The Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Wagga Wagga provides Renewal Leave for principals after six full years of active service in the position. In August of 2013, I made application to access Principal Renewal Leave in 2014. The focus of my Renewal Leave was a two-fold experience which focused on ‘Faith’ and ‘Learning’.
The primary focus of my professional development between 2010 to 2013 was participation in Doctoral Study. The focus of this study was the leadership required for school transformation through the use of digital pedagogy. This Renewal Leave was a continuation of my interest in, and commitment to being a leader of contemporary learning in a secondary school setting within a Catholic context.
I was supported by the Diocese to ‘self-direct’ my Renewal Leave rather than attend an ‘organised tour’. My itinerary was organised primarily through contacts and introductions on Twitter – Ahhhhh, the power of Twitter! The educational focus of my Renewal Leave resulted in visits to 6 schools and meetings with 3 people/organisations who support learning in schools. These all took place in England; mainly London and Manchester. The religious focus of my trip saw me engaged in a six day pilgrimage visiting religious sites of significance for the Presentation Sisters and Christian Brothers in Ireland. My reflections are as follows….
1. Pilgrimage develops meaning.
I am humbled to work in a school which honours the work of Nano Nagle, founder of the Presentation Sisters, and Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers. For six straight days I engaged with each of their stories; stories which told of their call to serve the people of their districts through offering education to the poor. The poverty experienced by the Irish in the 18th and 19th centuries is well known. The persistence and bravery of Edmund and Nano to overcome the obstacles placed before them to educate the illiterate and the poor, is to be admired and never to be forgotten. To visit the resting places of both Edmund and Nano was a real privilege; something I will never forget. To sit with, and beside each of them, within a few days of each other, knowing that I work at at school which is directly linked to their commitment to educate the poor, was both humbling and moving.
2. We are “ahead of the curve” in Australia (as compared to England).
Maybe it was the fact that some schools “talked themselves up” when it came to their use of digital technology to support student-centred pedagogy, but the inquiry/PBL approach to learning in our Diocese and other schools around the state and nation, is only on the agenda on two of the six schools I visited. It is a small sample I know, but the classrooms that I saw were clean, tidy but traditional. In saying that, there were some very modern and attractive learning spaces; however, when I asked about how the spaces promote learning, I was met with little explanation as how this new (sometimes expensive space) supported learning. When talking with teachers, whose passion and dedication were as obvious as those in Australia, their methods of learning appeared to be still grounded in a pedagogy which required the teacher to direct rather then facilitate learning. Again, six schools is a small sample, but my email correspondence leading up to the visits were more promising than what I witnessed.
The most innovative school I visited was Cornwallis Academy http://www.futureschoolstrust.com/Cornwallis/We-are-Cornwallis
Under the leadership of David Simmons and with the strong support of his deputy, Claire Thompson, Cornwallis Academy has evolved into a school where students are engaged in learning within spaces which are modern, attractive and agile. There has been great thought and planning gone into developing learning spaces which ensure collaboration and team-based learning. Also, what was obvious was the “buy in” by teachers. David encourages teachers to develop their own action-research projects which align with learning philosophy of the College. I learnt much from my visit to Cornwallis.
It was also an amazing experience visiting Eton College in England. This world renowned school has the services of James Stanforth who understands the concepts of learning in a digital age. James has the support of the leadership team at Eton to engage in action research projects with like-minded teachers to use digital technology to support innovative learning. Although it is early stages, I look forward to watching from afar the developments which will eventuate.
One anecdote: I was informed one of the best schools in central London, according to “A level results” and “Ofsted Inspection”, is a campus where each faculty exists in their own, separate silos of three story buildings with windows only on one side. Whilst I am sure the community of this school are proud of their results I wonder whether students are being properly prepared for the world which awaits them.
3. The Accountability/Testing Agenda is all too prominent in England.
There is no other way of saying this other than to say that the “top down” thinking by government to impose their agenda on teachers and schools is a great worry. Education in England is focused on responding to the strong Ofsted agenda, which, due to recent changes, has become even tougher to “pass”. Creativity, critical thinking and collaboration are put aside by schools so that they properly prepare for, and then respond to, the outcomes of Ofsted reports. Without going into to detail, the preparation for an Ofsted inspection is all-consuming, with head teachers and leadership teams under extreme pressure to prove their worth based on learning outcomes which are ‘test driven’. Overall, I admire the commitment and willingness of teachers in England who maintain their passion and enthusiasm for teaching despite this crippling agenda which stifles imagination, creativity and innovation. Despite our own local challenges, I am very glad I work in Australia and not England when it comes to education!
4.Take a colleague next time.
Whilst I enjoyed seeing other schools in action, and was fortunate for different teachers giving up their time to show me their educational context, it would have been rich to ‘debrief’ each day with a colleague. Being on my own meant notes each evening, reflecting on photos taken during the day and comparing ‘my lot with their lot’. However, discussing these with a colleague or two would have been taken my thoughts and reflections to a new depth.
All up, this very generous Renewal Leave assisted my ongoing development in the principal leadership requirements of:
• Vision and Values of Catholic Leadership;
• Knowledge and Understanding of contemporary learning; and,
• personal qualities and social and interpersonal skills.
The experience deepened my understanding and empathy for the two pillars of Catholic Education in the Diocese of Wagga Wagga; they being, Faith and Learning. The experience resulted in:
• A deeper understanding of the charisms of both Nano Nagle and Edmund Rice as expressions of the Mission of Jesus Christ;
• An improved understanding of the capabilities required to lead faith development and learning at Mater Dei Catholic College;
• Increased knowledge of the creative and adaptive leadership required to respond to the demands that come with digital technology; and,
• Established links with two English schools who are sound exponents of collaborative learning and agile learning spaces.
“Thank you” Diocese of Wagga Wagga for the opportunity.