Dr Lyn Bishop OAM, Principal of Sheldon College talks to Education Matters about how the College continues to evolve, the importance of leadership, and building quality relationships.
How does the school’s philosophy and ethos guide you and your staff?
The alignment of our College vision, mission and core values comprise the essence of who we are as a College and guide our daily practice. We believe fundamentally that relationships lie at the heart of the educational enterprise. Without quality relationships, schools have no meaning. At Sheldon College the quality of relationships is built around our philosophy of “Love, Laughter and Learning.” Our role as educators is to create a learning environment where children feel safe, valued and loved; where learning is fun; and where opportunities are created that enable all students to become lifelong learners. Schools are not comprised of buildings, and bricks and mortar, but are a living expression of their guiding philosophy. The home and the school, working together, are two of the most powerful influences on earth. It has often been said that, “What the homes are, the schools will be, and what the two are, the future will be.”
How does Sheldon College differ from other schools?
I believe we are more alike than we are different from other schools. No school is immune in education today from the society in which we exist. We must all be agile, innovative and adaptive, and we can’t do that in isolation from one another. Our strength and survival as a nation rests on schools becoming learning communities that work together in forging strategic partnerships, not only with one another, but with universities, business and industry on a world stage. There is far greater strength in a unity of purpose and our students deserve that. We need schools with impact -schools that add value, not only to their own school and its community, but also to the nation.
In what ways has the school evolved over the past 10 to 20 years?
Given that we are a school that is only 23 years old, we have experienced rapid growth and transformation in light of the technological revolution we are all experiencing – one that has seen our world become increasingly diverse, globalised, complex and media-saturated. Our learning environment for our students continues to evolve and be built around new learning paradigms, leading to some highly flexible spaces for collaborative, multimodal learning, supported by ubiquitous access to mobile technologies. Existing classroom spaces are continually being converted to suit more inquiry based paradigms and new spaces that reflect the strategic intent of our College. We are driven by the knowledge that it is the learner who shapes not only the learning environment, but also the pedagogy which accompanies it.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
I believe first and foremost one has to create an environment that promotes shared and distributed leadership within the organisation. Leadership is anyone and everyone, and it resides at all levels of the organisation. As school leaders we need to become strategic architects who focus our attention on building organisational capabilities that can foster continuous growth and innovation. We have to transform our traditional command-and-control organisations to new high performance work systems. Our job is to build bridges across coalitions and assist teams to work together creatively to build relationships, identify issues and to work together creatively to solve problems.
How do you encourage wellbeing among your staff and students?
The COVID-19 pandemic saw a dramatic increase in issues related to the general health and wellbeing of both staff and students. The home learning environment saw students craving a sense of belonging and connectedness. Similar circumstances arose with the pressure placed on teachers to deliver home learning through a digital learning ecosystem. The impact of these changes has seen us develop a Positive Wellbeing Framework. The framework provides the foundations to ensure students and staff can achieve our Student Exit Outcomes by feeling connected, safe and secure and through being active partners in the student’s learning journey.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of the students?
First and foremost, I think it is vitally important for a Principal to understand that true leadership and management is not a series of mechanical tasks, but a set of human interactions, and therefore it is vitally important that a Principal be highly visible in the school environment. This includes being in classrooms on a daily basis, in the playground engaging and interacting with students, in attending their sporting and cultural events, in taking an interest in their out of school activities, in engaging with students and their parents on every available opportunity, and above all, having every student know and understand that you are there for them.
What are some of the challenges faced by teachers in the secondary sector?
Teachers today have a challenging role particularly post COVID. The closure of schools and the sudden move to online learning required them to become more flexible, adaptive and responsive to the needs of all stakeholders. Furthermore teachers have been forced to explore their own business ecosystem and examine ways in which they can further disrupt or differentiate learning within a changing environment. They have also been challenged by the need for improved communication with all stakeholders. This has led to a need for greater collaboration, transparency and above all ensuring the psychological safety of both students and staff.
What has been your most memorable moment, either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?
The most memorable moment for me in my career was winning a federal appeal to open Sheldon College after being knocked back by the New Schools Commission. We had to overcome insuperable obstacles in the early stages of the College’s development, including not having any financial backing to open a new school; to major personal financial outlays in undertaking demographic studies, market research, viability studies; to having our own home go up as collateral to the bank for many years; to asking family and friends to act as guarantors to the bank; to facing bitter opposition from other schools in the district who did not want a competitor on their doorstep; to neighbours who opposed a school being built on the current site and considered it as “visual pollution”; to seeking innumerable approvals from local authorities; to selecting and purchasing a site of 55 acres or so to build a school in a metropolitan area at an affordable price with no financial backing from any church, business or financier; to setting up our school every Sunday afternoon in the Pine Lodge Equestrian Centre and pulling it down every Friday afternoon because the current site was not ready when the school year began; and to encouraging parents and teachers to buy into a vision and help make that dream become a reality.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
Any successful leader in education today needs to have a covenant of purpose – to know what is important, where they collectively take a stand, and around what basis decisions are made. They must be able to articulate a clear vision for their organisation – one that is driven by intensity and passion, and then have the capacity to align it with the organisation’s mission and core values. They must possess the capacity to grow leadership ability in their people and to generate intellectual capital within the organisation so that the strategic intent of the overall organisation is met. Effective and successful leaders must be able to let go of the past – to be able to challenge many of the old models, paradigms, strategies and assumptions about education that simply don’t hold up in today’s competitive environment. They have to possess strong social and emotional intelligence; have excellent interpersonal relationships, strategic thinking ability, place a high emphasis on values, ethics and integrity, be flexible, agile and innovative, and focus on continuous improvement and quality outcomes in all that they do. Leadership is not a job based on power and authority, but a function based on principles, people skills, and the ability to engage others in consensual decision-making and problem solving.
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
NAPLAN has its place purely as a diagnostic tool that informs our pedagogy. Unfortunately, standardised testing and the publication of league tables have cast one of the greatest shadows over our profession in my opinion. We are becoming test-preparation factories where the human, interpersonal side of learning gets lost in widespread standardised testing and international assessment comparisons. Our children are being tested to an extent that is unprecedented in our history. The current climate that pits school against school, based largely on the results of standardised testing, does little to improve the educational outcomes for our most prized national treasure – that of our young people. Good schools are, and must remain values driven, not data driven.