reference to remind and reflect upon as well as enable the fast-tracking of the on-boarding process for new staff.
7. Influential Leaders and 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: Easy – Nancy Williamson #1 and Frank Hayes #2. Nancy was Principal of Glenmore SHS. An amazing leader who took the most challenging school in town and created a great school. She taught me that a tight leadership team with the same vision and values can create a culture to change a school and community. Frank had a colourful history initially working as a trainer in the army/commandos, before becoming the training manager at Roseberry Mine in Tasmania. Frank then worked in theTAFE sector eventually working with me as a contractor in the school support centre. Frank taught me some very valuable lessons about systems and working with industry leaders. One little gem was the practice of sending the thank-you’s to industry leaders after stakeholder meetings.
The best mentors have been flexible in their approach with me – happy to be blunt and direct with me when I needed it but also circumspect and reflective as well. Many have become deeper friends over time. Mentors I seek out vary depending on the issues I am wrestling with. I seek them out when needed – often putting a lot of effort into locating the right people – many people underestimate how hard it is to find good mentors – and just how important having the right mentors can be.
8. Strange But True…
Q: What have been some of the more memorable and unusual moments in your career?
A: I’ll never forget meeting with a long-gone person of significant political importance who had just finished a public speech promoting the idea of school-based apprenticeships. After the speech he privately told me, “There will never be school-based apprenticeships.” Whilst he reinforced my healthy level of skepticism in the political process it strengthened my resolve to try ever harder to make the most of the resources in my schools to meet the needs of the students in the local community context. In the words of Roosevelt “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
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?
“Who moved my cheese” by Spencer Johnson – it will happen to you
"Work Smarter: Live Better" by Cyril Peupion.
Create memories today with your child.
Turn technology off.
Together: read a book, visit a museum, go for a swim…
Life is short, value your family!
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: Family comes first – Always! No-one from your old school will be with you on your death bed although a googolplex may be at your funeral!
At school – Focus on the students. What is in their best interests?
Developing as a leader – Talk to your networks and seek support and advice. You will be surprised that there will be many more than you expect that will support you although they may not do it publically. You may feel overwhelmed but remember the Pareto principle – Focus on the 20%: You just reduced your workload by 80%.
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: Change is inevitable with technology making access to knowledge simple and changing societal expectations. It is critical in making students understand that if they are not paying for the service, then they are the product that is being on-sold. We oldies used to worry about our credit rating; our students now worry about their social ranking and the use of big data. We have to ensure our students can navigate successfully the digital world.
Technology has enabled the geo-political world demography to change quickly both globally and locally. Students must understand their situation, critically analyse, evaluate, identify causes, recognise the viewpoints of others, and then synthesise their position in the midst of a flurry of presented media. An example of this is our political system which was set up for 1901 and was possibly not designed for our current population distribution. There may be a major re-think of curriculum with a major focus on a lean and agile mind set as computer algorithms become more complex imitating human thinking.