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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

School Culture & High Performance Teaching Teams: Leadership Shares with Samantha Donovan

…we are committed to ensuring that all our students and staff ‘flourish’, which is about living in a state of generativity, growth, and resilience…

In the HPS Leadership Shares Series we interview education leaders nominated by their colleagues and peers as exemplars of excellence in building High Performance Schools.


Samantha Donovan, Principal of Norfolk Village State School, is an exceptional school leader who combines a deep empathy for her staff and students with a fierce resolve towards school improvement and every student succeeding. These dual attributes of deep empathy and drive for continuous improvement feature in the many positive comments Samantha’s colleagues make about her. As such it comes as no surprise that Samantha was the winner of the ACEL New Voice in Educational Leadership Scholarship.

I have been privileged to have met Samantha at several different points in her career and each time I was impressed by the positive energy and deep humility in her approach to culture change, wellbeing, and school improvement....

The Butterfly Effect…

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

A: Absolutely! Teachers and School Leaders work each and every day to support families and their students in a multitude of ways. At Norfolk Village State School, we are committed to ensuring that all our students (and staff) ‘flourish’, which in Positive Psychology is about living in an optimal state of generativity, growth, and resilience.

As a school we are exploring Positive Psychology, including how to possess a ‘Growth Mindset’. When I hear about our students going home and teaching their parents about the growth strategies they learned at school, I am reminded of the incredible difference we make in the bigger picture of life, and the positive impact we have on families in our community. 

I am thrilled when former students share their many successes after graduating from our school and parents share stories of growth and success through the care and dedication of our Staff. I remember being in a shopping centre a few years ago, only to have a former student run across the shop to me to thank me for the support I had offered during an incredibly difficult time for him and his family. He shared his many successes since leaving the school and his future career plans. It was a timely reminder of how much our support can mean to the children we serve. 

What keeps you up at night?

Q: What are the big issues school leaders face in the current state of play and what are the emerging challenges on the horizon?

A: It would be the wellbeing of my students and staff. My commitment is to supporting each and every child to flourish. This requires a dedicated team of professionals who are passionate about the connection each of our students have to our school. Through this connection, children develop a strong sense of belonging that forms the foundation for quality learning. This is one of the key emerging challenges school leaders face which raises a number of questions to consider: 

• How can I ensure I am balancing the wellbeing of my staff and students in alignment with our school improvement agenda? 

• How do we ensure the range of programs and interventions we have in place represent a continuum of support and are targeted at the right level, at the right time, for each individual student (not just some students)? 

• How can we be innovative in our school structures to create flexible ways to provide this support? 

• Most importantly, how can I ensure that I identify and attend to a student’s wellbeing to create the strong foundation that will then enable them to learn given some of the complex family environments they may be coming from? 

These questions represent the complex role of the School Principal and how important collaboration is to finding the solutions. A critical success factor in our school is in the development of high performance teams who can collaborate and problem solve these complex challenges together as a professional learning community. 

School Leaders have a very complex and demanding job and it is easy to become consumed by things that may not be directly impacting our students reaching their potential. A high performance team culture offsets this risk by helping us all remain passionately focused on the most important work – every child flourishing in our care.

Your Brief History of Time...

Q: Can you give us a snapshot of your life journey in becoming a School Leader?

A: I always dreamt of being a professional ballerina or contemporary dancer. I was committed to this pathway throughout my childhood and teenage years until one day one of my high school teachers asked me to step up and lead our class on an activity while she helped a particular student. I led the class through the activity she had set and at the end of the class, she told me she thought I would make a great teacher. I never looked back! I had absolutely loved the experience! 

I combined my passion for the Performing Arts with my original teaching degree and graduated as a Secondary Dance/Drama teacher from the Queensland University of Technology, one of the first from this new University program. As part of this course I completed a practicum in a primary school which I absolutely loved. My Supervising Teacher at the time encouraged me to re-think my secondary decision and change to primary teaching but I continued… I often reflect on the insight and wisdom of my Supervisor at the time, given how passionate I am now about working in the primary sector! However I did enjoy my subsequent work with the high school performing Arts teams who helped me to refine my craft and became incredibly passionate about curriculum and professional learning. 

My next career step working in Central Office as part of the Curriculum Branch and implementation of the new syllabus led me to supporting primary schools across the State. During this time I decided to further my study and completed my Research Masters degree, focusing on effective professional development for teachers in primary schools.

My next role was working as the Regional Manager for Learning in the South East Region of Queensland, supporting all of our schools with their curriculum and professional learning needs. I worked alongside school leadership teams to implement strategic curriculum and professional learning reforms and developed a deep respect for the complexities of the work they do in leading their school communities forward. 

I then worked as a Deputy Principal – and during this time I was blessed with my two sons who are now aged 4 and 9. I then worked in some Acting Principal positions before being appointed to my current Principal role at Norfolk Village State School. 

Throughout my career, at every stage, I have never stopped learning and seeking out the information, knowledge, skills and expertise I needed to do each role to the very best of my ability. I am driven to serve no matter what my role is and I have continued to hold myself accountable to continued learning. My pathway to Principalship has taken a number of twists and turns but I have thoroughly enjoyed the diversity and challenges along the way.

Early Leadership Life Lessons...

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

A: Looking back now, I believe there were four early career leadership lessons that shaped my professional career:


As a classroom teacher, I enjoyed collaborating with colleagues to develop the best outcomes for teachers. I found that I drew energy from being part of high performance teams who were committed to supporting our students achieve their potential. This is not to say that working in teams is not without the challenges that come with being vulnerable and open to feedback - knowing when to take things on board and when to let them go. However the power of collaboration is so much greater than working in isolation and this is something that is now central to my leadership approach. 


As a new leader, I often found myself ‘putting on my batman cape to save the day’ only to then find I needed to continue doing this as I had failed to build capability so that practices became embedded. I also was failing to recognise that each of my staff learnt differently and I needed a differentiated approach to adult learning through a variety of professional learning, to support my adult learners. 


To build capability, I learnt that you must have a flexible approach to leading school improvement where wellbeing is prioritised. This requires knowing what to trade-off when we need to lower the pressure of a new initiative or create additional time because our Staff need to adjust to a new practice… rather than charging ahead because this was the timeline agreed to in our Action Plan. These experiences helped me to understand what was ‘tight’ in my leadership and improvement agendas and what was ‘loose’. What was non-negotiable and what could be negotiated. This clarity enabled collaboration from inception to design and implementation and then evaluation, drawing on the strengths of my staff. 


My leadership now focuses on developing school cultures that are optimal for growth for ALL members of the school community. A culture where we can learn by doing in a safe and supportive environment, committed to all students and staff flourishing.

This type of school culture is optimal for growth – where staff and students are supported to get into ‘The Learning Pit’ (a brilliant concept from James Nottingham) so that they can progress and flourish. It requires an empathetic leadership style which knows when to intervene in the struggle of learning and when to allow people to learn for sustainable growth. This requires respect, trust, courage, resilience, clear vision and goals and a firm commitment and belief in my Staff that together, we can overcome any challenge. 

Developing School Culture: Happy vs. Healthy

Q: Samantha you are very passionate about High Performance Teaching Teams and the twin factors of wellbeing and continuous learning/improvement. How do you reconcile the necessary tension in the 'learning pit' of improvement with the need to lower stress and improve wellbeing?

A: Yes, developing high performance school culture is very important and maximising teacher (and student) wellbeing is a core part of my values as a School Leader – however wellbeing is not just about lowering stress levels (which is very important) – it is also about increasing the confidence and competence of teachers in their roles through continuous learning. Achieving both these goals simultaneously can be challenging at times. It’s about balancing the necessary tension of the ‘learning pit’ with the need to lower stress & improve overall wellbeing.

Leaders who develop a school culture that simply seeks to lower stress levels in staff avoid exposing staff to some of the more difficult professional development experiences necessary to maximise teacher performance. Whilst in the short-term people are ‘happy’ – over the longer-term the lack of ‘learning’ and continuous improvement in teachers shows in student achievement levels. If we over-focus on minimising stress, ‘difficult conversations’ and ‘developmental feedback’ is also avoided resulting in job satisfaction dropping. The cultural language I hear among staff in these circumstances is “Not enough time…already too busy…” 

Conversely when the focus is on teacher learning and development without also supporting wellbeing, then teachers can become overwhelmed with the burden of continuous improvement that is not paced to match their motivation and energy levels – this creates a ‘silent’ toxic culture of passive participation and ‘non-disclosure’ for fear of ‘rocking the boat’ and upsetting the status quo. In these cultures the language is “We’ve always done it this way…I know…already tried it” 

Thus, for me the core behaviours of a high performance school culture could be summed up in three words: “learning”, “disclosing” and “supporting”. These are the underlying drivers of the wellbeing and learning strategies I co-create with staff in the schools I work in. In a culture where everyone is engaged in the disciplines of learning, disclosing and support, I hear words such as “what if we…let’s try…I’ll give it a go…”

Strategies for Developing High Performance Teaching Teams

Q: Are there some core strategies you use to maximise teacher learning and wellbeing across different schools or does everything depend on the specific school context?

A: The school context is extremely important in guiding the implementation of any teacher wellbeing or learning strategy – after all, each student and teacher is unique and strategies must be designed to accommodate and adjust accordingly. However there are definitely some frameworks that can be applied across a number of school contexts. The diagram below shows the core elements of the strategies I believe are critical to developing a high performance culture among teaching teams.


When it comes to teacher wellbeing the (1) peer coaching buddy system provides a natural overlap to monitor and support wellbeing. Aside from this I also focus on (2) ‘trading for time’ systems to help teachers prioritise tasks to be ‘dropped’ when pressure gets into the red zone as well as (3) make continuous team building a priority – particularly in getting to know people’s broader work/life context which provides a basis for deeper empathy and respect among colleagues. I am also a fan of actively endorsing any wider health promotion initiatives driven at the ‘whole of school’ or departmental level and ensuring teaching teams have incorporated these initiatives into their normal cycles of activity.


When is comes to ‘continuous learning’ as you can see, there are three core components we focus on. There is (1) an effective team meeting protocol which incorporates both the inquiry cycle of professional learning as well as addressing day-to-day operational issues; (2) an effective collaboration strategy within classrooms to provide observation as well as co-teaching opportunities differentiated to identified student needs and (3) an effective peer coaching buddy system to provide ongoing support and encouragement in skills development.

In the peer coaching space we use Point or Just-in-time team de-briefs which focus on the leadership skills which led to the situation, those used to address the situation and what is needed to problem solve or resolve the situation. This is easily done using open, coaching conversations which support the team to identify their leadership and therefore impact over these situations which helps to build their capability over time. It also helps us to quickly re-focus by using coaching prompts such as – ‘if we want to get there, the best way to approach this could be…’

The team meetings include the use of wellbeing check-ins where all staff share how they are progressing with their ‘I Will’ challenge for that term. We get teachers to set these at the start of each term and then re-visit half way to see how they are going and then at the end. Monitoring the wellbeing of individual teachers in our professional learning team meetings allows us to provide wrap-around support for any identified staff member in a timely manner. This is essential in creating a culture that has the right balance between accountability and support – imperative for flourishing!

We call our Professional Learning Communities 'Professional Learning Teams' and in our PLT Agendas teachers have the opportunity to directly feed up to me and I will respond within 24 hours. This helps to model the feedback culture that is essential to growth. As a school, we use Brene Brown’s feedback norms to help create a feedback culture where the feedback brings us closer together rather than further apart. 

Time is also dedicated in these meetings to collaborating on solutions for identified problems of practice, rather than requiring individual teachers to try and solve this on their own. This also allows teachers to work to their strengths and talents, creating higher levels of work satisfaction in the long-term. This is essential to the work of professional learning communities. 

My mantra for this is ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ – because when we are truly shoulder to shoulder (head, heart and hands) we can transform the lives of the children we serve. 

Proudest Moments…

Q: What have been some of your proudest moments and greatest passions as an school leader?

A: Being appointed to my current role as Principal of Norfolk Village State School would be one of my proudest moments! Another moment I look back on was winning the Queensland Australian Council of Educational Leaders, New Voice in School Leadership Award in 2015. 

My greatest professional pride though is in the every day moments of our students and staff who go above and beyond to learn and grow, making a positive difference each and every day. Sharing with students in their celebrations and memorable moments; sharing with families; sharing with staff – these reflect the strength of our community and commitment to each other. I am incredibly passionate about supporting students with additional needs, ensuring all students are flourishing. I am also incredibly passionate about developing future school leaders so that our schools continue to have outstanding leadership to face the successes and challenges of the future. 

Sliding Doors – Into The Future....

Q: Fast-forward 20 years from know – what will the school leaders of today have done to create a successful future?


A: I am a big believer in the idea that as school leaders we need to deepen the professional support among our colleagues. We need to embed a culture of support and challenge in our professional Principal networks – to be get into the ‘learning pit’ together as principals. We need to collaborate and share our problems of practice so we can support each other and together, find the solutions to striking the right balance between wellbeing and achievement. As our school leaders are supported and engaged to become professional learning communities across clusters, regions and states, I believe we can accelerate the achievement of our vision of every student and staff member flourishing!

Thank-you Samantha Donovan!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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