Leadership essentials: Managing change in a turbulent world

Leadership essentials: Managing change in a turbulent world

As a national and international researcher, consultant, high performance coach, speaker and now the CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL), one could say that Dr Barbara Watterston has seen the school system from a bird’s eye view.

The crux of Dr Watterston’s work is driving high-quality leadership that helps educators and students achieve their best. Her national research report, titled: ‘Insights: Environmental Scan Principal Preparation Programs’ contributed to five major national recommendations for preparing future school leaders.

This research has informed her design and delivery of the bespoke emerging, principal and system leadership programs that are supporting school leaders as they navigate the post-Covid teaching and learning environment.

Below, The Educator speaks to Dr Watterston about what her outlook for school leadership, ACEL’s programs that are supporting the profession in 2021, empowering women for school leadership and bridging the persistent equity gap.

TE: Drawing from your vast experience in education and education research, what do you see as the most important challenges for school leadership in 2021?

Experiencing the biggest disruption to education that we have ever seen has required us to rethink and reshape the way we teach and lead with deeply felt significant challenges affecting communities worldwide. In Australia we witnessed a multitude of responses to the pandemic from complete school closures for significant periods of time to ‘business as usual’, all of which have impacted on students, families and schools. Despite major challenges, the response of teachers and school leaders reinforced the significant role they play in the lives of children and young people, their families and communities.

More specifically our experience underscored challenges that already existed, and I would argue provided opportunities for school leaders to ensure a responsive and targeted focus to, for example, digital pedagogies and literacy, access to information technologies, and exploring contemporary forms of relevant assessment and data collection. 

Leading in complexity and providing the enabling environments for us all to do our best work requires a culture where positive and proactive mental health and wellbeing strategies are embedded in that work. Importantly for ACEL this includes supporting school leaders in responding to crises and strengthening wellbeing initiatives by partnering with well-known thinkers and professionals in the field, together with understanding school/organisation community wellbeing, how children and young people have been impacted, what this means from a data perspective and how this contributes to a culture of wellbeing.

TE: In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on schools shaped ACEL’s 2021 programs?

Drawing from lessons of a moment in our lifetimes like no other, our stimulating challenge is to collectively support the transition to bring back better. It requires a systemness approach engaging across ages and stages of learning, and all schooling sectors to learn from each other. Where collaboration, innovation and sharing transformative practice is what we need, and where ACEL is deeply committed to facilitate, learn from and navigate together. Building on, challenging and re-thinking what we already know and value as high impact levers and strategies, will inform the next phase our collective work.

The experiences in using a range digital platforms and modes of learning, where students can learn anytime/anywhere, has ensured that student voice and agency are also at the heart of our conversations. Where in partnership with parents, carers and teachers, students own their own learning, within frameworks that facilitate, cultivate and build on every student’s passion and strengths. Student perspective and engagement genuinely informs educational discourse, enriching the conversation around the significant education decisions that have and will affect their lives.

In developing our programs, resources and publications, we have responded to the importance of emphasising that leading and learning from the early years and beyond is a shared agenda. Our priority is to provide professional learning opportunities that address and stimulate multiple transitionary career stages.  It emphasises the importance of supporting leaders at all levels as they, recognise and address the challenges and opportunities presented by COVID, and provide the enabling environment and conditions for deeper collaborative practice.

We are focused on expanding and engaging more proactively with emerging and middle leaders; embracing the education sector from early childhood and care to higher education, schools and systems; strengthening and expanding networks and capacity to stimulate thinking, policy and practice through new strategic partnerships. 

Our value proposition is the connectedness with members of the ACEL community uniquely representing the breadth, depth and diversity of the profession and the opportunities to engage, think and learn at multiple levels – locally, nationally and internationally.  Importantly our work is relational; it’s about why not what, it’s about people, impact and influence.  

TE: I understand that your book ‘Step In, Step Up: Empowering women for the school leadership journey’ received a silver medal in the international 2020 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. In 100 or so words, can you share some of the key messages from the book and their implications for Australian education policymakers?

I have started to synthesise my messaging into five whys, the last being,  why is (school) leadership development everyone’s responsibility 

  • Schools do not become high performing in the absence of great leadership. Yet, in a female-dominated workforce, women remain under-represented in senior educational leadership positions nationally and internationally.
  • Robust leadership takes a proactive and inclusive approach to developing leadership talent. We are missing out on a significant percentage of our talent pool to address the shortage of suitably qualified applicants for the principalship emphasising the importance of identifying and developing the next generation of school leaders.
  • Diversity in leadership matters impacting on enhanced decision making and better outcomes.  Multiple faces of school leadership acknowledge and celebrate that there are many ways of successfully enacting leadership.
  • What gets in the way? Barriers and bias exist – still. 
    • The double bind - Gender stereotypes facing women in leadership include for example, extreme perception (too soft, too tough but not just right) or a high-competence threshold (higher standards and lower rewards than male leaders).
    • The deselect default - instead of considering what you would bring to a leadership opportunity, how you would shape and contribute to the role, how you will grow into the role, you select your default position, which is to immediately question whether you are good enough, ready enough, or capable enough.
  • Why we wrote the book and what we want to see?
    • We want narratives of women in leadership to become commonplace.
    • We want to see a change in the optics, where a web search for leader or principal returns a mix of positive images that feature people of all genders and ethnicities, various ages, and other markers of diversity, reflecting a culture that includes everyone.
    • We want young women and men to naturally ponder a career path to the top in education, whether they eventually feel called to step up to leadership or to remain in vital teaching roles—and for more men to see the latter as a natural, excellent choice.
    • When we open books, go to conferences, hear from researchers, and see political panels on television, we want powerful and empowering women from diverse areas in our global community to bombard us with their perspectives, their voices heard equally to men’s.

TE: One of the most persistent challenges in education more broadly is bridging the equity gap. Are there any factors, both current or on the horizon, that you believe offer hope in terms of our education system improving in this sense? If so, what are they?

We have been provided a deep and illuminating pause to focus on equity, policy and decision making across all areas in the education sector.  If, as observed by John Hattie, COVID is our golden ticket and best opportunity to dramatically change, and to demonstrate as a profession we can repurpose the nature of schooling, the time has never been more important to lead this work to strengthen rather than recreate the system.

The ACEL National Disability and Inclusion Conference held in March this year, explored how system leaders, school leaders and teachers can work together to ensure schools are inclusive environments; how students with disability can contribute to their own learning; and how schools can work effectively with parents, families and the wider community to ensure they are involved in their child’s education. 

During ACEL’s recent Early Childhood Conference, Deputy Secretary Kim Little spoke about the luck of the cosmic lottery. Nothing you have done has anything to do with the settings for which you are born into.  If luck ratifies and we are in the business of creating as many opportunities as possible for children to flourish, how do we ensure those in our care can live a life of choice and not of chance.  Equity is not equality and nor is it a reality for many children and young people.  Something to think about:

  • Equity begins with full access for all young people to three-year-old kinder, currently only being rolled out in Victoria
  • Supporting low SES parents to provide a positive environment for their children is just as important as support for low SES students at school.
  • Providing additional funding to low SES schools does not help if they are unable to attract the best teachers and keep them in the school. We need to be able to pay teachers more and support them better if they are in hard-to-staff schools and isolated communities with significant challenges.