Most of us don’t like being unsettled. We may talk the language of ‘constant change’, but it’s so much easier to hang on to comfortable patterns of work. Even when presented with strong evidence that demonstrates the benefits of adjusting one’s methods, the tendency is to fall back on the same old, same old. Change is hard. This is the case for any established organisation or professional practice, and teaching is no different. It’s to the immense credit of the profession that there is now so much consideration and thoughtfulness around reflective practice, evaluation, impact and peer review. But as this book has attempted to demonstrate, we still have a long way to go. With too many of our students in cruise mode, the outstanding question is around the capacity of educators to engineer significant change—some would say disruptive change. For that to happen, the system needs to produce more purposeful leaders.
In Victoria, that’s the business of Bruce Armstrong, inaugural Director of the Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership. The state’s Department of Education and Early Childhood approached Armstrong, a principal turned bureaucrat, in 2009 when it made a smart decision—that it was time to make a substantial investment in educational leaders. Specifically, there was a need for programs that could equip principals, and those who aspire to the job, with the capabilities needed to make a difference. The result was the Bastow Institute, located in Queensbury Street, North Melbourne.
International visitors have been known to be nonplussed by the exterior of the institute, which was originally one of 600 Victorian public schools designed by architect Henry Bastow in the 1870s—a large statue honouring Bastow sits outside. But the facade’s imposing stonework and traditional lines give no hint of the high-tech, modernist interior of open spaces and purpose-built teaching auditoriums. Move through the building and you’re struck by the way the clever contemporary design invites discussion and collegiality. Armstrong, a veteran of the classroom himself, recognises that it’s a million miles from the drab and forlorn physical environments that many teachers still endure: ‘When educators come here they feel esteemed. They feel valued. The design is deliberately evocative as a place of learning. I think that’s important for a profession that often feels that the work it does is not valued’.
Though still young, the Bastow Institute is already gaining cachet as a place that is linked to the best thinking and practice elsewhere—the way that Singapore and the United Kingdom, for instance, have developed institutional strength that extends the professional expertise of school leaders. It embodies a unique opportunity for Armstrong personally, and for Australian education in general. The institute’s existence is recognition, though perhaps belated, that training for the role of principal and other leadership positions needs special attention.
Armstrong sees a profession in transition, one that is moving away from the notion that the headship of a school is something that is simply bestowed in the twilight of one’s career. Through a mix of different courses for emerging and aspiring leaders, Bastow promotes a more intentional approach. As Armstrong says, ‘We need to be more strategic. We can’t just wait for a mix of experience and serendipity to somehow produce leaders. What we are saying is that the role of the principal is important because it is the longest lever you have. Leadership is learnable and there are certain capabilities that are needed to do the job well. The institute has been set up as a signal to the profession that the development of leadership is critical to the process of reform’.
If you reflect on the stories of transformed schools that feature in this book, it all starts with leadership—leaders who think in a certain way and who do certain things. Importantly, they start by taking a stand, then they hold their ground. Geoff Metcalf put his own safety at risk in confronting and ending the violence that was inhibiting learning at Roseworth; John Farrell at Our Lady of Mount Carmel rejected the arguments around ‘cultural sensitivity’ as excuses and embraced high expectations for his school’s Indigenous students; and Maria Karvouni stared down the ridicule at Charles La Trobe, from faculty and even a few parents, when she insisted on uniforms, sanctions for bad behaviour and a demanding academic curriculum. They all began—and this is true of effective school leaders everywhere—with a strong sense of moral purpose and a clear set of beliefs about what was important. Above all, they set out, in Bruce Armstrong’s view, ‘to make the school fit the child’.
This article is an extract from Class Act by Maxine McKew, published by MUP. Class act is available now. RRP $19.99, ebook $9.99. mup.com.au.
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