Daniel Walker, Principal and CEO at Canterbury College, speaks with Education Matters about how creating a happy environment, combined with a focus on wellbeing and modern technology, is setting students up for the future.
What is Canterbury College’s philosophy and how does it guide you and your staff?
Canterbury is a low to mid fee independent school in the population growth corridor of Logan, northern Gold Coast and the southern suburbs of Brisbane.
Our philosophy is built on the desire to offer an outstanding breadth of opportunity to every student and for holistic development of each young person. We take our job in monitoring the academic, wellbeing and social/emotional growth of each student very seriously. It is important to all staff that every one of our students is known, understood and challenged.
How does Canterbury College differ from other schools?
We are blessed to be able to offer an expansive campus, built in and around 33 hectares of bushland. Although the campus caters for almost 1500 students from K-12, it is a quiet, happy place, with room for sport and learning outdoors and large enough for some beautiful purpose-built facilities, such as our Canterbury Events Centre, Gold Coast Commonwealth Games athletics track, and the soon to be completed Aquatic and Tennis Centre.
Whilst facilities are important, we are more interested in the connection between teachers and students. The feedback I receive from parents is that this is what they value most about a Canterbury education.
In what ways has the school evolved in the past 10-20 years?
Now in its 33rd year, Canterbury has experienced significant growth in the past 15 years in particular.
Our focus in technology and staff training in virtual reality and augmented reality has seen us gain a national profile in recent years. Similarly, our netball program was acknowledged this year as the leading school program in Queensland.
Our built environment is modern, newly-refurbished and conducive to new styles of teaching and learning. The College is now embarking on a new Strategic Plan which will position us for the next decade.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
Principals of course play a role in modelling high standards of professionalism, communication and engagement with their staff. My aim is to be present and authentic in my dealings with staff. We have over 140 teachers and 65 education services staff at Canterbury, so ensuring my executive team are rewarding and developing talent in all areas of the College is so important too.
We have recently embraced the concept of ‘project-leadership’ into our Enterprise Agreement, which allows us to reward staff, especially younger Gen Y staff, for leading smaller projects around the College.
How do you encourage wellbeing among your staff and students?
Every large organisation, inside and outside of education, is grappling with new realities in staff wellbeing. We have been proactive in this area, employing a Director of Staff Services long before this was commonplace in schools. We look for proactive strategies in wellbeing – social functions, fitness and mindfulness, and recognition of the contributions of long-serving staff – as well as providing a happy atmosphere amongst various teams in the College.
Student wellbeing is nurtured through an attentive Student Services team, comprised of Heads of Year, psychologists, social workers, international student coordinators and two newly-devised positions in Academic Care which focus on the tracking of student performance and personalisation of pathways.
What role do you play in the day in the day-to-day activities of the students?
I spend up to an hour every day in classrooms across the College. I’m always surprised by how glad students are to see the Principal enter their learning space and join in with their learning. Our classrooms are happy and productive places, so it is a pleasure to be involved. We have 44 Arts ensembles and dozens of sporting teams in every sporting season, so like most Principals of independent schools, my evenings and Saturdays are pretty busy on the sidelines and in the audience.
What do you identify as some of the biggest challenges currently being faced by teachers in the secondary sector?
The role of teachers has morphed and changed such a lot in the last decade. My observation is that the focus on devising curriculum and assessment of the 2000s has been replaced now – thankfully – by a focus on differentiating instruction and building improvement in every student’s learning.
My teachers are putting their energies into remarkable and powerful learning activities which allow students of all abilities to thrive. This requires the time and opportunity for teaching teams to collaborate. Within the tight industrial parameters of a teacher’s role, sometimes this time and opportunity is difficult to come by. The availability and immediacy of student achievement data also changes the traditional teaching and learning cycle – the days of the semester report being the only opportunity for parents to engage in student progress are long gone.
What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?
I always regard myself as a teacher first, and Principal second. The most rewarding thing about my teaching journey is looking around the news media, professional sporting competitions, houses of parliament, successful start-ups and IPOs, and seeing students who I have taught as 12 to 17-year-olds going on to be the most amazing version of themselves as adults. There is no thrill quite like it – it is an instant motivator to go on and influence the next generation of young leaders and contributors.
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
NAPLAN is best used in conjunction with other measures – and schools have plenty at their disposal – to personalise a literacy and numeracy approach for each student.
I consider the role of teachers to identify areas for improvement in individual students and design learning activities to build mastery in that area.
NAPLAN is one instrument that helps teachers make targeted decisions about teaching and learning.
I think we are entering a new era of thinking about the usefulness of league tables which compare mean/aggregate mean results for the purposes of pitting schools against one another. Hopefully all school communities and media outlets are being a little more enlightened about the real purpose of NAPLAN.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
Ultimately, our core job as Principals is to nurture and develop our people. Jim Collins’ mantra of “getting the right people on the bus, in the right seats on the bus” has never been more true. As Principal, I want to surround myself with the most inspirational and amazing educators and then empower them to influence and motivate their students.
The great Principals under whom I have worked are able to extract enormous goodwill and commitment from their senior leadership teams. Developing our next generation of leaders in schools is also of such critical importance.