The following captures the thoughts of Frank Pitt 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. Frank’s biographical overview is shown at the end of this article.
Frank, when and how did you decide to become a teacher?
John, I think I have always wanted to be a teacher. From the time I was about 7 or 8 I thought that teaching was what I would like to do. I had a really good teacher at this age and I imagine I wanted to emulate her. I have never thought of another career.
Have you ever regretted your decision?
Never. Teaching has been the best career choice I could have ever made. I feel excited and passionate about education. I believe that we are privileged in many ways to have the opportunity to work with the young people in our care.
You’ve worked in schools throughout the Illawarra and nearby areas, with an interesting mix of primary, special schools, secondary, as well as working in systemic and congregational schools. Have your moves been part of a grand plan?
While I was obviously interested in building a career in the profession and I did aspire to leadership, I am afraid there was not a lot of planning involved. It was more a case of the moves being a part of life’s journey. I think when I started teaching I really enjoyed the role and I was fortunate at an early stage to be provided with some opportunities for leadership. One thing led to another and I found myself being given some wonderful opportunities. I’ve enjoyed the experiences and I believe that it was as much a case of happenstance as much as anything else.
What about people in education who might consider a move from a systemic to a congregational school or congregational to systemic? Do you have advice for them? What should they be aware of if & when considering such a move?
I think that there’s a career issue to be considered here as I believe that there are more career options and opportunities for leadership in systemic schools. Therefore you need to be fairly clear about your direction in life and where you would like to end up career wise. If you are aspiring to principalship and you are in a systemic school, possibly your best option is to remain in a systemic environment. If you are looking at enjoying a career in teaching then your options may be broader. In either case I’d be looking at where is the best fit for you as a teacher, whether that be in an independent or systemic school. If you are happy and you are enjoying your teaching that is the best environment for you.
When you say ‘best fit’, what do you mean?
I guess an environment that leaves you feeling enriched; where you feel you’re making a valuable contribution to education and where you’re getting satisfaction from what you’re doing. I think part of the issue with pursuing leadership is that sometimes you’re going to be doing jobs that you may not be as happy in as you might. You may also find that you are moving away from what first attracted you to the profession. However, this is part of building a career and if you are striving for leadership you are going to need to build the skills required for leadership positions. This may require you to take hard decisions and to risk being unpopular at times and for some people this is not the way they like to work.
People strike adversity in their career and at times can view a roadblock as being career threatening. Have you faced significant adversity in your career, something which seemed monumental at the time?
I think that every time you apply for a position and don’t get it there’s a little roadblock. While it’s not monumental, there are times where I guess I’ve been led to believe that I was going to be considered for a position and have applied for it, after advisement, and haven’t been successful. You then ask yourself, has there been a misunderstanding on my part, or has there been a change of direction by the employer? Your ego can take a little bit of a battering and you’ve got to take stock, rebuild and move on from there.
So how do you do that? What did you do?
I spoke to people that I trusted and explained what had happened. I asked ‘where do you think I should head to from here?’
I re-thought my goals and it’s a constant issue to re-think your career direction. Where you think you could be heading and where you finish up might be quite different, so it’s a reassessment process all of the time. Deciding whether to stay in a role and remaining in the same school or in the same position in ten years time is the question you must answer. You might consider moving in another direction or you may be presented with an opportunity that attracts your interest. In each instance you need to consider the practical steps that you need to take to move in that particular way.
You said before that your moves were not made as part of a grand plan, but were where life took you. If a person does miss an appointment, how far do you suggest they look ahead in terms of this reassessment?
It depends of your life circumstances and your age. I mean if you’re approaching the end stage of your career, then obviously your timeframes are much shorter. If you’re mid-career, there may be opportunities to try a few different options, whether it be a move from a systemic school into a congregational school; or move from one area to another area to pursue an opportunity. I believe you need to be clear about what you want to do and the sacrifices that you are willing to make to get there. In making these decisions you need to consider what is going to bring you the professional satisfaction you seek.
For me, I have l generally worked in 3 to 5 year periods and then reassessed whether I was enjoying what I was doing, whether I felt that I was still making a worthwhile contribution and if I could see myself continuing in the role long term. I find having times for review quite helpful and, for me, the timeframes I set were quite realistic and I was able to do what I wanted to do within that timeframe. Having said that, there have been opportunities that have arisen that have come completely from left field, and while you might not pursue them, they can certainly challenge you and your direction.
We spoke earlier about moving between congregational and systemic schools. Some people view it as being difficult to make such a transition. If a person wanted to make this type of change, what are some aspects they should consider?
Good teachers are highly marketable in any system. The important point is that you have to present yourself as an asset to any future potential employer. I think you need to continually build your skills both through developing good practice and through further education. You also need to be good in your field and you do need to have a network of people who value the work that you do.
The second issue is that of building connections and this requires you to be a little politically astute when seeking to transition from one system to another. For example, if you’re looking to move from a systemic school to a congregational school, there might be someone in congregational education that you can seek advice from. Similarly if you wish to move to a systemic school, it is nice to have connection with systemic education and perhaps have someone to advise you as to the best way forward in seeking employment in a system school.
I think it’s a matter of being proactive. You can’t sit back and think, well when the job comes up, I’ll apply for it and I’ll get it.
What actions or activities do you take to help manage the pressures associated with the role of Principal?
- Exercise regularly, that’s just a must. I walk every morning and try and exercise in the afternoon and that keeps me feeling healthy and it keeps the stress level down.
- Try to develop good staff relationships. I have a number of people in the college that I can talk to freely and fairly openly.
- I undertake professional supervision – I have an independent person that I can go and have a chat to, who is not related to the congregation, the Board or to the College. That provides me with some honest feedback and it provides me with the opportunity to reflect on my leadership and the direction that we as a community are taking.
- Professional reading keeps me abreast of the challenges of the role and also the opportunities that the role provides.
- I try to maintain a positive attitude and to model this to my staff – I guess it’s a case of ‘fake it till you make it’ some days but I always perform better when I am positive and I make this a priority.
You speak of exercise. People know it is good for them but say they’re too busy and don’t have the time. How so you find the time to do daily exercise?
You make time. You get up at 5:45am each morning and you realise that it’s going to be of benefit to you and you just keep doing it. It’s just a discipline and I find that I’m far more efficient when I am exercising than when I don’t. So in a sense it’s part of the discipline of the role.
You also mentioned ‘professional supervision’. Can you explain this relationship and how it came about?
I was working at Mater Dei and it’s a highly emotional environment and emotional burn out was a real possibility. I thought, how do I keep myself healthy? I made a few enquiries and found a person specialising in professional supervision. I made contact with the person and decided to try it and see how it worked for me. As it turned out it was of positive benefit as I felt that I was able to talk to someone openly and honestly about my experiences in the school. They provided me with some opportunities for self-reflection; some advice on strategies that could be of benefit to me in my role; and they also provided me with the opportunity to step back and take a more global view of the setting that I was in.
How different is professional supervision to a mentoring relationship?
I think there are differences. The professional supervisor is basically reflecting with me on my experience. So they’re not looking at a career path for me and they’re not looking to fix anything in particular for me in an effort to enhance my future prospects. Rather, they’re providing me with the opportunity to reflect on my practice and to identify how I could operate more efficiently, or look at situations a little differently. At the same time they are encouraging me to stay mentally and physically healthy, so I see their role is quite different to a mentor. I think a mentor is someone who has an interest in my career development and a professional supervisor is someone who has an interest in me and keeping me healthy.
How would a leader or an aspiring leader find a supervisor as you have described?
I think there is an association of professional supervisors. I came across mine through a connection within the Good Samaritan Order. One of the sisters that had worked in the disability field for a long time had been getting professional supervision and this person was known to her. I contacted him and he was prepared to work with me. I should be clearer about the role and my expectations, I was not seeking a life coach or a mentor, I was seeking a trained professional who had experience in the field and who was trained in this area.
And it’s about your personal well-being?
It’s about my personal and professional well-being.
So when you say ‘professional well-being’, does the person have an insight into the role of a principal? You said that it’s not problem solving, it’s not that type of relationship is it?
No it’s not. The person I work with has been a teacher, a psychologist, a counsellor and has done a lot of work in the non-government sector. So he has an understanding of how institutions work. He has also had experience of church organisations
What about mentors? Should people seek a mentor in terms of their career progression?
I think if you can get a good mentor, they’re an invaluable asset. It means establishing a trusting relationship with someone and that can be difficult for some people. It’s a matter of finding someone you’re comfortable with, someone who has your career interests at heart, and someone who is able and willing to be honest with you and to give some time to provide you with direction.
How do you find this type of person? There’s no easy way is there?
No, because it’s all about relationship and linking with someone you can have a good positive relationship with. A good mentor has to be brave enough to tell you how things are, warts and all. A good mentor isn’t someone that tells you what you want to hear. A good mentor is someone that can provide you with constructive feedback and criticism when required.
If we can talk about performance feedback. People often find it a difficult area and it can be confronting. Can you talk about the value you see in feedback in terms of enhancing a person’s effectiveness?
I think it’s absolutely essential to have regular and ongoing communication. This enables you to deliver feedback that is difficult in the context of a reasonable relationship. This role is about building healthy relationships. I believe meeting regularly with people is a good way for me to operate and I try to meet with our key people on a weekly or fortnightly basis. This is essential in building good relationships as it can’t be done by email or phone contact, there needs to be face to face contact and time to get to know the person.
When good relationships are in place it is easier to have the difficult conversations. It’s easier to say, ‘look this isn’t going so well, how can we address this issue?’ If it’s left to once a term or once every six months or each year, correction or advice can be taken badly. It can also be given in the wrong way due to not knowing the person or their particular sensitivities. I think communication is absolutely essential and building up good relationships built on trust and honesty is a sound basis for a healthy relationship.
Assuming that a leader has done the very important first step of building a good relationship, is there a structure or a practice or a process that you would recommend in terms of delivering performance feedback?
Just be honest and constructive. If there are difficult conversations needed you need to be honest with people, however, people must be treated with dignity regardless of the circumstance. Similarly positive feedback must be delivered regularly and in a way that is authentic and acknowledges the great work being done. We can often forget to recognise the great work people do and focus only on the problems. When issues do arise it is important that there is resolution. By that I mean that there must be a focus on solutions rather than just a focus on the problem. There is nothing so difficult that we can’t find a solution or at the least a direction forward.
We identify the problem; we acknowledge it; we talk about why it’s occurred; and we decide on a solution – basically we review our options on how to resolve the matters of concern.
What about people who are not getting performance feedback from their manager?
That’s tough. People will tend to keep on doing what they’ve always done, unless someone tells them to do it differently. If a person isn’t getting feedback, the first step for them is to talk to their supervisor. They should seek constructive feedback – both positive and negative – and they should try to work with their supervisor in determining their future direction. Career options should be explored with their supervisor if they believe that there is a positive relationship in place. If this is not possible it may be that advice may need to be sought from someone else, perhaps a colleague or someone in a different school or area of expertise who might be prepared to provide feedback and direction.
Feedback has been important in my career, from both supervisors and from colleagues. Having a person that you can work with in a positive way makes it possible to discuss areas of concern and different approaches to solving problems. You can say to a person, ‘I’m really worried about this – how do you think I should approach it?’ or ‘Is there a better way of doing this?’ I’ve taken feedback from people who haven’t necessarily been supervisors. Sometimes it has been a peer who has been a really good mentor. There have been older mentors, and people of my age or younger who have been able to give me advice and direction. My wife is a great mentor in some ways because as she is honest with me and is a great sounding board, providing me with clarity about where I’m heading.
People have regularly commented that one of your great strengths is the ability to build relationships. Is there advice you can give to people in terms of how they go about building relationships?
I am a great advocate of the old saying: To get quality time with someone you need to spend quantity time. So you’ve got to spend time with people, be available. You can’t schedule in relationship building as part of your day – it needs to be a part of the way you operate.
It’s a matter of being fairly astute in how you use your time. Part of it is perception in that if you use your time wisely you can appear more available than you actually are. This is all about being available at key times and taking a lot of small moments to connect with people. It doesn’t need to be long but it does need to be regular. Even if it’s only a minute it can do a lot of good with regard to relationship building. It’s being visible, being available and when communication occurs trying to be present to the person you’re talking to.
What have you done to build team morale? How do you build team spirit amongst your teams?
I try to be honest with people and I try to be transparent with our processes. Communication is essential and you and need to keep your community informed about where we are; why we’re here; what we’re doing. It is also important to talk to people about why we are thinking about moving forward on particular issues.
The other aspect of building morale is just backing your people. It is important to support them publicly and privately. Teaching can be a pretty hard game these days and teachers are facing a lot of obstacles with complaints from various sectors or people being unhappy with the way they’re operating. You have to be seen to have confidence in your staff and staff need to feel that you have confidence in them. However, when there is an issue or a valid complaint, it must be dealt with privately and respectfully. So you keep the praise public and the pain confidential.
To some people relationship building doesn’t come naturally. If a person was appointed to a leadership role, and they’re looking to build team morale, are there suggestions you would give for the early days of their new appointment?
I’m no expert in this at all, but one of the first things I did when I was appointed to my current school, was to make arrangements to meet with people. I then came down and sat and talked to senior staff to introduce myself and tell them a little about me, what I was about and what my expectations were. I also gave them the opportunity to talk to me about their expectations and their hopes and aspirations for the college. Once I started in the school I scheduled appointments with every member of staff and did the same thing. Part of this was to let people know who I was and what my expectations were, so that they couldn’t assume from either my body language or from the odd word they might have heard, that I had a particular focus or direction I wanted to pursue. So I spent a bit of time just chatting to people.
In tandem with that, I tried to get into the common room every morning; to have a cuppa and be part of the community, so anyone coming in found I was free and available. They didn’t have to schedule an appointment to catch me. I also touch base with people for the first 15 minutes of each day, and I try to do the same thing at morning tea and at lunch-time. While I have many other matters that I could be doing during this time, it provides me with an opportunity to be visible and available. A lot of it is just passing the time of day with people, but other times someone might ask to see me for a few minutes, and they’ll get an immediate response and sometimes an answer.
So when you said earlier about making yourself available at key times, that’s what you’re referring to?
Yes. It’s being strategic with your time. I go for a walk around the college at 8:45 when our students are moving into tutor group, so I’m available to the girls and I’m also visible. People see me and this sends out a positive message about my priorities and the fact that I am happy to engage with our students and staff. This is a time when there are people about and I’m out there and can pick up on matters.
Everyone wants a piece of a leader’s time: staff, students, parents and wider groups. How do you organise yourself and your priorities?
My approach starts with leaving myself completely free for first period. So from the time I arrive in the college until end of first period, no appointments are scheduled. That way I can move around and touch base with people. Staff and students also know that I am free at this time and they realise that they probably won’t find me in my office, and if I am, no appointment is required. They also know they can find me in the common room in the morning; or on the playground from about 8.45; and from about 9:15 I’m popping in an out of classes. That takes 45 minutes out of my day. If people don’t see me again, they have had the opportunity to catch up if required and I have been available to people.
I teach a regular class as I think that’s a really important message for the rest of the staff. I hope that by valuing my role as a teacher that it provides positive modelling to the teaching and non teaching staff – basically the most important role we have is that of teacher. I only teach 2 periods a week, but I’ve developed a positive relationship with my class and I try to have that time as my absolute number one priority because I think the message I send to teachers is that (a) I’m at the coal face with them and (b) I really value teaching.
There are many principals who are trying to spend more time back in the classroom but it doesn’t always happen because of the demands on their time. Can you talk further about the benefits of spending time in the classroom?
It helps with staff morale, as I can also talk about being a teacher. I might say ‘I’m having a real struggle with my programming’, and someone will say ‘let me give you a hand’. So from that person’s perspective, the principal is human and is in need of support as well as there to provide support. I’m part of a faculty, so I go along to the faculty meetings as a teacher, not as a principal. So it provides a different relationship in some ways.
I think the girls enjoy having the principal as their teacher and I feel as though I need to be pretty good because I only have one class to prepare for and to teach. I guess that there are some positive messages that go out, one being that Mr Pitt teaches and he knows how to do it.
Being in a classroom also provides me with feedback because I talk to my class about matters that might be unrelated to the subject I’m teaching. It gives me access to student opinions in a way that’s I can’t do by having meetings in my office. We have developed a positive and on-going relationship and they know me and feel comfortable in my class. The result, I hope is, that they feel they can be honest with me.
The other key benefit is that parents are happy to see the principal as a teacher. It gives me both credibility and a practical knowledge of the classroom in 2011. A lot of it is public relations, but I very much enjoy it and it is time very well spent.
When you spoke earlier about coping with the pressures, you mentioned exercise and professional supervision as well as reading. What reading would you suggest to aspiring leaders and how do they stay current?
ACEL provides really good material as their publications are excellent. I buy a lot of books and I have an interest in leadership so I do a lot of reading around leadership. Michael Fullan is still very current and still very good. Hedley Beare, who passed recently, was hugely insightful with regard to the future of education. I also enjoy just browsing through bookshops. I have broad tastes and I collect a lot of books. Sometimes I will pick up books that have nothing to do with schooling or education so it’s just a matter of following my interests I suppose.
So would you read every day?
Yes pretty much, but not during school time. My desk time is from 4 o’clock onwards and I try to get out of the school by 5pm or 5:30 pm. So I get a lot of paperwork done in that time and I would put aside 15 minutes a day to do a little reading at home. I limit it to a set time period and I’m vigilant about maintaining that time.
So similar to your scheduling of time to teach, you schedule reading time?
Yes, some PD for myself. I normally have educational magazines coming across my desk to keep me well occupied and I am always buying books that I browse on a regular basis. I’m also studying for a PhD, so some of my professional reading is encompassing the research that I’m doing. However, I wouldn’t see the research as the reason for my regular reading.
What professional development activities would you recommend for aspiring leaders?
There are two options and I would recommend both. One is to get yourself as well qualified as you possibly can and if you’re not working at masters level at the moment, if you’re aspiring, you need to begin to explore this option. So I’d be making sure that I was appropriately academically qualified. The second is to get along to as many networking and PD opportunities as you can reasonably manage, because you learn a lot over lunch or morning tea just talking to really good professionals in their area of expertise.
What about people who are in regional or more remote areas? How can they continue with their professional development?
Online learning communities are a strong possibility as is joining professional organisations that allow for E networking. I think it’s a matter of getting yourself connected to a community in some way, shape or form, whether it’s meeting with them once a month or meeting them online.
What would you name as the key attributes of the excellent educational leaders? What do you see as the attributes or characteristics that they have in common?
- Vision. They have to have a vision and one that is theirs and not simply one transplanted from someone or somewhere else.
- They are creative in their approach and in their use of their time.
- They have commitment and focus. There is no way around that in leadership when you’re dealing with people.
- They are resilient, they can take the knocks that are a part of the role and they have the capacity to pick themselves up and get on with life.
- One that I found to be vital is the capacity to remain calm when all around you are working in crisis mode. Good leaders remain calm and they create a positive climate even in difficult situations.
Is it possible for a person to develop those attributes? Can they develop resilience? Or the capacity to be calm when it’s not normally in their nature? Can they become people-focused when it may not be their normal style?
Yes definitely. I absolutely believe they can. You get better at by doing. It’s a matter of developing your capacities – if you don’t react well under pressure, visualise situations and have a course of action already planned that can apply to a variety of situations. Practise appearing calm when you’re dying inside, or practise showing a calm exterior when you might be worrying yourself sick. This is a really important skill as a leader as, if you look like you’re in control, your staff feel in control because the leader is in control.
If you’re not a people person it’s a matter of working at communicating with people even when it’s tough. It is a matter of developing incidental conversation to be able to appear comfortable in passing the time of day with people. You also need to allocate time each day to do this, particularly if it is not something you enjoy. Relationships are such a vital part of leadership that you’ve have to develop these skills and become interested in people. It is like any skill – you get better by practising it.
If you’re practising at developing these skills, presumably you will benefit with the feedback from others that you spoke of earlier?
Yes, absolutely. Other people can provide direction as to how to develop these skills and to create opportunities for practising these skills. For example, for a lot of people, speaking in public can be difficult, yet it’s an absolutely essential skill for a good leader. You are in the public eye a lot of the time and you are the public face of your organisation. However, assuming such a role doesn’t come naturally to many people, so you need to become comfortable speaking to groups. It may be that you are provided with, or you take the opportunity, to practice in small forums, in medium sized forums such as at staff meetings and occasionally in larger forums.
So early on in your carer you should be looking for opportunities, for example in small forums?
Yes, working in a small committee or leading a small group or committee is a great way of developing skills, because you’re going to get people who don’t agree with you and you learn very early how to work in an environment where not everyone is going to do what you want.
As a religious leader of a school community, what activities have you been involved in that have helped develop and nurture your spiritual life?
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been given study opportunities in CEO schools where I was an REC for a while and was able to do some spiritual development on retreats and in courses. Similarly the Good Samaritan Sisters have provided wonderful opportunities for development in this area. Their focus on the Rule of Benedict and their encouragement of people to actually study in this area and the provision time and space to do so, has been invaluable.
What advice would you give to an aspiring leader in terms of developing their spirituality?
Read. Do some spiritual reading that engages you and gives you fulfilment. You need to carve out time and space to reflect on what you’re reading and how it is touching you. You also need to reflect on who you are as a person and your relationships with God and others, and, I guess, who you want to be as a person.
Technology now provides so many opportunities for learning. What actions or activities do you think leaders and aspiring leaders need to explore to keep current with the changes that are happening with technology?
I think that you need to realise that technology is a tool and a very valuable tool, however, where possible, it should never replace human interaction. Emails have their place but you can’t beat the personal touch. With regard to learning and teaching, technology is never going to think for you or improve your intelligence. From there, there has to be some thought around your philosophy of education – where does technology fit? I think a lot of people have made a lot of money by saying the future of education is technology, when in fact, technology is a really useful tool in the pursuit of knowledge. You have to look at where you’re using technology in a school context and what is its purpose. Unless it is a means of providing students with greater or different learning opportunities you need to reflect on how you are using it and for what purpose. Good teaching can be done with or without the use of technology. Self directed learning options for students are aided immensely by technology. However, students have to have the skills to direct their own learning and a computer doesn’t necessarily do that, a good teacher does.
Some people who are well into their career have tended to avoid technology. Do you have any advice for them?
Yes. You are disempowered now if you’re not able to deal with technology. It is an essential skill and it really is an area of professional learning that is non-negotiable. The days of getting your secretary to open your emails have gone. People need to sit and fiddle with technology until they are both comfortable and competent. They can go along to TAFE or have someone on staff or at home take them through the basics of technology and how it can be used. The resources on the net are just immense. It’s not hard. I think people sometimes carry a fear of technology that is quite unfounded. So it’s one of the non-negotiable aspects of leadership. You have to be able to use technology – end of story and you must have some idea of the benefits that it provides for students.
What would you suggest are the key priorities for a newly appointed leader in the first three months of a new role?
At the risk of repeating myself, and I apologise if I do, people have to develop a trusting relationship with you, so a new leader has to work out how they’re going to facilitate that. The old theory was go in hard and then back off so that staff knew who the boss was. I’ve never been an advocate of that approach. I think you’ve got to be authentic. People have to get to know who you are and what you stand for. So you do whatever you need to do to get your key messages out there and in my experience it is best done by getting to know people and allowing them to get to know you.
Also, I never come to a place and look for what’s wrong. I look for what’s right in the place and I try to communicate to the people I’m working with, all the good things that are happening and the things that we really can build upon. So I think it’s building a sense of trust people don’t feel you’re judging them or the work they are doing. The message you need to give is that this place is OK, we might have some things to work on, but we’re going to work together.
And the things you are going to work on, and I appreciate every place is different, how do you address them?
My way of thinking is that change is not going to happen unless you have people who are willing to change with you. It is a matter of building a culture that is change ready. Key questions for me are: what is the culture of the place like? And, if required, what do we need to do to build a healthy culture? A healthy culture is one that will embrace change or look at innovation as required; a culture where people will have respectful relationships with each other and where there’s a level of co-operation that makes the place function really effectively. If there are problems they need to be identified and so we need to look at the blocks to change, both structural and people, and how we can work to rectify these matters. It is also wise to try and identify and then address the insecurities that people are feeling and the hurts they might be carrying in order that strained relationships can be addressed.
Part of this is intuitive I think, part of it is just listening to people and having a look and then prioritising. When I came to this school I tried to listen attentively to what people were saying and what I was observing. Listening on its own changes nothing, people must be aware that change will happen as required but it is going to take time. I think that it’s important to allow people to vent their frustrations and then support them to move on and be a constructive part of the change.
After you’ve listened and developed some level of trust, how do you bring change to people who might be very resistant to changing practices they’ve followed for 20 years & more?
In 12 months we’ve introduced a new middle school program called Quality of Learning, we’ve begun to cater for our gifted and talented students with a new program and we’ve started a new transition program for students moving from year 10 to year 11.
It’s a matter of just sitting down and asking people some fairly basic questions. You don’t want people thinking you’re going to pull the rug from under them, that you’re going to change everything. You ask, ‘where are we?’ and ‘what issues do we need to address in the first instance?” The changes we have introduced have addressed two issues – our approach to middle school and enrolments. This has been done by discussing these matters with our senior leaders, our middle managers and with the staff. I guess I opened up conversations with the ‘dumb’ question – why do we do things in this way? And ‘is there a better way?’, or ‘are there more efficiencies that we can build into this process?’ Often you find that the agenda that you have in mind is shared by others and people start offering ideas that you have had.
At other times you might be dealing a compliance matter and you need to make changes without reaching consensus or seeking advice. In these cases you need to be upfront and transparent with people by stating what needs to be done while acknowledging that it may mean extra work and it may be hard, but unfortunately that’s the way it has to be.
The key point is that nothing is going to change without trust. People might not like what you’re going to do, but if they trust your motives change can begin.
What do you think is the greatest challenge facing our students today?
I don’t think the challenges are very different to those experienced in the past. Certainly technology adds another dimension as does a stronger focus on tertiary education, however, I think kids are every bit as astute and capable of dealing with life as they have ever been. Unemployment rates are lower than they have been for quite a long time, the world has certainly become a smaller place and people are probably more aspirational, however, I believe that people are inherently good and our young people want to contribute to society in a positive way and that hasn’t really changed very much.
I think the educational challenges are much the same as they were 30 years ago, and that is the way in which we equip students to grow and develop in a fast changing world. The answers lie in developing good educators who take a holistic approach to education and seek to build positive relationships with their students, targeting their academic, emotional, pastoral and spiritual needs. I don’t think anything very much has changed in this regard.
Within this context, what advice would you give to the next generation of leaders to address these challenges that have not changed for so many years?
Build on your greatest strength – your staff. Develop your staff professionally when and where you find the opportunity. If the areas of need in your school are pastoral, develop appropriate pastoral care mechanisms so people are able to work effectively to improve this area. If there are some gaps academically, then you need to address those either by employing specialists in certain fields or providing opportunities for staff to take on leadership roles in those areas.
Given the amount of change that is occurring, what advice would you give to people who are now commencing their career in education? Knowing what you now know, what would you say to them about building a career in education?
Maintain your enthusiasm and love for the profession or develop an enthusiasm and love for the profession because it’s a really hard job if you don’t like it. If you’re finding in the first couple of years that this is not the job for you, then do yourself and the profession a favour and go into another field. If you do have the drive and enthusiasm, develop yourself as well as you can professionally as the rewards are great in terms of job satisfaction and opportunity. The relationships with students are the most important relationships you’ll have in a school. Work at developing your skills in this area.
We talked earlier about being able to develop skills and attributes. Is enthusiasm something you can develop with time?
If you’re interested and you’re willing to pursue a career, then you’re going to do some professional development and look at different ways of operating. You’re going to embrace technology and look at how it can be used as a really effective tool to motivate students. You can’t do much about your principal; you can’t do much about your department head; you may not even be able to do much about the community you’re working with. However, when you get into the classroom, that is your domain, and the relationships you can develop and the good you can do with the students is endless. That’s where you can really fly and this is where enthusiasm for education can develop. Enthusiastic and motivated teachers are great assets to schools and they are highly valued.
People regularly comment on the shortage of people putting up their hand for leadership roles. Why is this happening?
We have a focus now on work/life balance. Also what used to be termed as long-term permanent employment has been redefined and there may be some expectation that you have to wait too long to aspire to a leadership role in education. I think part of the problem is that we as leaders don’t provide enough opportunity or enough good modelling with regard to the benefits and the great opportunities that leadership brings. For me, it’s been a wonderful career and I continually tell people what a privilege it is to be working in this field.
So your message to aspiring leaders is that it is a wonderful job?
It’s fantastic. Principalship it a position that I feel privileged to hold. The opportunity to positively influence the life and direction of young people and to support families is incredible. Equally as rewarding is the opportunity to work with and mentor teachers who have the ability to inspire. John I have the best job in the world.
About Frank Pitt
Frank Pitt has worked in Catholic Education for over thirty years, as a classroom teacher, religious education coordinator, deputy principal and principal in a number of mainstream schools in NSW. For the past ten years he has worked with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan both as principal of Mater Dei, an organisation that provides early intervention services, K – 12 schooling and residential services for children and young people with a mild to moderate cognitive delay, and as principal of St Mary Star of the Sea College, a secondary school for girls in the Wollongong Diocese.
Frank is interested in leadership and the challenges inherent in leading a Catholic School in a fast changing and increasingly secular society. He is passionate about Catholic Education and the contribution it can and does make to the Australian church and to our society. Frank is currently undertaking doctoral studies in the areas of academic and social inclusion with a particular focus on the ways that Catholic Schools welcome students with disabilities into their communities