#15 School improvement, regions and the principal somewhere in between. Part 1.

#15 School improvement, regions and the principal somewhere in between. Part 1.

School improvement, regions and the principal somewhere in between. Part 1.

'Listen girlie...'  A former Regional Director recalls the challenges associated with lifting standards.  In six years, Katherine Henderson took the Western Metropolitan Region from basket case to the highest performing in the state of Victoria.  Here's how she did it....


Loretta  00:03

You're listening to Loretta Piazza, experienced school principal, mentor and coach. And together we're talking out at school. You will hear from leaders who have lived and breathed so many experiences good and bad, agonized over decisions and tossed and turned through countless sleepless nights. These are the people who will help you stay ahead of the game.

She was tasked with not only lifting the standards in schools in the former Western Metropolitan Region, but also giving women principals a voice. Back in 2008 when Katherine Henderson was appointed Regional Director, about half of all primary schools were led by female principals. What stands out about our regional directors at that time, and for the next five or six years, is that they were a force to be reckoned with. Their profile was high. They were integral to network meetings by their sheer presence alone. Principals didn't see them as bureaucrats far removed from the work of principals. Admittedly our regions have now doubled in size. But somehow, I can't help thinking that the two former regional directors that I know would have let that stop them from doing the complex school improvement work. Today's episode is part one of school improvement at scale. Despite Katherine Henderson being proud to call herself a bureaucrat, and not wearing the 'former principal' label, she has all the hallmarks of what we truly value in our school leaders. A few years back, I had the privilege of working with her in the University of Melbourne Network of Schools initiative and what I learned then increased my literacy and numeracy knowledge tenfold. Katherine will go down in history as being the only Regional Director to take a basket case of a region and within a few years, turn it into the highest performing in the state.


Hello, Katherine. Welcome to talking out of school.


Katherine  02:14

Hi, Loretta, thank you for asking me to talk.


Loretta  02:18

Now, I'm actually very interested in your journey as regional director, which was from I believe, 2008 to 2013. How did you end up in that role?


Katherine  02:33

Basically, I was asked to, if I would be happy to transfer into that role, because the department was struggling to find someone they were confident to put into the role after, after the previous regional director moved on to another role. And I was very, very happy to do that. Because I love working in a space where you're working with practitioners and backing them so that they can do really, really precious work, which I believe school principals, do.


Loretta  03:06

So what was the work that you were tasked to do?


Katherine  03:11

I was tasked with two things. The primary thing was to support the region to improve student learning outcomes, because they were really low. But as well, there was a concern that women, many of the principles were women, that women weren't being heard, and their contribution wasn't being valued. And so I was asked to pay attention to that, which I did.


Loretta  03:34

How many women were actually principals back then?


Katherine  03:38

A good proportion of the principals who are women, I don't have the exact numbers, but certainly around 50%, at least in the primary schools.


Loretta  03:49

So in terms of improving student outcomes, let's start with that. How did you know what work had to be done?


Katherine  03:58

I describe the way that I like things to work as layered learning. So that's a way of both bringing everybody in, engaging people, but also learning. And so when I knew I had the job, but I had several, like, you know, three months before I took it up, the first thing I did was interview anybody I could who could tell me anything about the region that included people in head office. And but it also included principals in the region and even other people who worked in the region and even parents. So because I wanted to get a feel for it. So that was a kind of personal learning and development for me. And of course, I looked at the data. And I looked at the data around student learning, I looked at the data around teacher and leader wellbeing or the proxies of that which might be you know, teacher absenteeism, for example. And that gave me a picture and I was really interested in the demographic of the students, and it was the region with the highest number of refugees as a proportion in the state. It was the region with on any measure, both related to teacher wellbeing, but particularly student learning outcomes, in student wellbeing at the time that we started, was the was the lowest, including all the rural regions. So that gave me a picture and just talking to people at the same time as I was building relationships, which were precious over the time I worked there, I was learning a lot about what the issues were in the region, what the culture was. And it's fair to say my judgment was that the people who worked in the west were fabulous. They are very strong values based belief driven in their work. They, they absolutely cared about the kids and the kids wellbeing. But there is a sense in which people didn't really believe that kids could learn. Not enough anyway, to make sure the kids did learn.  They were absolutely concerned for the wellbeing in the future of the children, but they weren't focused on the learning. And there was some.... a sentence would start: Katherine, yes, but yes, but you know, you don't know these, these kids and their families. And I used to think at the time, look, some of these children come from families, whose parents have sat in refugee camps for 10 years, and they've got themselves here for the sake of their children. So they are relying on us, you know, it was so important for those families. Katherine, do you think that these educator were making excuses by saying, yeah, but? I feel, I actually think that they didn't, they weren't confident that they could make a difference to kids' learning. And yes, you could say they were making excuses, but they would need and I would need in that situation, to have a reason for myself, you know, rationalization. And I think the work we did, was all about creating possibility, building confidence, and energy and action, the right work, getting the focus right, and working together and proving to ourselves that these kids could learn, and they did learn. And that was, that was the joy. And I think, I think many, many people in the region were excited by the changes that we we created, that did mean that many more children learnt than had been learning. I'm not saying either, that it's just a simple, easy thing to do. And to the families, the children, families, in many cases, face quite challenging circumstances and had challenging backgrounds. This, you know, that wasn't an easy fix for the people who were doing the work. But they got there.


Loretta  08:01

You came up with this really big picture idea of where the region needed to go in order to improve student outcomes. How did you actually make it happen?


Katherine  08:14

Well, the first thing I want to talk about and how we made it happen was how we set it up. So I had some good, the first thing that I did with the principals was say to them, we've you know, we've got I was upfront, the data is not okay, the kids aren't learning enough. They can do better than that. And so can we, and I, and I put put a question to them. I said, how do we become the most in how do we be the region with the most improvement in most improving regions in student learning outcomes in the state of Victoria? I didn't say how can we become the best? Because all sorts of things affect the best, including education, socioeconomic status of parents or money in a school, you know? So you could say that some of the most elite private schools are the best because they get the highest results. We weren't interested in that. We were interested in learning growth. How do we become the most improved region in student learning outcomes? For most without question, then we the next thing we did was we actually spent a whole year, not a month or a week or maybe writing a strategic plan. We spent a year and I had someone working full time on this. Designing the methods we used to consult and work with people at every level in the region, exploring that question, what do we need to do? How are we going to do it? And so we had discussed focus groups with principals, with APs, with teachers, with people working in schools as in teacher aides or you know, lollipop ladies, that sort of group people who weren't educators, and were parents. And then in that August that year, we had a conference, drawing on all those different groups. And we were asking ourselves, what do we have to do? How are we going to do it and we built a plan together, we built a three year plan together. And in that three year plan where...and this was before money came in, which supported us on this, we made a commitment that we would improve student numeracy and literacy as building blocks for access to a rich curriculum, we weren't dumbing it down for the kids, we weren't just going to try and make them do better reading and throw phonics at them, we were going to build their literacy and numeracy as building blocks or for access to a full curriculum, and we were going to provide a full curriculum. And that was, by the time we made that plan, I think we had really strong buy in and the buy in was because we worked with people, we didn't just write something on a piece of paper in an office and hand it out. And then the next thing that happened was that as part of that plan, every school committed to having somebody with time release in their school, to support literacy, and somebody with time release in their school to support numeracy, serendipitously, just as we're about to start at the beginning of the next year, funds came through for schools to have people with that role. So our schools all had a literacy coordinator and a numeracy coordinator. And that was great. But we really needed to be very, very precise about the kinds of pedagogy, the kinds of teaching that we were asking of people, which we had evidence for, that would make sure that kids learned and to do that we had so we had the coordinators in the schools. We had, and they were our school coaches. I think we called them then regional coaches. Funding came through for those people. And then we tendered, as a region for people with expertise in literacy and numeracy who, who were there to support and develop our regional coaches in our school based coaches. So those three groups work together. So a second really critical element of what we did as a region was coherence. The focus was student learning, what we consider was going to be powerful was coherence. People working on the in the suited to their particular conditions, or the students are working with at the kind of school they're working in. But with coherence around how we did things. And as it turned out, principals would say to me, after a couple of years that we prefer to recruit from from the western region to our school, because our teachers have got a shared practice, and they can work with each other. And I'm now working in another area with for the Menzies Foundation, and we're looking at collective efficacy. And you know, that that's now John Hattie's number one impact strategy or HIT. And what we were doing was building collective efficacy. Probably didn't use that language at the time, but we certainly did use the language of collaboration. So we so we, we set the challenge, which was the question, we built the shared purpose, which was the plan. And then we actually worked actively towards collective efficacy. And so we had three, I'd say three stages of implementation. The early implementation was very much about the regional leadership, relentless communication around implementing the priorities. And communication wasn't one way we worked with every network group. I, I and the Deputy Regional Director made commitments to each other that we would try and be in schools, at least two days a week every week, and we came close, we didn't do that exactly. So we had the Equip Professional Learning Program, which was around that coherent, shared curriculum for all of us around instruction, we brought in the expert consultants, and we had monthly professional learning and planning for those school based coaches, the regional coaches, with the expert consultants. So that was just an example of what I'm calling the layered learning. And then those school based coaches worked with teachers. We also ran an immense number of workshops for teachers, again, with this shared approach at all times. Who are the experts that you called upon to help?S So first and foremost and in which there is an OECD case study, which uses the case study of that improvement in the western region, I can talk about the detail of what the improvement was, but the person who was our most significant and important critical friend and expert was Diane Snowball, who had led the same kind of work in in New York and other parts of America. And her particular expertise is in reading and literacy or literacy more generally, but but also in supporting teachers to become more effective in their teaching practice. So she was our advisor, she and through her, we were able to recruit some amazing people who were already highly skilled at working with working in schools and with coaches. We, you know, on every level, we nutted things out together, we had a weekly meeting of the regional network leaders with me and the ARD, and the person responsible for teaching and learning in the regional office, a weekly meeting, because we thought it was important to keep close to each other and be able to hold each other to account and stick to our focus and our purpose. I pick up that you're very humble, Katherine. Yeah. Look, you said, Look, I've never been a principal. I, you know, I know something about education. I know a bit, but you know, not as much as maybe others. You surrounded yourself with really competent, knowledgeable experts. By doing that, you are able to get the results that you wanted. I always say that I'm a bureaucrat, and I'm proud to be a bureaucrat, and my definition of a bureaucrat is a person who makes it possible for things to happen. So I've worked in health and education, and particularly, and that local government, state government, and my absolute passion is making things happen, implementing, seeing a change. And it's always for me, of course, about improvement for people. So yeah, if you're going to do that, and you don't have the professional knowledge, you need to either get it yourself, we certainly need to get a broad overview. So and you need to find the people, the right people, good people. And the third thing, I think, became more and more important to me as a regional director was the word respect. And it was about respecting the people we were working with, because so many people in the community, wag their fingers about what schools ought to do and what principals ought to do and what teachers ought to do. And there are more experts about education than anywhere else, because everyone's been to school. And a lot of them a lot of those people are wrong. And so, and principal, I think being a principal is a lonely job, it's people, people, people 24 hours a day, but you're the one that you know, it's on your shoulders, it rests on you. And, and I also think people who are principals, a lot of people, including teachers, but principals in particular, don't get the sort of glory and the feedback that say people in business might get or in other sectors. They, and they are people who are very different personalities, but they're not generally show ponies, and they're because they want to promote themselves. So I think that that word respect becomes really important. Because if you want to work with people and support them, then they have to trust you, you know, you have to show that you respect them. We went into a school, I think we talked about this the other day. And I saw children sitting in rows going mat, red, set, fat, hat, back, and they were 15. And I thought this is wrong. I didn't know any more about it. I just knew it was wrong, because you shouldn't do that to young adults. And I went back to the regional office and said that to the people who are fantastic people working on teaching practice. And they said, Well, you know, we've got to tell them to stop it. Tell them to stop it, Katherine, you're the regional director. And I said, I'm not going to tell them to stop it. And they were horrified. And I said, I'm not going to tell them to stop it till we've got something better. Because these are people who are trying, they've made a decision they want their kids to learn. And they've caught on to a program and they think it's the ants pants. And so until we've convinced them that we've got something better then I'm not walking in and telling and that's what I mean, by respect. I think that matters a lot to me in my work.


Loretta  19:03

Well, I think that's a really beautiful way of putting it because if you want to, to get people on board that respect and honoring the work they do and appreciative and then as time goes by, as they learn, they will replace their actions and what they're doing with the new things that they're learning. So that that's how it works.


Katherine  19:25

I'll tell you another one. We heard one network and it was the it was on the on the measures the department used at the time it was point nine something on SES, which means it was really, really one of the poorest networks. It was the probably and there there were, I don't know maybe about 14 principals in it. Maybe more actually. So maybe about 19 principals, and they were all men except one. There was one woman in the room. And this guy, Frank, he won't mind me saying this, he folded his arms like this and he said, almost like: listen, girlie. Although those arent the exact words. Listen, girlie? Listen, Katherine, I've been a principal for 10 years. We're working as hard as we can, and we can't do more. And I said, Thanks, Frank, thank you for letting me know about that. And I went back to that network. You know, I used to go to them, most of them regularly. And I went back to that about two years later, I'd been there lots of times. And Frank said, Katherine, what you said, you're right, we're on it. That was a hard nut to crack. And it was so exciting when he said that. So because he was sucked in we and we gave... Richard Elmore talks about reciprocity. If you want to ask people to do something, you've got to be prepared to back them to do it. And that might mean quite explicitly with resources, or it might be another way, it might be just listening to them, you know, might be paying attention, but we had a set of values. And that was a really important one in our values.


Loretta  21:03

What did you achieve? How would you sum up your achievements?


Katherine  21:08

Well, first of all, there is absolute, it's unquestionable that we had a huge impact on student learning. And there's data that supports that. And in fact, there's a beautiful slide by Professor John Hattie, which showed our region making phenomenal progress over two years. In in, going from very low to the top region in in, in student learning outcomes in I think it was numeracy or literacy was one of those for the years, seven to nine, which is a hard group to move. So you know, on on, we went from being the bottom in every, in every measure, and under NAPLAN, making significant progress. And there were several different measures. It's unquestionable that we made really big gains in student learning. And that becomes a spiral because the teachers start to believe that they can make a difference. And I think it was Roger Goddard's definition of collective efficacy. If the teachers believe that children can learn, students can learn. If the children believe that they can learn and if the teacher is confident that they know how to teach them, that's collective efficacy. According to Roger Goddard, you'll get a significant improvement. And that's what we did. And I think that's what we created. So we I think we also created a working environment for people where they had great pride and joy in what they were doing. I'm not saying that it was all a perfect world, but it changed the culture. And, and a lot of it lasted for some time. So some of those networks were still there were informal networks meeting around particular areas, and they were still going a couple of years later. And I think up until at least three years later, there was one group that met that used to invite me to come which I like so. And either Patrick, I think it was Patrick Griffin, it might have been Fields said to me, Katherine, if it's not written down, is that it goes, it disappears. So the OECD case study is written down, that I sort of properly documented, but I'm not an academic. So I haven't got a PhD.


Loretta  23:25

Yet, yet. Quite a legacy. I'm also very curious, because you were talking about one of the things that you were tasked to do was to give women voice.


Katherine  23:41

Oh yeah. I'm sure we did. What I didn't do is ignore them and pretend they weren't in the room and work to the blokes. So I don't know that we.... I certainly know that the very people who had raised this issue with the relevant Dep Sec, who was at the time, Darrell Fraser, came to me later and said yes, yes, it's changed. I didn't go out actively, you know, I didn't set up anything special for women or do anything like that. But also I think we shifted the percentage of women who were principals. It was more the fact that I was a woman probably was a good start.


Loretta  24:28

You know, though, looking back at that time, I think women were particularly drawn to that educational leadership focus that looked, you know, like the education arena today. It's probably not all that different but. I think now, it's very heavily managed from the central office. We know we've got FISO, and the HITS and FISO 2 but it's not as strong from the regions. So, I mean, I suppose the intent is still the same to improve student outcomes. But if you are giving advice to principals today about how best to achieve school improvement, and at the same time look after themselves, what advice generally would you be giving to them?


Katherine  25:30

I think you're right about the centre, there's more, there's more focus, well certainly from the central office. There wasn't a lot but there was beginning. More focus on resources and support for people around teaching and learning. So, and structures, like, I can't remember what there's, there was a whole project from the center about PLCs, or PLTS. But if I were a principal, I would be thinking about several things. But one of them is I'd want to know, my school and what's happening here, what the content or what the, you know, what the culture is, and who the people were. And so I'd be wanting to get to know my people early, and as much as possible. And using that as a way of developing some sort of personal analysis, but also engaging them in that exercise. I'd be really, really concerned as a, as a principal, it's a concern for experienced principals. How do I hold focus? How do I get clear what my what our focus should be? But how do I hold it because the demands on principals are unbelievable. And you have to have, you have to have that, that theory, that idea that you don't have to do everything that head office says. Because if you have that idea, you're going to fall over. And the way I think of it is there's people in little units all over head office, and they're all working busily on their stuff, and they want the schools to do it, and it comes out and someone's deputy said, yeah, it's a good idea, we'll get the schools to do it. So you have to be able to make those judgments. So focus, really strong understanding of your local context, culture and your people. And holding that word that I value around respect. So you're respecting what people are doing. And building on that to develop a mental model. It's not, you know, we've got to chuck it all out with the bathwater. I mean, some schools we've had to close and reopen, because they were such, you know, a basket case. I'm not saying don't be responsible about that. And it's about I suppose, creating an environment where people will work together, challenge each other, and also get some recognition and joy from each other. And remember that you've got the best job in the world, because it's kids and you're creating the future. I think the other thing that's really important for principals is to not go it alone. I think they need to build if there's not a network that they naturally feel comfortable in, you need to build it, particularly as you're starting. Build your network of mentors and supporters and people who you can trust and people who you can ring up and say, Look, I'm stuffed, if I know what to do about this thing that just come out, it's not going to work for me, what do I do that kind of relationship, and you need as a principal, I believe to be building those relationships, yourself, taking on that responsibility with your colleagues, because it can be, as I said, it can be a very lonely role, despite the fact that it's it's a very demanding role around people, children, parents, department, the world.


Loretta  28:52

And that's the advice that I to give to my colleagues. Make sure that you've got a strong network of people around you be able to pick up the phone, have a chat to them, go for a coffee, whatever it is you need.


Katherine  29:07

I don't think we can underestimate there's plenty of things that principals do almost daily that I'm not sure I could do. But just that handling the range of people you've got to deal with. And then some of those people in almost every school, inappropriately badly behaved. I mean, might be parents, might be kids, doesn't matter. I mean, it's just high pressure, and not fully understood by the world. And you just really need to be able to back each other up and have some people you can call on and say help I'm going under. That's how you're feeling because you won't be alone in that feeling from time to time.


Loretta  29:51

Katherine, that's great advice. Thank you very much. I do remember your time as a regional director. And I remember also seeing that slide that you talk about the one that John Hattie put up. And I think for, for us in the north, I think probably the most confronting thing that we ever experienced was the first time that our data was actually put up. And our data wasn't great back then. And it was, it was a horrible feeling to know that there was a strong possibility that our school data might be shown to everybody and what will my colleagues think of me? Today, data goes up, we don't even think about it. We're so used to it. So we've come an exceptionally long way, in terms of student achievement. I guess the demands of the job haven't really changed that much. If anything, the the job is now more demanding.


Katherine  30:54

I think that it was such joy for me working in the region, because I think not that everyone's perfect, or even that everyone's good, but en masse as a group, culturally, people who work in schools are lovely people. Because you can't be a saddist or sort of brutal person now and run the school, it's, you know, you just used to be able to when I was at school as a kid, and so you have to be a combination of these things. They generally like kids and want to do and want the best for the kids. They have good capacity for relationship. And it just comes together to me as a lovely, lovely group of people to work with, and also a highly skilled group. So it's a special thing, I think, to be in a relationship with a whole lot of school principals.


Loretta  31:44

Oh, that's, that's a great vote of confidence. And I know the principals and the assistant principals listening to this will greatly appreciate your words. Katherine, where to now?


Katherine  31:58

For me I'm involved in work which I'm really enjoying because it connects me to schools again. And ultimately I hope it supports schools in a really good way. I like, I love work and where to now apart from that, you know, whatever you do when your 73 (don't put that in the podcast!)  I haven't got used to the idea that I'm supposed to stay home and you know, make scones or whatever. And I don't intend to ever get used to that idea.


Loretta  32:34

Well, Katherine, thank you very much for your time. Thanks for your insights and the great stories of when you were regional director and best of luck with the Menzies Foundation and all the great work you're doing there.  Thanks for listening to this latest episode of talking out of school, where we cover topics and dilemmas associated with the ups and downs and even the downright curious of the school leaders' job. Want to know more? Then visit me at shaping leaders.com.au But for now, here's to staying ahead of the game.

OECD case study