The following captures the thoughts of Anne Garvan on a range of career and professional development topics, as recorded during a question and answer session with Trak Search. It is targeted for leaders and aspiring leaders with the information best used in conjunction with discussions with a person’s manager/supervisor. Anne’s biography is shown at the end of this interview.
Anne, so many people talk about the need for career planning – were your career moves planned or unplanned?
No, mine certainly weren’t planned. I entered the Brigidine Congregation, when I was 18 and leadership was thrust upon me unexpectedly from the moment I put my foot inside the congregational door.
Why so early?
Well, in those days you had to have someone who was the leader of the Novice group and they asked me to be that person. I don’t want to make more of it than it deserves, but I was thrust into leadership very early, in all sorts of ways. I didn’t come in thinking I’d be a leader. I came in wanting to serve people and I thought this was the best way I could. I had this idealistic view of being a nun and giving myself entirely to others and that’s what I wanted to do with my life, I wanted to be of service.
My plan was never to be a leader and I really would have been shocked if somebody had said to me “Oh, we think you should be a Principal”. That’s not what motivated me. But at the same time, I have to say, once I got into schools, you can get a bit frustrated at times when there is a lack of leadership. So there is something in you I suppose that wants to put things right and that’s part of the reason you accept leadership.
I had some difficulty at first. I was brought up to share ideas – if you’ve got an idea you share it with people and you talk about it and you give your arguments. I come from a family of people who are very politically aware and so I thought everybody would be interested in sharing ideas. So when, for example, there were some really interesting scriptural writings that said, for example, the three Magi didn’t exist as believed, I presumed everyone would be as fascinated. It was good for me to realise that we all came from different backgrounds and interest levels and to learn what it sometimes felt like when new ideas weren’t always encouraged. I needed to learn that not everyone had the same interests.
How did you start in education?
Initially I was put into a primary school instead of secondary. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me because I had to simplify my language to get through to children. If you want to help children you’ve got to be able to communicate with them directly. Interestingly I’m still in touch with some of my little students from back then.
Yes. I met a doctor I had the pleasure of teaching when she was in primary school – a fine woman who had a serious interest in learning from her earliest years. I learnt a great deal from my students so it is always a two-way process… And it’s just interesting, I had to learn to simplify my language and get to the essence of things. It doesn’t matter what the experience is, whether it is good or difficult, I think you can learn from it as long as you’re reflecting on the experience and wanting to learn from it.
Then I was plunged into leadership. Within about four years at about 26 years of age I was made a Principal. It was a very large school in a wealthy part of Brisbane and it had a French school attached to it which I also had to administer. So I had the whole of the primary school, from K to 7 and a French school attached. So you had to negotiate with parents, you had to negotiate with your own staff, I had a very difficult and troubled priest as the Parish Priest and I was terribly young! At my first meeting I put 36 points on the agenda of all these things I wanted to do. I had no idea how to prioritise. You make a lot of mistakes initially and hopefully you learn from those early years.
As your career progressed was there any planning or did the opportunities just ‘come along’?
Well, naturally I wanted to study. I had given up a Commonwealth Scholarship to Sydney University to enter, so I wanted to study and I am a natural student. So I was Principal of that primary school for three years and then I asked if I could study. Fortunately the Sisters allowed me to do so and I went to Queensland University and I did an Honours degree in English Literature, Studies of Religion, and History and undertook my DipEd externally. Now John, I’m a bit of a contrarian when it comes to studying education. I favour the appointment of people who can specialise in their particular area of interest – say it’s English, say it’s History, Science, whatever it is – and don’t just study the educational theory around it. I would prefer people to have their degree in their area of specialisation and have really explored that deeply and be committed to it. I’m not all that interested in studying education per se. Now I know I’m being a contrarian on that, but I would prefer to see people who really have a love of learning, a really deep love of learning and in their subject area. It doesn’t matter what the subject is actually, but I would rather that love of a particular discipline as I believe that that dedication and passion for a subject will ignite the fire in young people.
I know that’s not necessarily what some educators would want to hear but I’m afraid that’s how it is for me. I can only speak my own truth, so that’s my bias.
Anne, what about a pivotal point in your career? Often when people look back there might be a point which was significant – was there a pivotal point for you?
Yes there was and I’ve shared this with other people. I was very young and had been on the staff of this primary school for three years as a teacher. One of the women on the staff who was a peer was a very difficult lady, clever but difficult, very brusque. The minute I was made Principal her whole demeanour towards me changed, completely and totally. She began being pleasant, she began to take an interest in my opinion and it was a light bulb moment for me. I thought ‘It’s not me, it’s the role’. And I thought of the old saying of being a rooster one minute, and a feather duster the next. That realisation has never left me.
In retrospect it was really good for me to experience that because although some would say it was hypocritical, she was just being who she was and she now saw that I was going to have an influence on her life. It was not because she particularly liked me that she changed, it was just that she had better get on with the ‘Principal’. She would have seen me as a bit of an upstart – I was young and had all these ideas. She did me a great service really because it made me think ‘don’t take yourself so seriously in your role’. It helped me divorce the role from the person and I was lucky enough to have that experience at a young age.
You said you were 26 when you became Principal. Did they have to convince you to take that role?
Well, I knew what was happening in the school and I had no idea of the complexities in leadership… It was a different era. There was no filing system, no private secretary. The school community was young and energising. The previous principal had established a good sense of community but there were plenty of challenges that appealed to me. I learnt a great deal in the process.
We now seem to get less and less people putting up their hand for Principal roles. What are the fulfilling aspects of a leadership role? What would you suggest to somebody as being the attractions of taking on an AP or a Principal role?
To me, it’s really making a difference for the best. It’s making a positive difference in people’s lives –that’s your hope. You hope you can make a difference for the children. You hope that you get to create an environment where children are going to learn better and they’re going to be given better opportunities because of the way you lead. You hope you’re going to bring out the best in your staff so they feel confident in their profession.
But that aspiring leader out there, Anne, maybe they are now a coordinator, why would they step into an AP or a Principal role? What’s the attraction of that higher level of leadership?
Well, I think because you can enact policies and decisions that ultimately really do make a difference to people’s lives, at a policy level. For example, I have a policy of trying to be open and transparent – with staff and with students and with parents – so a lot of my priorities have been working with parents directly and honestly; and letting them contribute to the agenda.
That’s not easy to do and some Principals don’t see the value in it. I see the value of doing this, so if I want to make a difference and if I want to establish a parent’s confidence and if I want to create a collaborative partnership in society, then I have to do so authentically .It has an impact on a whole range of matters and influences decision-making directly.
This is one area, particularly as a woman, where you can reach higher levels of leadership.When I was young there weren’t very many outlets for leadership for women, and so this was one area I suppose which, unconsciously, attracted me.
So an aspiring woman leader out there now, what advice would you give to them about looking and taking leadership opportunities?
Well, I think you’ve got to make the role your own and you’ve got to watch very carefully the work-life balance. It worries me because there’s not a lot of that around. I was different because I didn’t have children, so I didn’t have that extra commitment that’s so important in your life. But I had lots of other commitments – family and extended family. . But you’ve got to take the role and you’ve got to make it your own. You’ve got to be yourself in the role – that is crucial. You’ve also got to live with having to make some tough decisions and living with the consequences. You need to be able to do that. That’s the most difficult aspect of leadership.
So how did you manage the pressures of the Principal’s role? What advice would you give to a newly appointed leader about managing the pressure and having work-life balance?
Well, social activities with my family, with close friends, going walking, getting right away from it all. I have mostly lived in a separate area from where the school was and that helped to give recovery time. Reading, walking, going to the cinema, to the theatre, visiting art galleries – I’m still doing all of that because I find it really good, for me, it nourishes me.
You also need to have people in your life – your husband, your wife, close siblings, a good friend – who will be really honest with you and say ‘Pull back Anne, you’re going too far, you’re doing too much, what’s all this about?’. A person who can really put you straight. You need to have good strong relationships with people who’ll give you honest feedback without fear or favour.
You mentioned the benefit of living away from the school. People in some rural and regional areas, say a principal in a small town in Wilcannia Forbes or Toowoomba, don’t have this capability. What advice would you give them in terms of this ‘getting away’?
I also mentioned walking and reading. It is also having a good enough relationship with people around you to say “I just need some time out” and be able to clear that and live with that and do it. Not in an offensive way, but just to negotiate that with your community. You would have to do that I think so that people would understand it is your time out. It would be hard.
Anne, what would you name as the key characteristics of excellent educational leaders?
- The first thing is a deep and abiding love of learning. To me that’s really fundamental.
- A sense of curiosity with the ability to ask questions and not be threatened by the responses. That’s why a lot of people don’t engage with parents – they don’t want to hear the bad news, they don’t want to be disagreed with.
- I think a genuine interest in others, in what makes them who they are.
- An ability to listen to and communicate with young people, I think that’s an important characteristic of an educational leader.
- The capacity to admit and learn from your mistakes.
- Generosity, you have to have a generosity of spirit. I’m afraid there’s no point if you resent having to give up some time on your weekend. Some people are like that and they get really angry and uptight. There’s no point going for a job like this unless you’re prepared for this as there’s got to be a lot of generosity to do the job well.
- You’ve got to enjoy it, so you’ve got to have the capacity to enjoy being the leader and not being afraid to say you do enjoy being a leader, not apologise for that. There’s nothing worse than working with a leader who’s always moaning and groaning and saying “Well, I’m terribly busy and I’m working so hard and…….” you know, it just drives you mad.
- Having and sharing a sense of inner calm that keeps everything in perspective. You don’t hype people up. So you will be dealing with crises and we had a few at St Patrick’s, when a young boy suicided for example. Now, if as Principal I had gone into panic mode it would have been terrible for the school. You need to be calm in yourself and you’ve got to give a sense of calm to others, a reassuring calm.
Can a person develop these traits?
I think you can raise them to people as wonderful values for living. You certainly can’t artificially manufacture them. For example, if you’re not a calm person you can’t manufacture it, but you can work on techniques that slow you down in your decision making process, for example, so that you don’t just suddenly rush into decision making. I don’t see why you can’t learn that.
Can you speak further about your first point ‘the love of learning’. Can this be developed?
You’d hope they’d have it wouldn’t you? What’s the point of being in education at all if you don’t have that? If they don’t have that then I fear for them in leadership. I would go so far to say that if they don’t have that passion for learning then education is not for them, let alone being a leader and teacher. And to me actually the words ‘Head Teacher’ speak more strongly to me than ‘Principal’.
I’ve always taught as a Principal and I would encourage all leaders to teach because you want to teach and because the students really matter. I used to love going into the classroom and it’s just so important to me. The students were such a balance in a difficult day. I treasure those memories.
But with all the demands that come with the Principal’s role, you still were able to take a class?
Yes and I was the better as leader for it. Some were not ‘easy’ and I had to really work to make that connection with the students. We always got there but it could be demanding of time and preparation. But what interests me is how do you engage students from every level of ability to want to learn – not just pass exams? So I tried to keep engaged through teaching because I believed that’s what I was there for. If I couldn’t teach how could I ask my peers to do so? That has always been my conviction.
Which skill have you found most useful in your career?
Communication………Clarity of thought, clear and direct and authentic communication.
Anne, if you had your time over again, which skill would you have worked harder at developing to a higher level of expertise?
There were earlier times when I would have made a decision very quickly and I needed to pull back and slow it down and take people with me. It took me a while to learn that.
How did you recognise this?
I made mistakes and I learned from the mistakes. For example, you might appoint the wrong person in a job. When interviewing you can be impressed by somebody who’s got a good brain; can really talk through an idea; with a deep and abiding love of learning. That can be an attractive hook. I’ve got to learn sometimes to pull back from that and say “It’s not the only thing we are looking for”. Can this person take the students and staff with him or her?
So how do you do that? What mechanisms or what practices did you use to counter this?
Giving myself 24 hours. In my case I learned never to make an important decision without sleeping on it. So I gave myself a 24 hour timespan and that helped me immensely.
You said that communication has been the most useful skill in your career. What were some of the ways that you worked at connecting to all the various groups that you needed to liaise with? Do you have any advice for others?
Firstly, all my life as a leader I have given time to staff one-on-one, individually, in interviews at least twice per year. Now, in a school as big as St Pats that’s a major commitment of time, and others of my peers have said “You’re crazy”. But John, that has been the foundation of building up the morale in the school and my getting to know my colleagues. So it wasn’t just a PPPR process, it wasn’t just performance review. When I first went to St Pats I said “Right, I’m putting aside this time”, so I’d be available before school, after school, I’d be available during the day if they had a free period. And I said “I’ll put aside at least half an hour”, usually it was an hour they had, and I’ve always done that.
And early on, was there an agenda for these meetings?
Yes, for example, if I was talking to a coordinator and the HSC results were below expectations I would have an agenda. I’d say “Okay, now, let’s have a look at this ………” and we would have a discussion. Then I’d say “ in terms of the people you have got in your particular classes………” and we would talk about this aspect. Then right at the end you would find there would be something personal they’d drop into the conversation. They’d say something like “Oh, my husband’s been very ill……..” and mention things to you that you just didn’t know anything about. So the conversation was a mixture of the formal and the informal but I didn’t manipulate that, I just allowed whatever came out to come out, and it does take time and you build on it and it is important.
And these conversations occurred with a large staff?
Yes 110 staff – all the staff; all the support staff and all the teaching staff. It is the formal and informal. The maintenance manager would see me every day. I have always arrived at school extremely early and he’d report on how the grounds were and offer me his wisdom and someone like that knows the wider community better than anybody.
So it was the formal and the informal and I was also well organised. I learnt very early that you thought you were communicating with everybody in an unplanned way, but when you sat down and really looked at it you thought ‘Actually, I haven’t seen so-and-so. Actually, I don’t know so-and-so’ then you would realise you keep talking to the same people. So if you don’t plan it and make sure there’s time for everybody, you end up listening to the same people and sometime you are only connecting with the people you like.
And these conversations, formal & informal, were a foundation to building team morale?
Absolutely, and for knowing what was going on in the school, how the students were doing. I would take out the list of their students and go through the names and ask “How’s so-and-so going?” I would always ask every member of staff “Is there any student in your class who’s struggling?” I wanted to know their names and why they were struggling and then we would follow it up. It’s the only way you can keep alert for your students. And then, of course, I used to look carefully at each Report and sign every one of them, sometimes adding a comment if I thought it helped.
In every school I’ve ever been in I’ve found it’s really important to make time for coming to know the staff. It is crucial and they, then, are trusted to be vital to their students’ educational welfare.
Are there other aspects to your communication practices?
Yes, you’ve got to clarify all your communication processes. So you’d meet daily with your AP, every single day. You meet daily with your PA. With your executive team I used to rotate the leadership of it to develop their leadership skills. So the agenda would be set by all of us together and we would rotate leadership of that particular work. It’s got to be genuine, it’s got to be honest and you’ve got to put all your cards on the table. I always expect cabinet solidarity. If we reach a decision I expect confidences to be kept, otherwise you can’t confide. This is also what I did with the Parent Advisory Board.
Can we talk about the Parent Advisory Board which you established? There are a number of schools now with this type of parent group, but whenever it’s mentioned in wider forums people are always interested in learning more. Did you introduce this first at St Pats in 2001?
I’d introduced this at Randwick with the assistance of Grainne Norton. We were at a P&F meeting at Brigidine Randwick and I remember saying “I need parent input on a range of matters that will be affecting the students in the school, will you help?” Grainne said “Yes we can, I’ve been waiting for something like this for parents.” so we called it a Parent Advisory Committee to begin with. She gave great advice when she said “Anne, this will only work if I am the chair and if the parents run it”. So we did and she ran it and I attended with the Deputy Principal as ex-officio members. We had a core group who volunteered to help; and the way they developed their thinking and their ownership of decisions and their strengthening self-confidence was so heartening to witness. And, as you know, it is a great forum as a safety valve for letting off steam for parents, where they could come and contribute and decisions could be clarified and explained and developed. Grainne was so honourable in the way she followed the Agenda through on behalf of the parents and she would be prepared to say as you would, John, “No, we don’t agree” or “Yes, we do agree”.
So when a person steps into a Principal role, what advice would you give them about parent engagement?
Get to know your parents to begin with. You can’t do it straight away but you’ve got to get to know them. Then to have the wisdom to know who would be of the right calibre to contribute .That is not easy.
Some staff are not so open to the idea of parent involvement in this type of committee or board. How have you managed this with staff?
Staff often are initially suspicious of what can look like a ‘special’ group. But you have to have the confidence to explain the necessity for such a forum and to proceed in the conviction that this is essential for establishing trust with parents and sharing collaboratively as fellow-educators. You’ve got to keep confidence in and support for parents just as you expect them to do it for you – not in an artificial way because it is fine to disagree on matters. But when, together, you reach a final decision, then that’s what I’d follow and I would discuss that with the staff. At times you have to be prepared, despite all the ‘advice’, to take a different path. That too, is fine if you’re truly collaborative. If there is trust then I have found parents and staff will respect you to make that different call from time to time. That is leadership – and, you hope, wisdom.
So what do you need to be mindful of when engaging parent support? What’s the trap leaders need to be careful to avoid?
Be very careful not to have anyone who sees themselves as part of a lobby group. You don’t want lobbyists. You want people who are positive about the possibilities for the school. You need people who are generous, who are prepared to give up their time. You need people who are already, I think, successful in their job, who’ve got a proven record of being able to manage high level work, so you’re getting a higher qualify of input.
If we can talk about professional development – what professional development activities would you recommend to aspiring leaders?
I do think they need to develop their communication skills and their conflict resolution skills. These are probably the two key areas.
You need to get feedback on these areas and I found it was sometimes hard to encourage some APs to give you negative feedback. I used to say to Assistant Principals “Come on, disagree with me”. They did in the end and we all made better decisions as a result. To begin with they’re very respectful of you and so you’ve really got to encourage that constructive dissent.
How do you do that? Most people would be reluctant.
You encourage it by the way you participate in your executive, co-ordinator and staff meetings and the way you communicate in the school. But it is especially in Executive meetings that you demonstrate that you will listen to each person. It would not be helpful if I say to you “Now you can disagree with me” and then in my head and in my manner I’m arguing with you. You have to actively practise what you preach.
It is hard to stop and listen to bad news, and I think it can only be done in a constructive forum. If I’m being shouted at by somebody it doesn’t help me one bit, and I’ve often thought about that with students especially – if you shout at students why should they listen to you? Constructive dissent is a gift and leaders are the better for constructive criticism where the truth is spoken and listened to.
For an aspiring leader, are there activities that they should practice in their own life to help with their own spiritual formation?
I find these days a lot of young people really respond to meditation techniques and that really slows them down and it centres them. It just gets them to go into themselves and reflect quietly and without the noise that society often imposes.
I ’ve done it all my life you see. We were taught that in the Novitiate but my father had taught me when I was a little child. So to me it’s terribly important to go into yourself just to slow yourself down, to have some quiet time. I do this, usually at night. Some people take meditation naps in the afternoon as it were. I can’t program myself that way. I take it when I need it but there’s always time at night for me to just process the day. For me it’s about 20 minutes, but it doesn’t have to be that long.
I think that it can really help students and I find them responding to meditation. Staff also begin to talk about it with more ease.
I would also love to think they understood the scriptures well and they had a context for their understandings of scripture, because that should nourish their souls if it’s used properly, the beautiful readings of scripture. Because I studied world religions I use small gems of literature like The Gitanjali from Rabrindanath Tagore, the great Bengali poet. Poetry can be very powerful, but you’ve got to be the sort of person that is at ease with that. I wouldn’t impose it on you.
But you need time. You need time to reflect. We need to be able to take that time out and you would need to negotiate that time with yourself and your family.
What are you reading at the moment?
All That I Am by Anna Funder. I just love to read and try to do so each night. . I’ve just finished The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, and The Paris Wife which is on Hemingway, and A Memoir by Michael Kirby, he’s just published it. I’ve just finished reading all those, so at the moment I’m reading All That I Am by Anna Funder which is really interesting, it’s about going back in time to World War II and the impact of the holocaust and all the moral issues of that time? She’s an interesting Australian author.
On my bedside table I have The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco; The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt, who’s a historian, a wonderful historian who wrote for the New York Times; Homage to Barcelona, because I’m going to Spain next year; After Words by Paul Keating; The Dreaming and Other Essays, by Stanner who was a great anthropologist; The Absolutist by John Boyne; and very reluctantly Letters to My Daughter by Robert Menzies. One of my friends gave me that and I said “I can’t possibly read that book” and she said “I bought it for you because I think you should read it”; and then Notorious Australian Women by Kay Saunders who taught me at University. And finally Reminiscences of Australia by a relative of mine James T Ryan. It’s very badly written but he was a First Fleeters descendant so is of interest.
So what I’m saying to you is John, I suppose, is that I nourish my soul and my spirit and my love of learning by reading and I’ve done it always and with a very diverse range of books, because I’m interested in a whole lot of areas.
I haven’t got an e-reader but I’m thinking of it, that will be my next stage.
Is there one must-read book that you would suggest to the aspiring leader?
I don’t think like that.
Can you tell me why?
Well, we’re all so different. Our interests in reading are so different, and my reason for reading is not to do with professional career development. I don’t read for that reason. So I would be suggesting that people read a diverse range of books to develop their minds and their sense of curiosity. Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had have been about physics or the sciences which isn’t my area of specialisation. I remember meeting an ex-Principal, an ex-Physics teacher, and we used to have the most wonderful conversations. It comes back to your love of learning and it’s not just in your own area, you don’t restrict yourself. That’s been my experience of life anyway.
What about websites, Anne, do you follow any sites?
Well, quite a few such as Eureka Street; the National Catholic Reporter from America – it’s fabulous. The New York Times Literary Review; the Tablet from the UK; and CrossCurrents which is a Catholic, fairly radical left-wing, publication on the website. I’d love to think our Principals were reading those. People need to be selective in what they access but you’ve got to be interested in learning from diverse sources.
What’s your advice to an aspiring leader in relation to seeking out a mentor? What did you do?
My mentors were an uncle and aunt of mine. He was an Inspector of Schools and he opened up his library to me. He was most generous and wise and someone I could always talk to. My Aunt whom I still see, she’s in her 80s now, has a formidable intellect and she’s utterly fearless, so if she doesn’t agree with you she says so clearly and factually. So they’ve been wonderful mentors as have other significant adults in my young life. But people in education? Along the way I have appreciated good and wise and humane colleagues, people who struck me as authentic and I’ve been prepared to confide in them. If you are seeking a mentor it has to be someone you can trust absolutely, someone who will give you fearless advice and someone who is the right ‘fit’ for you. A sense of humour also helps!
How do you find that sort of person?
It is very hard, actually. In our system of schools they’re trying to provide mentoring for principals through the consultant but the consultants are absolutely worn ragged doing other jobs and it’s a bit of a contradiction because they’re also representing the employer. It’s better to have a distance and I’ve found sometimes an ex-Principal or someone of that ilk, who’s been involved in leadership, who’s had to handle complex situations can be a useful confidante. But – it has got to be the right fit.
You would hope that people are around to advise a new principal about someone they could turn to. I’ve been asked to assist a few but there are some people I’ve found you can’t help because you can’t anticipate the questions they’re not going to ask. It’s really complex. Others are just natural. The more honest the dialogue the more hopeful the outcome.
One thing I saw worked very well at Parramatta was a group of Principals who formed a group of their own and sought outside consultation of their group. So you were peer mentored, and you had a facilitator come from the outside, and it worked extremely well, it was very successful.
The person receiving the mentoring, what should they contribute to a mentoring relationship?
Honesty – you have to paint a very clear picture of how things are, otherwise there’s no point is there?
Can I ask about the ‘honesty’ in relation to performance feedback, which can be an area that people struggle with.
You’ve got to have honesty. Well, I think as a Principal you need it, and the person that would normally give you that feedback would be your AP who is working so closely with you all the time. By the end of the time at St Pats people felt confident enough in me to give me very direct feedback. If they weren’t happy about something, they’d come thumping into the office. That was fine because we had a good working relationship.
If you are working with somebody on your staff who’s very difficult and you’ve got to give them feedback, well you’ve got to respect them enough, to care about them, to be honest, but not it in a way that’s destructive. But you’ve got to be honest and then you’ve got to follow up. You’ve got to say to them “I’ve noticed this and this and this. Now let’s put in train a couple of solutions here. Let’s work through a process over the next three months and then we’ll come back together and talk about how it’s going”. You don’t set them up for failure. You never set anybody up for failure. You’ve got to be straight with them, and if by the end of the period of time they’re not good at a job, you say to them “Look, this is obviously not the right thing is it?” and hopefully you can move them away from that particular responsibility.
This is all based upon having established a good working relationship. The truth can be painful but it is more honest than pretence. In the end that helps no one.
Can you please elaborate?
Well, first of all you’ve got to establish a good working relationship with all your staff. You’ve got to establish a positive climate in the school community so that people know they’re going to be given the benefit of the doubt; they know they’re going to be given honest feedback; they’re not going to be rejected out of hand; and if it’s a serious matter that it’s going to be acted upon.
So I can see how that half-hour to an hour with every team member twice a year is going to give you the platform for what you’re talking about now.
It’s key. Yes it’s key, and I’ve had to deliver bad news, and it’s never easy, John. It takes it out of you.
In an environment in which you have developed the relationships, can you speak further about how you deliver the ‘bad news’ to people?
Well, you just bring them in and you say you need to have a chat about a couple of issues that have come up, having usually prepared them in advance. Assuming it is not an industrial matter where you’ve got to work through a process, I would just name the issue.
Many people avoid naming the issue and so the person can be passed along for years without getting honest feedback. I recall when a young teacher at one of my schools, soon after I had left, put his hand up for a job and he said to me “Would you support me for this job?” and I said “Look, I’m sorry, I can’t. I’ll support you for being an assistant but I can’t support you this for job”. As it transpired he was appointed and it’s not working out. It is the young teacher who is now going to suffer and suffer a worse fate I think.
So you are not doing the best for a person if you’re setting them up for failure. It’s not fair. I’ve seen too many bitter people over the years who were never given honest feedback and then who get devastated, constantly surprised, by the fact they’re not getting the job, but nobody has ever told them the truth. And way, way back they should have been told, but nobody had the moral strength to do it.
It takes a lot of courage. I remember when I was very young, when I was in that first principalship. There was a woman on the staff to whom I had to give notice for very serious reasons. I really liked her, she was a lovely person, and it took me three days to work up the courage to bring her into my office and give her the bad news, but I finally did it. In the end it was better for her and she was relieved that things came to a head for her personally. But, at the time, it was not easy for either of us.
In some ways it sounds as though it was harder for you than for her?
It was much harder for me, yes, and I still don’t find it easy. But you’ve got to do it, you need to be honest don’t you? And I would expect then that people would do likewise with me.
I remember one person that I had to give feedback to who found it quite devastating. I gave him the feedback and all the evidence, then we worked it through and we supported him over a considerable period of time. He said to me later he was completely shaken by the experience of my giving him the feedback but appreciated knowing how things really were. I can usually deliver bad news in a way that doesn’t devastate people but I haven’t always succeeded.
So you have got to know your colleagues and to what extent they can take it. You see, in the end for me, it is the children that matter and I used to keep saying that to the executive “Listen, all the decisions we make are affecting the children. This is what we’re here for. We’re not here for ourselves.” In making difficult decisions this was my compass.
What advice would you give to somebody newly appointed into a leadership role Anne regarding their initial priorities, in say their first one or two terms?
Observe: look, listen, and I’ve always found it helpful to make notes. When you first go into a school a whole lot of things strike you as being strange and you keep asking yourself “Why is that?” Write it down for yourself. You don’t necessarily have to act on it, in fact I would advise not to act on it initially, but write it all down. Then at the end of the first 12 months come back and revisit all that you recorded. You’ll be surprised how you have got used to some things which you had initially noted – you just get used to it and it becomes part of your vision. That’s why I’ve said to any new AP “Please write down what you notice straight away for me because I’ve got used to it. Write it down and then give me the feedback”. But I think it’s terribly important not to make any radical change initially, very important.
And of course, as I’ve always done, you interview all of your staff, get to know all your staff – teaching and non-teaching. You need to develop a good working relationship with your AP as soon as you can because that person will be the most fearful of your arrival. You are the greatest threat to that person’s feeling a sense of comfort in their life and you’ve got to be aware of that. You might have benign feelings towards them, you might be very grateful you’re working with this person, but you’ve got to convince them you are pleased to be working with them in trust. And then set up your executive. I would suggest you always do that the way you like it, but make it a shared, collaborative approach.
You won’t know your parents well at the beginning. How do you get to know them? You’ve got to reach out, attend their functions, talk to them.
I also strongly believe that you should teach. When I went to St Pats the very first year in ’99 I put myself down for teaching years 7, 10 and 12. I taught three classes which may sound a lot but you see it was really important for me to get to know this demographic, these students. So I taught year 7, the most difficult class in year 7 as I found out later, but it was marvellous because those boys went all the way through from 7 to 12 and I knew them so well and that made all the difference. I taught year 10, because I wanted to know what it was like in the middle of the school and what kind of student we were sending on up to 11 and 12. And then year 12 really to reassure them because you had to establish your first HSC class, to settle them after a change of principal.
It was a very demanding year but I managed to interview all the staff, I also went on playground duty and I took the 3 classes because to me all of those elements were key to gaining an understanding of the whole school community.
What do you think is the most significant challenge facing our students today?
To integrate and deepen their sense of self in a flickering, fast-moving world of celebrity and cyberspace. So who are they, what values have they got, what values do you hold onto when you’re being bombarded, your senses are being bombarded, your values are being bombarded.
We’ve got the global financial crisis, wars going on, you’ve got celebrity cults everywhere in the media. If I were a little kid today I’d be looking at all that and thinking “My God, how do I fit into all this? I need to have 300 friends on Facebook” So I think there’s a lot of anxiety being created in our world.
So how can our educational leaders address these issues?
Well, I think we’ve got to help to centre our students; we’ve got to turn off the noise; we’ve got to challenge their values; we’ve got to give them time and space; we’ve got to help them with meditation. I really believe that. Teach them to not accept a mindless “internet is always right” model, because it isn’t.
So doing that critical thinking is really important, it’s trying to help the students to do that. If they don’t know who they are and if they aren’t confident in learning, it’s all confusing and they will be mired in the mess. So you just hope that on the way there’s been someone who can anchor them.
Anne, can you recall a major adversity in your career? Can you think of any significant hurdle in your career and, if so, how did you get around it, how did you cope?
I’ll go back again to when I was fairly young and made Principal. The parish priest was a very complex man and had a range of serious issues. He was used to bullying his way everywhere and dominating the P&F, dominating the staff. Then I was asked to be Principal. One day he said to me in front of the P&F “That’s the way it’s going to be done isn’t it” and I said “Well, no I don’t agree” and I stood up to him. Actually I was quite frightened.
But the parents protected me and they were wonderful, wonderful parents. The parents were also being bullied by him and I think they were relieved that somebody had said “No, enough is enough” and stood up to him.
He was abusive to the students so at a later time I went to his Bishop who had said to the whole Diocese ‘if you ever have a worry come and see me’. He was a beautiful man, highly intelligent and sensitive. He listened and must have had a word with the priest concerned because he changed considerably. In this adversity I suppose I learnt that what was a terrible working situation and a very daunting one, a very oppressive one, could be turned around if you had the temerity to stand up and speak your truth. I learnt that.
Some people think “Well, it’s better to keep everything quiet and just go along with it and not say anything”. I have found over the years that if you have a reason for what you believe in and it’s really important, and provided it’s not just about yourself – for example if the students are being adversely affected or the parents or the staff are disadvantaged by a particular action – then do something about it. Don’t be a coward.
Anne, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received that you could share with others?
Just be true to yourself. Don’t try and imitate. It takes a while to learn this and I think when you’re young, and I was like this too, I felt that I should be like someone else, a different style of leader. I couldn’t believe that my style of being a leader would be good enough. It’s really important to believe that you’ve been given this role, people have looked into you and said “You are the right person” so don’t then try and become someone different, just be yourself. Staff actually prefer that too. So if you’re centred and if you accept yourself, you can be yourself as a leader. I’m actually quite shy and I have had to spend my entire life speaking publicly. So I’ve had to turn that round and now find it comes easily. It all takes time.
One of the things I have learnt is the acceptance of the reality that we are all flawed. There is no perfect leader, no perfect parent, no perfect student. It is important to say to staff and to parents and to students that “we all make mistakes. I don’t expect you to be perfect.” That frees you up far more to be yourself and it frees others up to be themselves. So I think being true to yourself is the advice that I would pass on.
About Anne Garvan
Anne’s career in Catholic education commenced as a primary teacher in Brisbane while a member of the Brigidine Sisters. Within a few years she was to be appointed principal of her school, in what was to be the first step in a career spanning more than 30 years in leadership roles.
Anne has been a Principal in three schools including Brigidine College Randwick (1989 – 1995) and St Patrick’s College Sutherland (1999 – 2007) as well as being a secondary schools consultant for the Diocese of Parramatta (1996-1998).
She has also served Catholic education in other capacities including as a member of many boards and councils, including on various committees for the Sydney Archdiocesan Schools Board. In recent years her Board memberships have included Deputy Chair, OLMC Secondary College Parramatta and a council member for Edmund Rice Education Australia.
With her desire to promote a more collaborative relationship between school and parents, Anne established the inaugural parent advisory boards at Brigidine College Randwick (1990) and St Patrick’s Sutherland (2001), a model that has since been introduced into other schools.
Anne is currently consulting to a number of systemic and private schools throughout Australia and is the Chair of Brigidine College Council St Ives.