The following captures the thoughts of Greg Whitby on a range of career progression and development matters, 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. Greg’s biographical overview is shown at the end of this article and you can also visit his blog at http://bluyonder.wordpress.com
When and how did you decide to become a teacher?
I didn’t have a burning ambition to be a teacher. I was at school and I was a good student in many ways I think. It came fairly easily and I enjoyed school; and had a great time at school. Anyway, I eventually decided to go to university and wanted to do law. I enrolled in law and didn’t like it. I must say I didn’t give it much of a go. I then got a scholarship on the teaching side and took that up and I thought, ‘this interests me’. That’s how I sort of fell into it, then found I had a bit of a flair for it.
After joining almost by accident what have you enjoyed most about the teaching profession?
It’s a great job. Even though you’re working as a teacher within a school, you’re in charge of your own destiny. As a professional you can map it out. You’re really in charge of your class and yourself.
I also enjoy the challenge and I enjoy working with young people up through primary, secondary and university. All of them provide different aspects to enjoy.
Professionally I made the decision to teach secondary schools because it’s much less taxing than teaching primary, I’ll be honest about it. After two years of teaching primary, it was enough: you’re there all day, every day. In secondary school you’ve got some flexibility with your time and I also like sport and was always getting involved in sport. I used to coach a rugby side, refereeing rugby, cricket and it was all good fun.
Have you ever regretted joining the profession?
No. No. At one stage I went back – I was in my late 30’s – went back and enrolled in law again. I thought I might have a career change. I did a year. I lasted longer this time but ditched it. So I got it out of my system and that taught me a big lesson.
People face adversity throughout their career and at times face obstacles which can appear to be insurmountable. Are you able to share any career adversity that you faced Greg, which at the time seemed major, but from which you were able to ‘bounce back’?
There’s a couple. I once worked for a guy, a deputy principal, who I found very, very difficult. He was stifling. I decided it could either make me bitter and twisted, or I could work it to my advantage, which I did. So I went and did other things.
What do you mean ‘other things’?
I found other things in Education to channel my energies into, rather than focus only on things within the school.
I’d also mention, while not necessarily an adversity, that I’ve made a couple of career moves that you could say are stupid. For example, I was working in a 7 to 12 school and decided to move to a Deputy Principal role in a 7 to 10 school. People said ‘you’ve got rocks in your head’ because they saw it as going backwards. But I actually got fast-tracked into other things as a result of this move. Later on I took a salary cut to move into the central office.
Were these seemingly stupid moves made as part of a broader, long term plan or because you were looking for something at that point in time?
I was looking for something different at the time and was wanting to broaden my experience base. I always approach these things from the point of backing yourself. Ultimately you’ve got to make a judgement on whether you can do it or not; and then you’ve got to be successful. You don’t do it and say, I wonder if I can, or cannot. You’ve got to do it and then say ‘I’m going to be the best at it’. Then when you’re the best at it, people want you.
When people face serious adversity in their career, is there some general advice you would give them, based upon your experience?
What can look like an insurmountable problem is an opportunity. It’s the old adage – every threat is an opportunity. It depends how you choose to look at it. You can hit it, bounce off it and pack your tent and go home, or you can say, ok, what are my options?
So when you had that Deputy who you had difficulty with, this was your approach?
Yes. I had to look at my options. I wasn’t going to change him. I could end up bitter and twisted about it or go and do something else. By quirks of fate I got into a range of other things. I got into some professional development stuff that led to an exposure to broader areas that helped out later on. I might not have become involved in these areas if not for him and the approach I then took.
If we can move onto some different aspects of Catholic education and leadership roles, starting with the faith dimension. Can you speak about the activities you’ve been involved in to help develop and nurture your faith, your spiritual life.
I’ve been very, very fortunate. Every time I take professional leave I have some sort of faith development in it. I did the Footsteps of Paul at the end of last year, three weeks following in Paul’s steps. It was fabulous and really energises and broadens your understanding of the church. I’ve written about this. The sense of universality and the timelessness of the church. The great stamina and the power of the message comes across. I flew in, I travelled by air conditioned coach and I was tired and exhausted. Paul was walking everywhere and coming with a ragtag bunch of yahoos and saying the simple message: listen to the message, follow God and love one another. You go to Nicaea, you stand in the church where the first several Councils hammered out the central tenants of our faith. It is fantastic! Several years before that I went to Jerusalem and did the Via Dolorosa. Nothing focuses you like walking the Way of the Cross.
I have always looked for opportunities to develop my Faith. People need to look for opportunities and really take them. And it’s a journey into the heart of darkness sort of thing. It takes you into a very deep place because you’ve got to reflect on your own experience. I’m standing on the Church of the Beatitudes or on the altar where the feeding of the 5000 took place. And you say, did this really happen? And can you imagine all this happening? But it’s there and it attracts people and it’s telling you something. It’s telling you the power of this story is so, so pervasive.
On a more regular basis, what advice would you give to aspiring leaders in terms of developing their spirituality?
Regular church attendance. It’s easier to do a pilgrimage than it is to make sure you go to church regularly. I’m a regular, every Sunday. I’m a Reader in my Parish. I’m now not so involved with the Parish; I used to be more involved in my prior Parish. I don’t know whether that’s a good or bad thing, but the nature of the work you do doesn’t allow for that. But weekly Mass nourishes you. I think it’s critical. It’s the easiest thing to let go. Like on the weekend, Sunday is busy with Mother’s Day and I’ve got tickets to go to the Waratah’s on Saturday night. It would be easy to miss Mass. I went to Mass and went home and watched the footy on TV. So I made that choice. And I’m a paid up member of the Waratah’s that costs me a lot of money each year! But it does you good and I felt better for it.
What would you name as the key attributes of excellent educational leaders?
You’ve got to have a passion for what you do. You’ve got to like kids. You’ve got to be able to live with ambiguity and you’ve got to know what the game is.
When you say, “know what the game is”, what do you mean?
Knowing what education is about: what contemporary schooling in the contemporary world should look like. And that’s why you’ve got to be able to live with ambiguity because it demands change.
In terms of ‘living with ambiguity’, can a person develop this skill?
Yes I think you can. You’ve got to be able to live with paradox. That means you have to be able to embrace things which might seem counterintuitive. Like: you get more control by giving it away, by empowering people. Power doesn’t lie with the position. You’re going to get better student outcomes by involving the students more in the process, rather than sitting them there, with them being quiet and you telling them. All those things that we know are changing in the connected world. So you can learn that, and you can learn to be comfortable with it once you see the outcomes. But you’ve got to step off the edge; to let go.
I’m talking from where I am now after 36 years of experience. I’m not saying I was like this the first year out, but what I was, I was good at my craft. I made sure I was the best teacher I could be. I made sure I was good on the basics, the administrative stuff. When you get those things right you get more and more responsibility given to you and it opens up more and more possibilities. Then you realise that the world is not black and white, it’s grey because you start to deal with a range of things.
At each of the levels, I’ve had colleagues who have fallen by the wayside, someone who wants to stay in their black and white world and do what they want to do. Some who have flown too far and burnt out, all those sorts of things. Because as you go further it gets more and more complex.
Ultimately, leading a contemporary organisation is about managing meaning. It’s a cultural issue. We know what good learning theory is; we’ve got libraries full of it. We can tell you what it is. We know how people learn, we’ve got masses of contemporary evidence-based literature and theory on it. We know what great technologies are and they’re proven technologies and they’re innovative. The issue is cultural change. You’ve got to get people who are doing things ‘that way’ to doing in another way, doing something else. And that means you’re dealing with managing meaning, because you’ve got to make it sensible for them. Then living with the ambiguity that you can’t just tell them to do it and they’ll do it.
Now, you can learn some of those cognitive aspects of it. You’ve got to know what good technology is; you’ve got to be able to reference the theory. We have discussions with principals. They know if they want to posit a different world view, then ok, talk to me. They’ve got my learning theory, it is written on my wall. That’s why I wanted a glass wall, so you can see it, so you can sit anywhere here and read it. It’s the Elmore stuff about instructional core, that’s the best we know about contemporary learning. And you’ve got to be able to talk about that and be able to understand the technology because ultimately the issues are about cultural change and making decisions.
Greg, when you responded to the question of attributes of excellent educational leaders, the first thing you mentioned was ‘passion’. Is this something that can be developed?
The passion ebbs and flows. It depends where you are in your career and your life. I’ve never had a mid-life crisis, I’ve never had time. So I’m 58 and I still haven’t had a mid-life crisis. I don’t yearn to ride a Harley or trek through Katmandu or whatever. The more you do, the more you seek and do, and the more successful.
You’ve got to find something that turns on your buttons. I’ve already mentioned that in my early days it was sport with kids. And my teaching expertise. I was getting involved in the whole life of the school. I got very deeply immersed in the whole life of the school and built stronger relationships with the kids through sport and then into a wider network.
I’ll give you a concrete example of how it paid off. I was never looking to move and come into Catholic education. I didn’t start in Catholic education. I went to a Catholic boys’ school. I lived the tribal life and went to university and found out there was a different world out there and boy, did I embrace that world. So I started teaching in the early 70s and I was working with the Department. I was considered to be very successful and people would say to me, ‘you’re going to be an Inspector’, ‘you’ve got a lot of talent’ and ‘you’re going places’. Through sport I got involved and I was refereeing. I’d referee on the weekends, besides the schoolboy stuff, and I got to know a whole range of people and there were a lot of teachers who were playing football. As well as the sport, and again because of the Deputy Principal I’ve mentioned, I had also become involved in History professional development at the local level. It turned out one of these guys who was involved in the History professional development group (we were on the committee together), well, I got to know him and his work at St. Gregory’s. He played football and I used to referee him occasionally and so we’d have a couple of beers afterwards, that sort of thing.
Anyway, one day out of the blue, the Principal of John Therry Catholic High School, rang me. I didn’t know him. He explained that Jeff Hicks had told him that I’d make a great History Co-ordinator. It was a brand new school and not yet open. I’d only been teaching for 5 years and about to go through my list two inspection and all that. He said, ‘would you be interested?’ I was flabbergasted and I said I didn’t know and asked what was involved. He said, ‘come and have a talk’. I went home and said to Sue, ‘I’ll just go and have a look at it’. I went and had the interview and asked a few questions. The place was a hole in the ground and I thought, I’m not going near that place, it doesn’t even exist yet. He rang the next day and said ‘we want to give you the job. You’re fantastic’. And I said ‘yes’ and Sue asked how that happened and all I could say was I’d said ‘yes’. There’s an example. Those two things came together. I’d never mapped it out. I never said I’ll apply for this and then apply for that. It would never have worked out that way.
I never intended to come to Parramatta as Director. I was happy in Wollongong. I thought eventually I might be doing something else, maybe in the private sector. I was happy there and had only been there for about 7 ½ years and this opportunity was presented.
So you look for opportunities to become involved. The key is to become involved and find what you like and what you’re good at. That’s how you can develop your passion. You can’t be half-baked about it. That’s been my approach – one in, all in.
Whether a person is an AP, Coordinator, Principal or a Business Manager, they need to build team spirit and morale. How have you done that? How have you developed team spirit and morale in your own teams?
I’ve just come through a major Review. People have said I’ve been successful in my career and I’ve had a very good career path. One of the things they comment on is good people skills and that I get on well with people. How I do it is I respect people and I don’t micro-manage. If you work with me, we’ve got a team here of 9 people, and they know if I give you the job, you’ve got the job, go and do it. We have discussions around it but I don’t look over your shoulder and all that sort of stuff. So that’s the first thing and it builds a culture of collaboration.
I’m the same here [referring to his immediate office and the glass walls]. The reason why we want transparency and openness is that my door is always open so people can walk in. This drives some people mad as they’ll walk past and I’ll call them in. But we do business and I think people appreciate that openness.
We try and do celebrations. We mark birthdays. All those sorts of things that try to build a culture of co-operation and collaboration.
Another deliberate strategy of mine, the people I always try and seek out and make sure I’m on good terms with, are the people who I’d not normally work with day-to-day, such as cleaners, the building manager and maintenance staff. I learn their names. When Nancy comes in here at night, I have a short chat – ‘hi, how are you, how are the kids and Mauro?’ They’re Chilean immigrants and wonderful people. Mary who answers the switch, and always sends me a Christmas card, I’ll stop and say, ‘Mary how are you?’ I go and have a cup of coffee with Bill the building manager and ask about his problems and how things are going? I think I’m a fairly open person and I like people.
I’ve just been re-appointed here to another contract for 5 years. On Friday my team said that they are going to take me out to dinner on Wednesday. I think that’s fantastic. I didn’t ask them to do it, they did it off their own bat and we’ll go out and mark the occasion. I’m very pleased. But they know, you can ask them, I’m very tough and very demanding and I have high expectations and I expect they will do the job. And they do the job. If they don’t, I tell them.
You mentioned you don’t micro-manage and you spoke earlier about getting control by giving it away. What advice do you have for people, the many people, with a natural tendency to keep close control and tightly manage their team?
Let it go and loosen up. You give somebody a job, the issue then becomes one of process. I’m very structured in how we do things. Given what I’ve just said about the team and not micro-managing them, we meet regularly and I also meet with them 6-monthly and 12-monthly. We sit down and do the hard yards. You can be both. You can have structure and you can empower people, you can let go. You’ve got to have structure and boundaries.
I’m not trying to oversimplify it, but we have processes in place. Every time I meet with them, we’ve one of these [refers to a “catch-up” folder for each of the leadership team with notes, action items etc ] and we’ve got actions. We follow up and we come back to it and we’ve got a very crisp and clear set of responsibilities. For example, the Heads of System Performance are responsible for the maintenance of relationships with our Parish Priests; for the strategic direction of the schools, which involves the implementation plan; and oversight of the principal performance and how well the school is improving. That’s where we centre out discussions.
Having spoken about your system of meetings, perhaps we can now speak about performance feedback as it is often a difficult area for leaders.
People make it difficult. People make it overly difficult I think.
What is your approach to a person not meeting performance expectations?
My approach is very direct. You’re employed to do this job and we are very clear about this job. I’ve needed to say to people that, ultimately, I’d lost confidence in their capacity to do the job. That’s the first thing. That’s the big picture. That’s what it’s all about. The person might then say ‘Why?’ Well I can say ‘you said you’d deliver a,b,c and d, but this happened and it shouldn’t have happened, let’s talk about those’. Then we can deal with the issues in a number of ways, depending on the severity. That’s how you have to do these things.
The problem with discussing performance, and we’re dealing with this with our principals, is twofold. We’ve made it overly complicated for them to do and we’ve developed myths about what you can and cannot do. For example they think you cannot speak with a person about performance without another person being present, or you risk being accused of bullying and harassment. But you have every right to call someone in and say, ‘John, I’m not happy with your performance’. ‘Why?’ Then answer with x, y & z. You have to substantiate it. If you can’t, then don’t do it. And you need to do it appropriately. You can’t scream and shout at them, or throw a laptop at them. It has to be done appropriately. That’s the first step, then follow the process. The least you owe them is to be honest with them and we have too many people who avoid it, park it and are not honest and instead they dance around the central issue.
What about somebody who wants to develop and grow but is not getting feedback or advice from their supervisor?
I give our team feedback all the time. Also, when we started building our new team, they all had to have a mentor, a coach, and they had to find them. We’ve just appointed a new senior person. He has an internal mentor here on the leadership team and an external person in his profession with the professional expertise. I sat down with him last week and asked how those discussions were going and what had he learned. So they’re getting feedback not only from me, but from mentors as well. You can’t expect people to develop and grow if they don’t know. You end up a mushroom.
People should actively seek it out if they’re not getting it. You can sit back and wait for people to do it for you and then wake-up and realise nothing has happened; or you say ‘this is what should happen’ and then make it happen. And that’s the other side of the equation. A lot of people avoid taking action themselves and say, ‘it never happened’. Well why didn’t you ask?
The message for people ‘ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock on the door and it shall be opened for you’. It’s good scripture.
Should people then be actively seeking a mentor and if so, what should they look for?
Definitely. What we’ve done here, what we’ve been working on is reshaping the whole concept. Traditional mentoring followed a hierarchical model. Our two drivers here are personalising student learning and de-privatising teacher practice. What that means is that teaching is a team issue and leading is a team issue and using Hattie’s evidence, and a range of others, we know that the two things that have the highest effect on improving student learning are good teachers teaching, and teachers learning about teaching.
So when we say teachers learning about teaching, you would ask ‘who?’ and ‘how?’ Well they learn from each other because there’s nowhere else. There’s a professional base that they have, but they’ll learn about doing the job while they’re working in collaboration and co-operation. The reason our classrooms are opening up and walls are going is because our teachers are being put in touch with each other so they can see them in-situ, in context and ask questions.
Late last week I was in a school with a new teacher who said it was just so fantastic the way she was setup. She spoke of being with her grade partner 5 or 6 hours a day, not locked up in a room like she used to be. She gave an example of when she was watching him and he did something that she thought was a great idea – that’s what it is about! That is the ultimate for me, in a professional learning community.
If the systems aren’t developing a professional learning community then the systems are at fault. We know the research. [Greg then referred to a number of research papers & journals on his desk.] Have you seen this one [a DVD]? That will make you cry. I saw that when I was in the US, and it’s just been released in Australia. ‘Waiting for Superman’. The failing of the urban education system in the US, it’s all in there. Also, the White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’. It’s all there and it’s all about teachers working collaboratively, building capacity and therefore their capability as teachers.
This then means that everybody takes on a leadership role and has a responsibility for coaching and mentoring around the core matters of improving student learning and therefore improving teaching.
I’d also add that as you go further you should seek out people as mentors who can extend you and one of the things is to try to find a mentor outside the comfort zone. Everyone can find somebody they like. Find someone you dislike a bit, but that you can respect. But again you have to be proactive in this. People often say they want to empower you. You never empower anyone. People empower themselves.
So aspiring leaders, with whatever else the system provides for them, should seek a mentor to stretch them?
If you’re not being stretched, give the game away. That’s my number one rule.
This is a personal observation. People will greet someone and ask, ‘how are you?’, and the other person will complain and say ‘oh, flat out!’ I say, ‘isn’t that fantastic?’ Why would you want to be anything else? People say it as if they’ve never been so busy. Fantastic, isn’t life great? So unless you’re stretched, you’re under-performing.
And a mentor should be able to help you stretch. And you should also have responsibility for this happening. It’s a two way street. We’ve had a culture of dependency for far too long. Again I’ve written on my blog about what I call ‘concept deficit disorder’. The problem is that because we’ve just worked within the structure, you’re defined by it. The aim is to step outside and look at it very differently. You then open yourself up to new: it is the conceptual framework that’s the problem, it’s not the nature of the world that is the problem. It’s just that people often don’t have any other way of looking at it.
In addition to ensuring a mentor can extend you, are there other traps/pitfalls a person should take into account when seeking out a mentor?
I don’t know the traps and pitfalls. I do know you’ve got to find one that’s going to add some value. You can talk about them in clichés but you’ve got to find somebody who’s going to take you to a different level. You don’t need someone to affirm what you do, you should be able to get that. You need somebody that is going to stretch you. My experience is that people tend to seek out those who will make them feel comfortable and reinforce what they already think.
When I became a Director, the first thing I decided was not to go to anyone from Catholic education, so I found the best in the government sector and asked him. And he happened to be in Victoria. So when I said to the Bishop, ‘I’ve got a mentor’, he said, ‘that’s good, where is he?’ And I told him. It was also funny on his [the mentor] side as he had to tell his Minister that he’s mentoring a guy from Catholic education in NSW, but they agreed to let him do it.
So was it as simple as asking him? Why did he do that? What’s in it for him?
I rang him up. What’s the worst thing he could say? He could say no. He thought it was a good idea. He has since said he gets as much out of it as I do: fresh eyes; a different approach; a new ‘in’ into the non-government sector. I’m actually going to dinner with him in Melbourne on Thursday. We’re going to an event the Department of Education runs – an Innovations Showcase – that they run annually and I’m the only one from the non-government sector that’s been invited. I’ve been to several things that they’ve put on.
So another message for our educational leaders is be open when people come to them when seeking a mentor?
Can you give some general advice on professional development activities that you would recommend to aspiring leaders?
I can give two pieces of general advice. One is, don’t ignore theory. The kiss of death for me is when somebody says ‘well all that theory stuff is alright, but I can tell you what really makes a difference’. There is a great lot of theory you can dig into. There’s good stuff on the theory, so don’t ignore it.
The second one is, in teaching, the power and the depth of your learning gets much deeper when you actually do the teaching and the learning itself. So the way to do that is to actually learn about it and then practice it. I’ve always sought, throughout my career, to find opportunities where I have to go out and talk about it. As a result of my profile I’ve got a full calendar this year and have had for the last couple of years. That’s my best form of professional development because I have to then engage a different range of people on a wide range of areas. I have to be able to talk to them, entertain them, so I have to understand it. I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint of heart as it is a lot of work and I can only do it because I’ve got a team that supports it.
At any stage in a person’s career, there are opportunities where they can teach. Join their professional associations. Lead staff meetings. A lot of people sit back. Lead staff meetings and put yourself out there and you challenge yourself. That’s how you do it. If you ask to see my professional development record, all mine are involved in delivering and teaching other professionals. I’ve just come back from the US where I was with the Consortium of Schools Network which is the peak advisory body to the US government on technology in education. I’m the first non-American to give the closing key-note. Now that took 4 months of preparation.
So whether it’s in a forum in front of people or whether it’s in their own school setting, the opportunities are available. I started in my own school and then I joined the History Teachers Association and you just run and you have to be up to speed. Then people start asking you. If you don’t know, you soon don’t get asked back. If you do know, you then find that you need to know & learn more. That’s the way it goes. The world belongs to learners. If you can’t learn, forget it. You’re a non-contributing zero.
You spoke earlier about getting ‘involved’ and how your career developed because you did your best and got involved and involved in wider areas.
You’ve got to learn and re-learn. The job of being a Director of Schools now is different than it was 10 years ago. I’ve been a Director for 12 or 13 years and it’s very different now than what is was when I started and it will only get more complex as we face the next challenges. So how am I going to be equipped to handle that? Well I’ve got to change and learn and re-learn.
What about people joining the education sector from outside? People who are part way through their careers and join in non-teaching roles, such as IT, HR or finance. What professional development activities would you suggest to them?
I can mention two people that you know well. Jane and Bernie have been great successes. They have been outstanding successes and part of the reason is they’ve learned and they know how to re-learn. You’ve got to recognise the area of expertise of a person from outside of education and then fit it with the culture. Over time I think these two could be Directors. You have to have a core body of expertise and then be able to understand and relate to education people and talk the talk. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you need to be able to relate and talk the talk. And it’s the same mistake with teachers they bring in from industry. That’s fine of itself, but the successful ones are the ones that have that period of time where they can learn the craft.
So again, for teachers, it is by getting them involved and not just putting them in the classroom and saying ‘well teaching is not rocket science’. Some people still think that the kids will just sit there and be quiet and just listen. Well that’s not the model of learning any more. It’s about people who can learn and re-learn and you can learn those skills sets, but if you’re going to do that you need the time, the structures, the process and the commitment. We had 142 new teachers start this year, and if I had the resource space, I would love to not let them near a classroom for 12 months. I’d put them with 142 of our best teachers to work with them, and allow them to learn and ease them into it. The more we spend at the front end, the cheaper it’s going to be, rather than trying to change their habits down the other end. We’re exploring ways to do that over time, that’s how we’re going to have to do these sorts of things.
If we talk again about the non-teachers, for example a finance person that joins your team from commerce, what should they look to do early in their education career?
We spoke about Bernie; the first thing we did was to send him out, have a look at other education offices. Then we had a structured program going to schools, I took him to see what schools could look like. He’s been interstate and overseas and I go with him. You never do any professional development alone. You try and do it in groups. It’s all done in groups. So I never send any of my leadership team overseas alone. They’ve all been overseas but they always go with a partner, because that’s how they’re going to talk about it, learn about it. Bernie has had a deep experience in the broad spectrum of schooling of what’s happening around the world from the conservative through to the avante garde. He absorbed it like a sponge. Jane is the same. Very inquisitive and a learner.
Technology is providing so many new opportunities and new ways to learn. What actions and activities do aspiring leaders need to explore to ensure they keep up with current technologies?
You can’t do it by proxy, that’s the advice. When all this technology started, people did it by proxy. They would go to their secretary and say, ‘you read my emails and print them out’. That’s not using technology. You have to immerse yourself and there is no short cut. The quicker you do it, the quicker you will learn a new skill set. And get over it, because the world is changing. Everyone talks about the technology revolution. The technology revolution happened in 1993. That’s when Negroponte wrote his book Being Digital. He said the revolution has happened. So 20 years later we’re still talking as if we’ve got this revolution.
The only choice you’ve got is when you mutate. You may as well mutate now. And the skill sets of our leaders, if they don’t do it, will be challenged because they’ve got a generation coming through that’s scaring the socks off already. I’ve got 3 kids and they are all like that with technology. They use it to manage their own lives and do everything.
In our own team I give everybody the latest technology. I gave it to the team and said, use it, engage with it. I gave them a laptop before tablets came out. We said ‘that’s fantastic, how are we going to use it?’ So we decided we wouldn’t communicate by email any more, we’d use a blog. When I first established the leadership blog, I said ’all our communication is now done on our leadership blog and that’s where you type up your stuff and that’s now how we operate’. How good is this? We’ve got a record of everything we’re doing; it’s all archived; all retrievable; and can be accessed from anywhere in the world. That is an example of what technology can do for you.
The interesting thing about technology is that we’re actually at the same point as Orville and Wilbur Wright were: Wilbur & Orville just got the thing to fly 70 metres and everybody said ‘wow, this technology is great.’ If at that time you were able to tell them about the future and what would happen and be achieved with flight, they’d have likely said it was impossible. What we’re seeing now with technology is a window into the future. This technology we’re using now is very basic.
That’s the problem with our schools. Everyone thinks wireless is so wonderful, but it’s what is going to happen with wireless. Everyone said that man was going to walk on the moon. Jules Verne was writing about it in the 1800s. We saw that coming. But nobody predicted that a billion people were going to watch it on TV. So with technology you’ve got to understand it will get different and continue to change. For example, the new mobile devices are geo-location and with powerful web browsers and everything will be done on geo-location, so they can map where you are and what you’re doing. The devices we now use will be so prosaic. You’ll see stuff projected on the wall. Just walk up to a wall and project it so you won’t need these devices.
So you believe if our emerging leaders don’t immerse themselves in understanding technology, if they try to do it by proxy, they’re going to get left behind?
Yes of course they are. They become irrelevant. They become road kill. A lot of this stuff didn’t come naturally to me. I’m not a technology guru as some suggest. I was an English teacher and I liked playing football. I didn’t come naturally to these sorts of things, but eventually you think, this looks interesting and these things are going to take off. And then you immerse yourself in them.
How do you start the immersion?
Turn them on. Just turn them on, that’s it. These devices are now. That machine [referring to his laptop] is dead. That’s dead technology. You never thought people would say that, but the reason it’s dead is not because the new devices are more mobile. The reason it is dead is because it’s designed on a hierarchical understanding of knowledge and is application driven. So when I use that, I am dumb and it is smart. It is always right. It can never be wrong because there’s only one way to turn it on. If I want to open up Word, there’s only one way to do it. It’s all application driven and I have to do it that way. These new devices are like learning. If I don’t like it I just write a new app. And what’s happened? There are over a billion applications now written for these because people just can come out with a new idea.
I was in the city the other day and you know all those coffee shop loyalty cards people carry around? Someone got sick of that & thought there must be a better way, so wrote an app and now it’s all downloaded. So the learner evolves it. You take control of it and you’re only ever one press away from home, so why would you use that [laptop].
But the first step is to turn it on and immerse yourself. It is not difficult to learn. I say to people, ‘do you have children?’ and if they say yes, I ask if they expected their child to walk? ‘Yes’ is the obvious reply. Did you put him in a classroom and teach him? No. How did it happen? Well, he could roll over and start pushing himself up, then crawling, then got up and walked. And did you celebrate each step of his progress? Well yes. Did you expect her to speak? Of course. How did you do that? Did you teach her and get a whiteboard? No. What did you do? And then you went and helped her. Technology, it is exactly the same.
It’s usually a nervous period for a person when first appointed as a principal, AP, co-ordinator or to a senior CEO role. What would you suggest are the key priorities for a newly appointed leader in the first few months of the appointment?
Walk softly and carry a big stick. [laughed]
Can you explain?
That’s what I was told when I was first appointed as a Director. I was told to walk softly and carry a big stick. What that means, the serious part of the advice I was given, is just be measured and start to understand the culture and respect the culture that you come into. Get to see as many people as you can and get to know them. Get to know the people you work with and take any opportunity you can to talk to people and groups of people. Get on top of what the key issues are. Show that you’re there to help.
The most important thing I did when appointed to both Director roles was to talk about the core business. Very clearly I expressed that for me the core business was about learning. Kids learning, teachers learning and us all learning together. The first meeting with the Principals and they all want to know about the vision. I said, forget about vision. What we’re on about is learning. That was very safe ground to be on, but it gave us a focus. It also gave me a touchstone. When we moved on and started talking about the hard stuff, we reminded ourselves that it was all about the learning and so we needed to get the resources right to support the learning.
Given the amount of change that’s occurring, what advice would you pass on to people now commencing their career in education?
There’s never been a better time to be involved in education. Education is going to change and change dramatically and you have to be open to that change. We’re about to see the downfall of the industrial age.
Just by a simple way of example: schools have been at the centre of the learning. When I went to school it was the only place for learning. Now you can go to school on the internet. The fastest growing sector of schooling in the US is home schooling. Parents can now get a maths curriculum from around the world. You can do a university degree from all the sandstone and brownstone universities from around the world and not leave Sydney. So school is only one part of an equation now. How do we manage this and what does it mean to be a teacher in today’s world? So you have to observe and be ready to change and change quickly. So that means you have to learn and re-learn.
Whether people are prepared to embrace change is their decision. I’m just saying how I see the world and the world of teachers. We’ve got to break the mould and we need teachers to break the mould and they have to be willing and daring to break the mould. Even the last vestiges of the Roman Empire took 100 years to fall over. It’s a brand new game.
Can I speak some more on this as it is a complex area? I’ll give you a practical example of what I mean. In secondary schooling, the focus on secondary teacher education is discipline based, so you’ve got to be a good history teacher, an expert, so you do a course, a coherent course. I did, in first year, Western Modern History, so they picked a beginning point, the start of the Renaissance and worked right through to the 1800s, then I could pick Chinese history, Russian history, Australian history. I became an expert, in History. Then I did a subset because you would probably also teach English. I did 18th century literature, 19th century poetry, something like that. It was so good I’ve even forgotten what we did, that’s how good it was.
Nowadays, that’s an irrelevancy. I’m never going to be able to know more about, for example the Reformation, than I can now find on-line. That’s where it’s all at now. What we need in the schools, is not just the discipline expertise. We need the deep pedagogical knowledge, that’s what we know about the theory. We need people who know how people learn and how they can help people to learn. It’s a very big shift.
So is the theory now saying that a person could be a great English/History teacher without studying the content themselves?
No, you need both. You need deep content knowledge and deep pedagogical knowledge. The theory tells us the best teachers are the ones that have both. Years ago we had one. Or sometimes we had good teachers, but who knew nothing. So you need both. We know that both provide the power.
As Richard Elmore says, and he calls it the instructional core, the instructional core says that the power of the learning depends upon the relationship between the teacher, the student and the content. All three. So you take any one of those out and forget it. That’s why we argue that computers will never replace teachers because you need teachers, good teachers. And you need students obviously as part of the process and then you need content. The more powerful those three are; the more the teacher is understanding the content; but understanding the relationship, which is the deep pedagogical knowledge; then the more powerful the learning. You can see the sense it makes and you have to have both. The irony of what is happening with the internet is that we’ve never needed better teachers more than we do now. That’s the exciting part. We’ve never needed better teachers more than we need them now. What I want to do is make sure that schools stay right at the centre of learning instead of being at the periphery.
What additional advice would you give to our aspiring leaders? If you could pass a message on what would that be?
Don’t worry. Be happy. Welcome to life. That’s just a personal reflection.
And the rate of change is not going to change?
Yes, so don’t worry about what you cannot change. My approach is, what I can change, I worry about.
When our Bishop retired, people said to me ‘what will you do if you get x,y or z?’ But what’s the issue for me? I have to be able to work with my Bishop, whoever the Pope appoints. I can’t control that, so my focus was on ‘what can I do for our next Bishop?’, whoever the Pope appoints. And it’s always about doing the best that you can do.
Teaching demands people that have a degree of maturity and understanding about the nature of the world. They’re the good teachers. What’s going to happen is that in the reshaping of the profession they’re going to need people who are prepared to take risks. The future of teaching depends on risks and the risk takers.
We’re seeing that now the need is to help a workforce that’s been used to subservience and being reactive to move into an innovative stage. Most of our work here is trying to grow innovation. We’ve tried disruptive innovation, we’ve tried a range of things to shake the tree and it’s about letting them go, because the answers don’t lie in this office or this building, the answer lie in each and every school. We’re getting them to respond to that but you need people, and it’s then about building the culture and in a climate of trust.
About Greg Whitby
Greg Whitby is the Executive Director of Schools and leads a system of approximately 80 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Parramatta, in Sydney’s Greater West. He has 36 years combined experience in K-12 schooling and senior system leadership.
In recognising the critical link between good teaching practice and student learning outcomes, Greg is working to build the capacity of school leaders and teachers through a whole-of-system approach to professional learning.
As a regular speaker at national and international conferences, Greg talks about the key areas underpinning a new model of schooling for today’s world: de-privatising teacher practice, personalising student learning and ICTs as enablers to facilitate deep learning.
In 2007, he was named the most innovative educator in Australia by the Bulletin Magazine in its annual SMART 100 awards. Greg has also been awarded an ACEL Presidential Citation for his contribution to Australian education