South Australian-based school principal and recent leadership category winner of the SA Excellence in Public Education Awards, Olivia O’Neill, says despite the challenges of being a principal in the 21st Century principals should focus on the creativity of the job and enjoy it.
With 11 years as principal of one of South Australia’s best performing schools, Brighton Secondary School, and more than 40 years of experience in secondary schools in Queensland and South Australia, O’Neill told Education Matters the award win is more a testament to the leaders she works with.
“It’s very nice to be personally recognised because you work hard, you put in the hours and you keep working on a continuous improvement plan but really I think it’s more testament to the leaders that I work with,” she said. “It’s about the good people that you recruit to do the job, so I did accept award on behalf of the ‘principal team’, as we call them. We don’t call them Admin in our school because no one ever says Admin warmly do they?”
As a winner of the leadership category O’Neill has been given the opportunity to undertake a short course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has chosen the course entitled ‘Leadership: an Evolving Vision’.
“The course is about building succession and building as leadership because my key issue is you can work very hard with a team and then someone new comes in and it gets unravelled because it’s not deep in the culture,” O’Neill explained. “So I think it’s really important for a school like Brighton that when new leadership comes in it values what’s really deep in the culture.
“Yes, definitely be on a continuous improvement plan, however don’t throw out what was working well at the school before. You find when people come in they just chuck out what the previous administration did just for the sake of it and while it’s important to acknowledge that yes, things might change, but you have to know what’s deep in the culture – and so I’d like to learn more about that.”
O’Neill says staying up-to-date with technology and its role in education is one of the big challenges for today’s principals.
“It’s about understanding how students think and learn now, and those skills of 21st Century Learning are more the soft skills rather than the hard skills,” O’Neill said. “You know, those skills of communication and problem solving and independent learning. So the challenge is ensuring that you actually are developing independent learners who can learn anywhere anytime and who are motivated to learn. I think that is a big challenge given the fact that now students have so much independence in their own lifestyle through the technology – how to engage them with learning is the challenge.”
To help develop independent learning skills in its students, Brighton Secondary School has introduced ‘flipped learning’ where students watch instructional videos at home and do the typical homework in class. The term ‘flipped’ is used to refer to the reversal of the traditional homework therefore direct instruction is not conducted in large groups, but rather individually through teacher-created videos.
At Brighton all students have an Apple MacBook Pro and O’Neill says the students can independently watch their teacher’s instruction video at home, and with the pre-learning at the lower level done the teacher can do the higher order thinking work during class time with the students.
“It’s about skilling the teachers in professional development,” O’Neill said. “Professional learning is very important and I think one of the things that’s helped us is flipping the classroom so we’ve done a lot of work in that area, developed a teacher film studio, recruited a digital coach who’s very skilled in it and doing continuous work in teacher learning communities of three people to support each other, to learn how to film those lessons that are the lower order skills of remembering and understanding to allow more time in class with the teacher to do the higher order skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
“Flipped learning has been a major move in the right direction to encouraging students to be independent and find out themselves, do the work. There are issues around that with what happens when they don’t do the work or what happens when they don’t do their homework ordinarily and so we work through that as well.”
O’Neill believes the creativity that principals can have in leading educational change, the capacity to be creative and see the outcomes and rewards in students being successful and becoming independent learners makes the job of a principal trump others.
“It’s a wonderful job to be creative and strategic, it’s a wonderful job where you can actually effect change and you can make a difference,” she said. “It’s a difference for teachers and their profession, it’s a difference for students and their future, it’s a difference for the world.
“All jobs are tough these days but I think this job gives us the opportunity for a lot of our own joy in seeing an idea come through to fruition because you can actually see it enacted across a whole range of students and their lives. So I would say to other principals ‘be bold, be courageous, be creative and enjoy the job.’”