Leadership lessons learned - Education Matters Magazine
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Leadership lessons learned


Following Lismore’s record-breaking floods throughout 2022, Education Matters talks to Summerland Christian College’s Executive Principal Nate Atkinson about SCC’s dedicated flood response initiative during the educator’s first year as school principal. A true lesson in resilience, Nate reflects on the leadership strategies he employed, uniting students and teachers to provide aide to the local community.

How would you describe Summerland Christian College – the locale, the community, students, and teachers?

Summerland Christian College is situated between the beautiful Northern Rivers area of New South Wales. We serve 600 students and their families, from K-12, as well as our Transition to Kindy program. We have a wonderful leadership team of 82 educators, administrative, operational, and support staff. We also have oversight of our sister school, Hinterland Christian College. Nestled in the Mullumbimby district, HCC provide a flourishing education for 66 students.

What is the history of the school and its philosophy?

The College is governed by Centre Church Lismore and is affiliated with Christian Schools Australia and Association of Independent Schools NSW. The College has provided interdenominational Christian education in the local area since 1978. We are deeply committed to offering a future focused and expansive education with a distinctively Christian ethos. We have high expectations of students and staff and has achieved excellent education outcomes over the last 44 years. We are invested in an education for our students that prepares and equips them to be skilled at learning and resilient and hopeful in their lives.

What led you to the role as executive principal at Summerland Christian College?

As an educator, I have served in a variety of academic, pastoral and leadership roles in K-12 Co-educational Christian schools. I studied a Master of Educational Leadership and have a Certificate in K-12 School Management from Harvard. Currently, I am undertaking a PhD in Educational Leadership. I’m passionate about leading staff and students in the application of both clear Christ-centred thinking and high-quality educational practice.

I believe that my purpose as a passionate Christian Principal is to lead and develop the structures, teaching and learning practices and experiences across the two Colleges that build students up as whole people. I was drawn to the role as Executive Principal at Summerland Christian College and Hinterland Christian College, beginning in January 2022, because of the strong foundations in place in the Colleges and the synergy of Christian and educational ideals that I shared with the Board and Leadership Teams. I consider synergy in values as a key element in matching aspirant school leaders to the right leadership contexts.

Resilience in action: SCC Executive Principal Nate Atkinson and his team worked together to provide support to the College’s students, staff, and wider community.

Being based in Lismore, your community faced some of the worst flooding in Australia’s history. How did this impact your school?

The flooding was a traumatic experience for our college and the wider community. Many of our students and their families, as well as our staff, lost their homes and were displaced as a result. The collective trauma of the events had a profound impact on our community. Beyond those who were entrenched in escaping the effects of the flooding or rescue or recovery efforts, each of us were affected in some way, whether physically or emotionally. It was exhausting season. Our colleges were closed for the week, before we strategically reopened to provide support and relief to families keen to have their children return to a somewhat normal rhythm and receive the care and support, they needed.

Sadly, only weeks after the initial record flooding in the area, the district was once again hit by a second wave of the highest levels of water the district had ever seen. As a result of the second round of flooding, our colleges were again closed, this time as a direct result of damage to our campuses.

SCC was featured on Nine News delivering food and supplies to Lismore residents affected by flooding in the area.

This experience influenced me on several fronts. I am convinced that leadership is about people. This might seem obvious to most, for it is people we serve, but it must be taken to heart and allowed to influence all levels of decision making and ways of leading. I continue to ponder the extraordinarily simple, but oh so instructive, charge as leaders to ‘love our people’. Our true north is established when our values are in order and all else seems to flow out of it.

What are the main priorities for an educational leadership team when a school faces a crisis like this?

In response to this critical incident, the Senior Leadership Team resolved to focus our staff teams’ energy on two interconnected areas. This two-fold approach to crisis management divided our energies between the ‘now ‘and the ‘next’.

Firstly, and most importantly, to provide levels of direct care for students, families, and the wider community, we developed systems to support the levels of care needed and mobilised teams to press ahead in care. This included partnering with our governing Church body, CentreChurch Lismore, to transform our hospitality learning space into a community kitchen that sent out meals for more than three weeks to residents who had lost everything, were in the grips of clean up, and in need of hope. We banked and distributed household items, food, uniforms, and school supplies to whoever was in need and staff gave of themselves in the most servant hearted ways.

The Administrative Team was diligent in their seeking and distributing of AISNSW provided grants and funding for those in our college who could simply not afford to support their children financially in the next season of their educational journey. Being connected to supportive bodies, we learnt, is invaluable in times like this. We were well placed to offer our own financial supports. Ongoing pastoral support is distributed amongst the team, for students and families, we know, will need ongoing support. We engaged consistently with NESA to support our HSC students. It was a credit to our team to be one of 14 recipient schools to receive the Ministers Commendation for School Achievement in December. We received our commendation for ‘resilience’.

Secondly, we felt it was important to focus our team’s energy on the common purpose of providing consistent routines for students and to continue to plan for our next steps in growth as a college. In a bold– but very deliberate and purposeful way– we set out to build our next strategic and improvement plan that will span the next four years. Furthermore, we continued to construct our Learning Framework that will allow us to provide the type of education we dream of for our students. We called this endeavour ‘Building Hope-Filled Futures’. These too, were significant actions to take to promote us forward and help us focus on what is to come, or the ‘next.’ We considered this to be a leadership lever worth pulling which would also play its part in assisting our colleges with recovery and reorientation.

SCC students received the Education MInister’s school award for ‘resilience’ in Sydney, December 2022.

Given that this happened during your first year as the college’s principal, how did you cope personally?

This was an unexpected event in my first month of leading our colleges, and I was blessed to be serving in a tremendously supportive team. This experience certainly reminded me of the value of working as a team. It is absolutely essential as a Principal, educator or supportive member of a team in a school environment to be invested in the working together.

Even more significantly, I was reminded of how valuable it is to identify, utilise, and grow the particular strengths of other team members so you can actualise the ideal of working genuinely as a team. Practically acting early to strategise ahead and then communicate early with team are habits I will be determined to hold onto in seasons to come.

On reflection I am very grateful to mentors and colleagues who took time to listen, encourage and input. One of my treasured mentors, Mr Alan Green, was the Headmaster of Newcastle Grammar School- in his first year of tenure. Newcastle experienced one of Australia’s most significant earthquakes. Being connected to mentors, coaches and those who will support you in the journey is essential. Because of this, I can say that overall, I was able to lead and look after my own emotions, self-doubts and energies, as I never felt that I was doing any part of it in isolation.

A Principal or leader must know the strengths of their team and the more exhausting and worrying moments did stretch me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I had to lean into what I know and remain open to learning about what helps keep me well, level and ready. In a very basic, but meaningful, way I consciously leaned into my faith and trust in God and spent time with my family.

SCC received positive feedback from the community as a result of their dedicated flood response initiatives.

How important are schools to their communities during times of upheaval?

We learned that schools are incredibly important to communities in times of distress or disaster. It has been both distressing, but at the same time, heartening to hear of and see many stories of schools leading the way in their communities through such tragedies. Recent seasons of flooding and bushfire across the nation has touched a nerve in our schools, and what we do as educators is so vitally important in the lives of young people and their families –it has both an immediate and enduring effect. It is encouraging to know that our daily serving changes lives and communities.

How has this experience influenced you and your leadership style? What leadership lessons could other principals learn from your experience leading SCC during a natural disaster?

This experience influenced me on several fronts. I am convinced that leadership is about people. This might seem obvious to most, for it is people we serve, but it must be taken to heart and allowed to influence all levels of decision making and ways of leading. I continue to ponder the extraordinarily simple, but oh so instructive, charge as leaders to ‘love our people’. Our true north is established when our values are in order and all else seems to flow out of it.

This last year has also absolutely reinforced the importance of having leadership perspective from both the balcony and the dancefloor. I am far more conscious of the need to exercise a more global, forward looking, and transformative function in a contemporary Principal role. Something more akin to the CEO heart, mindset and skills, as well as the more on the ground, visible, personable and compassionate functions of leading. It is not an ‘either/or’ picture, it’s about being present in the way that best serves the school community in that time.

If you are an aspirant Principal, be assured that if you are consciously reflecting upon your prior experiences as a senior leader, and taking steps to grow from them, you are preparing you for future leadership. Don’t waste the opportunity to view every experience as a teachable moment!

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