Applying the leadership BES at Papatoetoe Intermediate

by Brian Hinchco

At the start of 2010, Brian Hinchco and senior staff at Papatoetoe Intermediate began trialling a change in their management structure. The trial was based on the research findings in School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why BES. The key change that they made was to disestablish the roles of the deputy principals, and to create a Leading Learners team. Brian wrote about this in his 2011 sabbatical report. Here he tells the story of the thinking behind the change.

We have addressed the challenge of leadership development by first, understanding the dimensions of effective instructional leadership and then secondly by moving a step further forward into creating what Gostick and Elton refer to as a “Breakthrough” team of leaders prepared with the necessary skills and capabilities to lead complex twenty-first century educational organizations”.

From "Deputy Principal to Learning Leader: the changing role of senior management" Brian Hincho, 2011 Sabbatical Report

Why we have a Leading Learners team

The Leadership BES encourages a major change of approach to leadership in New Zealand schools. The focus is on student-centred leadership. This means leadership which positions teaching and learning as the core business of a school. This approach is supported in the Kiwi Leadership for Principals (KLP) which came out just before the BES.

Under the self-managing model we had some fairly clear guidelines for being a “CEO principal”. We were good property managers, as well as good financial managers and personnel managers.

The BES prompted us to look again at how we did things.

To do this involved the whole leadership team, because we wanted to change things throughout the organisation.

When I was a deputy principal I worked with a principal who believed in distributing leadership. This was key for me and when I came here as principal we (the senior leadership team) attended workshops together and talked about distributing leadership in the school and what it might look like.

When the BES came out we all read it. In our discussions we realised there were implications for changing our practice and for working differently. As a result we developed a new learning community among the people in our leadership team.

We added to the team to bring it up to six with the board’s support. It was fortuitous timing but it meant that we achieved a nice alignment. National standards were part of it, the BES was available, the board wanted to look differently at the way we dealt with our young people, and then the staffing became available because one of the DPs resigned. These were the factors that led to setting up the Leading Learners team.

The board was looking for change

Our school is one of the biggest intermediates in the country. We have 26 different nationalities here and a significant sized leadership team of six (including me) to run the school.

The board was and is keen that the leadership of our school should reflect the diversity of the student population. In our new leadership team we were able to address that as well.

We brought in some outside support to help us through the process of change. This was a good move. As we evolved we talked about what being a “leading learner” really means and the effect of not using the “old models” of DPs and Deans, which have discipline at the centre of the roles. The two outside experts talked with us about any difficulties we were having and what we needed to work on individually to make sure the change processes were happening.

As well as that we kept a record that showed the board the development and changes we were making. One outside change manager helped us as individuals and the other worked on us together as a team. From the latter we learned to challenge each other’s thinking, and no-one’s thinking dominated, including mine! We learned about different ways of working, which was really useful for us. We also learned how to work differently with different staff. It was a constant challenge for us to do this. For example, I had to learn not to fill the group’s silences. One of the change management experts was a principal who would talk with me directly and tell me not to rush in with solutions. He would also tell me if I was saying too much.

How our team works

Each of us is responsible for a part of the school. The idea is to develop distributed leadership throughout the area where we work. It probably didn’t function like that at first, but now we are working harder on it and everyone feels as though they are leading learning in their classrooms. People have developed a real expertise in different areas and they can lead staff consultation and make decisions without having to come back to the central group all the time.

The Leading Learners team meets every Monday morning for an hour and a half and we each share what we are doing in our area of the school. Sometimes we have ‘robust’ discussions in the meetings. There is no one way of doing things, even basing things on our mission statement which is about raising student achievement. But everyone is engaged in the process of thinking about and discussing what will raise student achievement throughout the school.

At the end of our third year of doing this there is almost no staff change in the school.

In a way we are running mini-schools within the school, or a house system if you like. Some of us have had experience with these types of arrangements in previous schools. From reading about changing school culture, we have realised that there is nothing perfect or ideal about these mini-schools, but we are finding that we can change the culture of the school by having them, by having different approaches to solving issues. If you have a group operating effectively as a whole it is easy for everyone to become complacent. But with these different approaches we can constantly challenge each other, as long as we keep our central mission statement before us – improve student achievement and use a teaching as inquiry model.

Using the BES dimensions

We use the five dimensions of leadership from the BES. But in our context I don’t see them as being of equal value. The most important one for us is building relational trust.

To make the shifts and changes has required a great deal of good faith and good will among the Leading Learners. We all did the reading and the preparation and it was important that we selected the right people to make the changes. But we still had a lot to do – me as well – to build up our trust in each other, especially when some staff were saying that they didn’t like some of the changes. We did a lot of plus, minus, interesting activities (PMI) – which is a review strategy. We had to make quite significant changes as we went through the process. One thing was that some members of the team gave different messages to their people. So we had to work on consistency of language and ways of doing things. A lot of work went into aligning a variety of different systems in ways of setting goals and targets.

A number of other BES dimensions came into play that helped us get through the difficult patches. We have a strong Papatoetoe Intermediate curriculum which helped, and we are well resourced. There is also strong community support for the school. Even if we lose a few staff in the process we are in a really healthy position to bring other people on and into the school. We haven’t had to get people to leave to create the new culture which is a real credit to the Leading Learners and their ability to work with and move people. We have open listening and we hear what people have to say.

We have talked a lot about being a learning school, and developing a learning culture, and also about what it has meant for us to be learning leaders – we are learning how to do this! We are not the experts; we are trying to do things within the inquiry model so everyone’s contribution is valued and adds to the cycle of review. We say we haven’t got it right yet, but we are trying to get it right.

Seeing and doing things differently

I have had to let things go too. Staff now approach their immediate learning leader rather than come to me. A lot of kudos that you have comes from the position you have and now I don’t have so many conversations with people because of my position. It is something to realise and deal with.

The important thing is making a difference for our young people. There are many adults now in the school who have in-depth knowledge about the learning needs and abilities of each learner. It is no longer just the classroom teacher who knows about a student. My impression is that the young people of our school really respect and appreciate that a number of adults know about them and their learning. We don’t use behavioural language to them any more so there is a huge difference in the tone of interactions and in the learning conversations that they are having with adults.

Support staff have had professional learning around relationships and interacting with young people too. The more positive we can be the more the students enjoy school and want to be here and learn.

Already the early data we have collected seems to show a difference, and the current year 8s, who have been here for two years of the changes, have clearly bought into the change and see what is happening for them.

Keeping up our own learning

We need to keep on with this. The BES has brought changes for us, but we need to keep on with professional readings for experienced as well as new and aspiring leaders. We need a system that gives us access to ongoing reading and professional learning. It was certainly important for all of us as learning leaders, and in the majority of our cases the readings and our experiences led to further professional development at a tertiary level.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this story: 

  • Identify the important things in your school that you want to change and work out a long term plan for how you will change the structure and the climate in the school to achieve your goals.
  • What barriers do you face in your school to making these changes and how can you overcome them?
  • How will you go about gaining the support from your board to make changes you want?
  • What experiences and influences in your background in teaching can you draw on to support you or motivate you to make changes in your school?
  • Brian has documented how his school went about the changes needed to improve their focus on leading learning – he used his sabbatical time to reflect on what had happened, what they did and the changes that happened as result. Write an outline for what you might focus on as a sabbatical report that helps your school improve their practice as teaching and learning institutions.
  • In this story Brian highlights some of the changes he has gone though personally during this time of change. What changes might you have to make in your practice, attitudes and understanding of your role if you were to pursue a similar set of changes?

Tags: Professional Learning and Development

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