The following captures the thoughts of Br Tony Whelan, Director of Schools for the Catholic Diocese of Broken Bay, 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.
The first question Br Tony is about your career: how it developed and whether it was a planned or unplanned process?
At school, I was School Captain, Dux of School, and Cadet Under Officer. Then, when I graduated as a Science teacher from Sydney University, I was catapulted into Wyndham Science teaching in the mid-60s. Our field mentoring was given by great fellow, wise teachers using an apprenticeship approach. NSWSTA meetings each month introduced us into the art of teaching teenagers Science. This was part of the “new look” revolution in teaching.
I guess my first professional love was teaching rather than leadership. So keen was I to improve myself, I completed a M.Sc. degree in Physics at Macquarie University in 1972. By that stage, I had become a science coordinator, year coordinator, and from 1968 an Assistant Principal. I had seven years of experience in that capacity. I then found myself a principal from 1975 to 1980. At the same period, I was elected Chair of the Catholic Secondary Principals Association, over four years. I was the Catholic representative on the St.George Inservice Committee and became a facilitator of peer principals in curriculum and school evaluation.
In 1981, I was appointed a pioneering Regional Director in CEO Sydney. Those next six years were energising and formative. I was responsible for something like 70 schools in the southwest part of Sydney. I had a great team including the famous Barry Dwyer (RIP) and Brian Fintan from whom I learned much about primary education. To improve my competence, I completed a Masters Degree in Educational Administration at Canberra through a summer school program, over three summers. In a certain sense, I took leadership as service for granted. I was gifted with many opportunities for personal and professional growth.
I was elected to three consecutive Provincial Councils (NSW- ACT – PNG) of the Christian Brothers over the period 1983 to 1996. During that period, I served on Diocesan School Boards and Committees, chaired several appointment and appraisal panels in several jurisdictions, as well as state-wide employment relations committees or capital planning committees. For one year (1993 – 1994) I was Acting Executive Director of CECNSW.
These were opportunities that extended my repertoire and I think people need to appreciate the benefits of making a commitment beyond your own school setting. Indeed some of my professional friends would argue that a point of maturation arises with principals when they move beyond their own school horizons to think more systemically in terms of a broader horizon in the community.
Looking back, I have been a learner, a scholar-teacher as Macquarie University study attests, integrating the theoretical and pragmatic, with the skills and the shared wisdom that many collaborative circles taught me. The opportunity for Doctoral Studies in Educational Leadership at ACU was a great period of integration, reading and discourse. In the same period, I was foundation Chair of the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations over four to five years. In August 2002, I took up my present position as Director of Schools in Broken Bay. More recently, in 2008 I received recognition with an Australian Medal and was made a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators in 2009.
However, I’d like to say, as a Religious Brother, I place more importance on vocation than career. Several of my lay educator friends would agree. What I think is unplanned can be in God’s providence, his plan for me, if I am listening. But the concept of being invitation and call; recognition of gifts and opportunity; and mission; for me, are key determinants.
Leadership in Christian Brothers circles is first of all a call to service of others.
I think that serving others through influence power rather than exercising power over people is at the core of my experience of leadership.
At the same time I need to make sure I look after myself through regular activities and actions and for myself I’ve learned through my latter years, instead of being a workaholic, to enjoy a Sabbath or a day off. Saturday or Sunday I might go bush-walking, reading or meeting friends or relatives.
When people look at leadership roles, they tend to look at the associated pressures, so it’s the day off, the bush-walking that assists you in that regard?
People often don’t put up their hand for leadership roles. For aspiring leaders, what would you see as the most fulfilling aspects of a leadership role in Catholic education?
Whether discussing this at the level of a school principal or of a director, the reality is that people whose passion is the classroom (and particularly many primary people struggle with the notion of surrendering their experience of the classroom and their own class) struggle to take on a wider role in the school. It can be reflected upon by the view that unless some people step up into those places, then opportunities for the next generation to continue to have that rich experience will not be there. We have a responsibility to look to the future, not only to the present, and I have learned that the practical wisdom of the people who move up into these roles, generally speaking, is as a gift for others, so it’s about sharing of one’s own gifts.
But are there rewards in those leadership roles that people move into?
For me the rewards are largely intangible. I think of the privileged opportunity of being able to influence others through circles such as the school executive, parents & friends executive, and school staff, as well as individuals. You discover within yourself the human spirit is very real for fellow travellers, through the ups and down of life, whether it’s professional or personal.
In stepping through your career, has there been a pivotal moment in terms of your path to be a successful leader?
I don’t think there is any one particular moment, but I’d say there were turning points while I was a Principal and I was working with a wider field of peers. It was the insight at the time in which I discovered I was capable and able to contribute at that level. Similarly, in my years at the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations, the opportunity to work strategically and influence people and group thinking was very important to me.
You mentioned earlier about the maturity and richness that comes when a Principal looks at working outside their existing school horizon. Can you expand on this aspect?
Broadly speaking, most principals are caught up in the dilemma of scanning the external environment while maintaining the internal synergy within the organisation of the school. The truth of the matter is that in the key leadership role we need to be at that interface all the time and the only way you can learn that, as a beginner, is through experience. I encourage beginners, not immediately but after a short period, to take a position, to astutely select opportunities such as committees, forums, conference presentations and the like to test out some of their own ideas and to interact in a professional dialogue with peers.
For aspiring leaders, what would you name as key characteristics of excellent educational leaders.
Undoubtedly, leadership is always first about relationship. In fact, it can be described as an influence relationship. In the sphere of Catholic Education, it has to start with a deep relationship with God, given through prayer and reflection. I would suggest that people who achieve and thrive in the role have a nice rhythm in that regard. The staff in any enterprise come together for a shared purpose, the mission, and they share their professional lives and hopefully in a Catholic setting, their faith.
I also believe that a new leader needs to understand it is a little like the ocean liner – to turn just 5 degrees takes some 8 minutes to change course and a new leader needs to discover this reality, instead of being the beginner and feeling burdened with responsibility. The new leader needs to discover the centre of gravity of the school staff and to think together, rather than from ones own individual beliefs. While those individual beliefs are important, the capability of influencing others to a group decision, in the long run, is going to engage a whole of school commitment and lift the group to new heights. McGregor Burns would talk about raising the high jump bar, lifting people to new moral imperatives within their lives.
I have found that I have served in several educational communities, both school and system, and I’ve found that you can win people’s hearts and minds by taking that strategy. I have to say, sadly, it’s been my experience on a few occasions, that individual leaders who do not connect the dots, do not demonstrate emotional intelligence and the capability of engaging the hearts and minds of others, inevitably fail.
I’d also suggest that as well as emphasis on relational leadership, good leaders need to be strategic thinkers. And they need to be able to get beyond the today and think for tomorrow. If they do not set horizons further upstream, the engines will run out of steam power. The art form is in enhancing the team’s energy, melding the expertise within the team and building a relational trust.
Educational leadership of course has undergone its own revolution. Over a decade ago there was a strong emphasis on transformational leadership where leaders would try to influence other adults. More recently Vivianne Robinson from Auckland University emphasises what she calls pedagogical leadership where the agenda is now more about the influence of leadership on student outcomes in the total sense. I find that a stimulating challenge for us in the educational sector.
You speak of building relationships and ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of people. If this doesn’t come naturally to an aspiring leader, can they learn this skill?
I think it’s a combination of nature and nurture. I don’t actually subscribe to a deterministic position of leadership. I think the art of it can be learned, but I think people need to understand where their limitations are and that self-awareness or awareness obtained from others, is quite critical.
In terms of the strategic thinking you’ve mentioned and ‘looking beyond the today’, that’s a challenge for aspiring leaders in that they’ve got the rush and bustle of the demands of today. How do they start doing this? Is there any advice you can give to a leader in terms of how they start looking beyond the more immediate demands of their role?
It’s not a quick fix, but one simple strategy I learned to put into practice as a young leader, as a principal, I met with my assistant principal formally twice per week. One session was to deal with next week’s agenda, the immediate, and the other session was called palm tree time, where we both sat down and reviewed our strategic plan for the year and made sure we kept each other accountable for moving forward with the longer term agenda. I found that served me well.
Can you comment upon your own learning and development opportunities and the skills you have you found most useful in your career?
The most useful skills I have learned are conflict resolution skills. On reflection, because of the diversity and difference we face, managing people with diverse opinions, sometimes seemingly polar opposites, this takes skill. I also learned much from the Connolly (USA) couple who co-presented here in Australia on communication skills and facilitation. I completed a para-counselling course through the Institute of Counselling and this taught me a great deal about listening skills, about group dynamics, people who are harmonised, people who had information, people who could synthesize. Likewise Alistair Bain’s Tavistock School’s Institute of Social Analysis program on group behaviour was enriching and an experience that not many have had.
A most important attribute for a Catholic leader is vulnerability. There are several profound experiences of deep pain for individuals that one has the privilege to walk with. The theology of Kenosis is essential for this.
What professional development activities would you recommend to our aspiring leaders?
It seems to me that putting icing on the cake would be a metaphor for what I want to discuss. I’ve always been a deep believer if you’re going to do a job you’ve got to do it thoroughly. In this period of time I think it’s non-negotiable that leaders aspire to complete post-graduate studies, for example at the Masters level. As Catholic educators that needs to be complemented by appropriate programs of a similar standard for spiritual and pastoral leadership and formation and renewal.
Having undertaken substantive study of that standard or equivalent there are various stages for beginning principals, experienced principals and mature principals and we need to recognise the need for refreshers and extension in particular domains. Attendance at conferences can be informative, but my reflection over a lifetime is that it’s very hard to remember conferences that made a difference to one’s professional career. I’m more interested these days in the mentoring and the performance review processes where working with a critical friend one identifies target areas of extension. For example emotional intelligence; for example strategic planning; for example financial management; for example employment relations. I’d encourage people to selectively and critically augment their skills and wisdom through such opportunities, but to be quite strategic. There is also an important place for ‘on the job’ learning. I think nowadays principals find peer principals who can be a very fruitful source of wisdom and interaction.
If someone was to ask your advice about continuing professional development in terms of their spiritual life, what would you suggest?
In the 21st century Catholic leaders increasingly will need to be theologically literate. This arises from the circumstance of diminishing supply of priests in our parishes. By definition the high profile position of a principal in a local community, sometimes without a resident priest, often means that these leaders are sought for serious advice. Hence a principal needs to be, while not a professional theologian, basically theologically comfortable and articulate, and nurture spirituality.
Secondly, I’m very keen on extension opportunities for leaders, for example overseas pilgrimages, to the Holy Land; to Rome; or to South Africa to learn about reconciliation. These are opportunities that I’ve been able to avail of or have encouraged others to do. I’ve found these worthwhile doing with groups.
In addition I think that the tradition of use of the scriptures through a simple process of LectioDivina, which in Broken Bay is being promoted, is well worth knowing.
I’ve mentioned this already, but I’d like to highlight the significance for leaders to understand the theme of vulnerability. The whole Catholic faith is built upon the cross and resurrection and my experience is that we’re often caught up with the profound experiences of pain for individuals. It could be divorce, separation or it could be the death of a child. In such issues as a minister of healing, one needs to be able to be comfortable with working with that area.
If we can talk about books Br Tony. We’re interested in what book you’re reading at the moment and one book that you’d suggest to aspiring leaders that they should read.
Interesting question. At the moment I have at least three books on the go: IT Governance; Appreciative Leadership; and the third, Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning.
I would encourage aspiring educational leaders to read John Hattie’s “Visible Learning” and Vivianne Robinson’s “Best Evidence Synthesis on Pedagogical Leadership” or Ben Levin’s “How to Change 5000 Schools”.
For religious reading I’m getting a lot of benefit from Frank Maloney’s commentary on John’s Gospel and Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth Vol.2 which I’ve found great companions during Lent and Easter.
Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth Vol.2 was completed, at least the last couple of chapters completed, when he was Pope. In the forward he says, this is not magisterial teaching. A bit like John Paul in his later life, he has started to write a journal of his professional life and he’s a very talented theologian. I mean he’s a modern miracle actually. The first book is the public life of Jesus. It takes things like the Beatitudes and he tries to explain what he sees as a theologian, based on scripture. Volume 2 is totally about Holy Week and Easter and I found it revolutionary. He said things there that I’ve never seen in my life before. There’s a chapter on Holy Thursday; a chapter on the crucifixion, which is very much John; but the chapter on the resurrection – post resurrection life – we are not talking about a resuscitated corpse here. He says the risen Lord has a footprint in history, but it’s not the kind of history that the birth of Jesus or the crucifixion was, it’s an event in history but extends out beyond history. We’ve really got what we call the ‘presence of the absent one’ (to use another writer’s term), but the risen Lord – nobody saw him rise – but these accounts say, gradually, gradually, the early disciples, for them the lights went on. ‘Oh that’s what it all meant’ and then they realised that the Lord was present to them in a different way. If you like, we’ve got these human stories that put in narrative to help us with human language to explain and experience that the lights went on. The only person who writes about a personal experience of seeing the Lord is Paul and Paul was not one of the 12 apostles. All his epistles are all about his story of personal conversion. Amazing! I encourage you to have a go. You might have to read some parts twice and take it slowly.
John Hattie had some bad press just recently over his comment to ‘just shut up and listen’.
Hattie says teachers need to stop spending most of their time in class talking and start listening. He says that when teachers stop talking, deep learning takes place and, as a teacher, I’ll learn things about myself and my teaching, and that makes a big difference. My parallel is you going to the doctor with the flu or something worse, and he prescribes something. You go back in to him later and say ‘I’m still feeling lousy’ and he’ll say ‘oh, that didn’t work. Try this.’ Now, as professional educators, the more we have active feedback from the learners, it’s actually a test of whether we’re getting our message across. That’s what Hattie is saying about ‘shut up’ but the message seems to have been lost on many.
When we talked about professional development, you spoke of the benefits of mentoring. Can you speak more about this and whether people should seek a mentor?
I’ve been fortunate when I think back on my career of the range of people who have lived with me. Without naming them all specifically, I’ve had significant friends, professional colleagues whom I could converse with about the serious business of education. So without even talking about formal mentors, I think there’s a deep place for understanding there are many colleagues who genuinely want to be a mentor and a friend. What matters though is that one realises, at some point, you move past those particular people into new spheres of life and that for a time they are seen to be gifts and opportunities. I think some of them model the way forward such as the early science teachers who taught me. Some of them model how to run committees. You learn much about doing your homework before you go to a meeting and the people who have done their homework generally have something to say. The people who haven’t done their homework are pussyfooting around.
One person who stood out for me in that regard was Br Walter Simmons who was the Director for Schools for Sydney for 6 years. I remember on one occasion when a Board, a committee, were meeting with him and he asked around the table on some issue and was after opinions and views. When we had all shared our insights, he said, ‘I just have a few matters to raise’. He had 9 new points that no-one was near. He was right, everybody understood it. What he demonstrated was his capacity to do the 360 degree environment scanning. So I would salute people such as him and my point is, if one is a learner, there are many mentors around you. Look for them: another example is learning the art of political leadership and Br Kelvin Canavan would be the classic example, both within the Catholic system and the broader educational discourse.
I do think however that nowadays it’s highly desirable for beginning principals to search out a formal mentoring relationship. I myself have worked with a mentor in a strategic way for the past 5 years. I’ve also twice introduced a group mentor or facilitator for our leadership team. I think it’s very useful, particularly if you have once or twice a year, a one or two day set aside as a group for broader direction setting and review on progress, to have an external mentor. So I found both at an individual and a group level, a mentor can be highly desirable.
Currently in Broken Bay we have a relationship with the University of Auckland in a project with the Catholic Education Office Parramatta and ourselves. Each diocese has 5 beginning principals, each has a designated mentor and this program is designed to form the mentors and the mentees and for those people to work that over a period of 2 years.
So a person in the early stages of their career, if they don’t have a formal mentor, the advice is they should look for some form of mentoring?
Increasingly in school systems, we have this in Broken Bay, but systems are realising they need to set up formal opportunities. However the personal relationship must be the right one and there must be a degree of voluntarism about that and therefore I think it’s appropriate for beginners to be given an array of options of the sort of people they find compatible.
So if they’re not given that array, is there any advice we could give them in terms of who they should look for?
If they belong to the Catholic school system, they will get helpful mentoring from people such as School Consultants – one of their responsibilities is mentoring and coaching. However, for certain issues a principal may feel that they would prefer someone who’s not part of the authority chain and therefore I think they need to look outside their immediate context to find a critical friend who they can work with from time to time.
The other area you touched upon earlier was feedback. Can you share with us what you see as the value of performance feedback in enhancing a person’s leadership skills and effectiveness?
Obviously great sensitivity is required during feedback exercises. Generally speaking I prefer to give feedback both positive and challenging in a continuous way, informally as well as formally. I think that way people know how they’re going.
The balanced scorecard approach appeals to me as one where the person providing feedback needs to assess in a balanced way that not all matters are rosy, not all matters are shadows and I think that feedback is more effective if people can demonstrate a recognition of achievements as well as presenting challenges. For example, in the context of people seeking a position, HR people need to be careful with applicants who are unsuccessful, that they get honest, clear answers to their questions. I think that’s important.
I have to say my experience in this area has been mixed. I have in the past been involved extensively in contract renewal exercises with principals. I found the candidate would glaze over emotionally at the mention of a challenge and would quickly lose perspective about the many good things said so that while after a formal process – a panel usually – would provide feedback through the Chair and itemise the many good achievements, the person lost their receptivity because of an emotional glazing over. I’ve also sometimes observed that panels themselves aren’t even and can be arbitrary in their group processes and skimming over significant evidence in favour of their own hobby-horse. So there are issues for both applicants and also for people providing the feedback. I must say I’ve been very privileged to have met some excellent people. Three particular leaders stand out fulsomely, but very many good ones and very few failures. In other words feedback should not be seen as a threat, it should be seen as a constructive experience for growth.
You talk about people ‘glazing over’. A person can be given a long list of commendations and just one aspect to work on, yet they focus on that one aspect. Is it possible to give advice to the recipient of the feedback on how to receive that information, without it seeming as if there’s a failure on their part?
I think it’s an area for a certain amount of reflection and study. I’ve become aware of good people who do not make the grade. One particular person I’ve been working with currently has been through 3 consecutive applications for principalship. He’s actually been an effective principal in several settings but is having difficulty just because of the panel process. Not only because of the panel process, but how do you encourage a person with gifts to stop from becoming discouraged and thinking ‘I’m a failure’? There’s a whole range of complex issues here, that’s why I make reference to more homework needing to be done, I think on the criteria, and then making sure the judgement is derived from the stated criteria and not an arbitrary impression.
A key aspect of any leadership role is communications. Can you tell us about the various practices that you use to connect with the various groups that you need to liaise with?
The principal practice I try to follow is visible leadership. I’m a great believer in being visible so I’m well known to be out of the office on one day per week visiting schools. I put primary value on a visit to a principal’s office. I normally, in visiting a school, endeavour to be there before school, recess or lunch to join the staff socially and to say, broadly speaking, ‘well done’. I find the richness of sitting with a principal in her/his office for an hour or 1 ½ hours, tilling the soil of their professional experience is an opportunity to affirm and recognise what they’re doing. Often I get feedback from them because of the stories and encounters they engage with, and interestingly they are sometimes the apex of a new issue that’s going to have systemic import, so I find that’s very important.
Within the office, I intentionally walk the office between blocks of time. So I might have been engaged for 2 hours in a couple of meetings, and so I will then walk the office and stop with different people on different occasion so that over time I’ve stopped and greeted and acknowledged the work of people. Not uncommonly I might be able to give feedback on something in their area which I came across and I can say to them ‘well done’, or ‘would you like to like to look a bit further into such and such a matter?’
We have good formal systems of weekly circulars to the schools so we are fairly efficient in ensuring the critical information is out in the schools.
I also find it helpful each week to formally grant blocks of time for interviews, so that if people in the office or elsewhere wish to see me, the secretary has those schedules and people can be advised of time spots available. It disciplines me to make sure I am accessible and that opportunity for communication takes place.
I also regularly work with school groups such as the Schools Consultants as a group or my Directors Group. I think you need to work with your critical groups to support and enable them. I meet daily with my executive assistant and regularly with my direct reports. What I have learned is not to have too many direct reports. I think a number of about 6 is what the theorists would say is an optimum number. I think that’s right – I can keep up and be accessible to about 6 people, in a deep sense.
How does this model of visible leadership, as you’ve explained it, translate to other leadership roles such as an AP or a principal?
Well for example, I would encourage and expect principals to be in classrooms. Not as inspectors but as educational leaders, working with the teachers and supporting them particularly in pioneering new initiatives in literacy; or slow learning; or early learning; or children with special needs; and that they are familiar enough with the particulars of the classroom to be relevant with their advice and attuned to what resources and support can be provided. If I were talking about a middle leader such as a co-ordinator I’d expect them to be across the departmental team that they’re heading up, in a similar way.
Another important role for leader is building team morale and spirit. Can you describe the ways in which you’ve developed morale and spirit in your own teams?
Yes, I’m thinking within both the office and more broadly across the school system. I think one of the best things that you can do is symbolic leadership. So be present at school concerts, awards night. I put a value on that. I write cards to people in the office on their birthdays, plus I’m very supportive of any social and celebratory initiatives that we have, for example, somebody going off on maternity leave, or somebody returning from sickness, those sort of simple things that put value on people. Sending flowers to people on recovery from surgery.
The other dimension I think that makes a difference professionally is being seen as a co-learner, so I put high value as a leader on being present with others in a learning forum such as developing new insights into educational change or leading learning, to be a participant and contribute that way.
It’s often a nervous period for a person appointed to a new role. What would you name as the key priorities for a newly appointed leader, let’s say in their first three months of a new position?
Two simple words, listen, listen, listen and see, see, see. Well intentioned leaders seriously trip up unless they take time to learn why things are like they are. Eventually as leader they are responsible for sustaining and nurturing the culture of the school and therefore one needs to engage in that new world with deep respect. At the same time, in that period, the process should not be casual. I encourage new leaders, for example principals, to keep a notebook for the things that jar on one or things that one can endorse. In about a term’s time, I’m suggesting, when you can come back to consider the way you’re going to lead the school forward, your change management strategies will arise from that information you have gathered. Indeed before you become acculturated or domesticated, you are clearly an objective outsider and in time you will become a domesticated insider and hence there’s a great richness in that initial period of listening and learning. Often by asking simple questions, one discovers that what appeared at face value to be a stupid idea turns out to be very wise and prudent and the reverse is also true.
Secondly can I say that as new lay leaders in Catholic entities you should not follow bad role models. I have more than once counselled a principal to balance out the priorities between personal family life and professional life. If married, you need to educate your own executive, your staff and parents that your immediate priority is with your family. It’s not easy to do in practice for a conscientious beginning principal to be seen to be present to the P&F meeting or the arts festival or the First XV football game, but I encourage people as Lay leaders to demonstrate the multi-faceted roles that one plays as partner, as parent as well as educational leader.
In terms of this early period of their new appointment, what advice would you share about how they establish relationships?
Two issues. I use the word aloof not in a stodgy sense, but a principal needs to demonstrate they are impartial. Therefore one, in the early stages, needs to be able to distinguish a social repartee from a serious engagement with particular members of staff at the expense of others and hence one needs to, in the early stages, develop a balanced approach to all staff members.
Second, one needs to remember that some individual staff members will have agendas or barrows from the previous administration that they are test running and you need to be very careful about consistency of advice. For example, a plausible explanation from someone who requests carers leave might at face value seem innocent enough until it dawns that 3 days later, two other staff members come along with a similar request and one needs to examine then the consistency of advice.
I suppose the initial approach with people would be one of respect, impartiality and consistency and taking advice, for example, from the existing assistant principal or the office secretary could be helpful.
What do you think is the most significant challenge facing students today? How should educational leaders and aspiring leaders address this challenge?
We are at something of a modern or post-modern crossroads. Our lives are very fragmented; they’re very busy; the pace of a digitally driven culture; the extent of globalisation; and many of the stereotypes for young people are obviously superficial. However, we can no longer insulate our young people from what I choose to call the curriculum of life. They learn more than they learn in the classroom. We’re unable to insulate them from television, from the tsunami in Japan, the earthquakes in Christchurch, the nuclear reactor damage in Japan or violence in Bali. The challenge for school teachers and principals, as for parents, is to reflect as adults what is age appropriate dissemination.
Children do register these matters, they do observe them, they do worry about these matters. There is quite an amount of evidence that 4 year olds and 5yo and 6yo, through television and through the digital age, pick up a whole lot of things which are unfiltered. So I think the fundamental challenge, as well as meeting community standards, whether it’s Australian Curriculum or ACARA reporting, is to make sure our teaching and learning is relevant to the life experience of our young people. For that reason I think the academic, social, emotional and spiritual dimensions of a person need to be integrated and if we keep our eyes focussed on the growth and nurturing of the human person in the young student in front of us, we’re on a good footing.
Leaders therefore have to take time to notice, to listen and to act fairly and with wisdom for all students. Particularly in secondary schools, I encourage principals to make sure that they have a 6th sense of what the student temperature is around a raft of issues. What may appear to be criticism of a particular teacher or some aspect of the school discipline may in fact disclose some very rich insights into current and popular agenda for which young people are looking for adult support, understanding and advice. Particularly in a time when that’s not automatically guaranteed in the home, a principal can act as a useful filter of understanding and reflection to the relevant staff engaged more immediately with the teaching and learning. At the same time leaders need to be in tune with the needs of teachers and parent groups, often to make sure they are in symphony and sometimes if there are discordant notes, to make sure there is time for each group and again one has a strategic view of how to take forward that issue.
We all face career obstacles. What advice would you give others when they’re facing major career hurdles?
One of the major challenges that I can recall in my present role was encountering a crisis in a high school. What helped then and since was that I knew where my resource supports were; I quickly assembled them and I co-ordinated their advice. I found it essential to form temporary teams for such a matter, and in such a team to have external resources and people, as well as internal advice. I find in the role of leader, in complex and critical matters, the shared wisdom of having people of competence – whether it’s counselling, child protection, legal, employment relations – quickly assembled, makes a major difference to the management of those issues.
So not taking it all on your own shoulders?
Correct. There is some research that tells us where, for example, you encounter a youth suicide of school age children, that the school counsellor or the assistant principal is a key reference person for the principal and the principal needs to resist the temptation to solve issues which are beyond her/his professional competence and which are more commonly engaged by the school counsellor. So the need is to draft those types of resources rapidly, from mental health professionals, from area health, in a similar vein. Media management and all these related matters have got to be factored in quickly and rapidly. The multi-faceted nature of the resources that are required means that as a leader you should not believe it is you who should have all the answers. Indeed I would say to all beginning principals, it’s more important to know who you can contact, particularly at the local Catholic Education Office, employment relations, curriculum, OH&S, assessment, rather than having all the answers.
To finish Br Tony, can you share with us something of importance that you have learned as well as the best piece of advice you’ve ever received.
The influence of my parents, siblings and extended family introduced me to the importance of relationships, generosity and commitment.
I can’t exactly say who said what, but I believe the best advice I have picked up at a human level is to avoid self-doubt in matters of principle and in every case, keep the faith with people that you’re working with.
Also I think that I don’t worry about things and I find that having a good night’s sleep is a good testimony to that. So at the end of a work day, work is a job and we can only do our best and leave the rest to God.
About Br Tony Whelan
Br Tony Whelan, a Christian Brother, has had extensive experience in Catholic Education as a teacher, principal and senior administrator. He was a Regional Director (Southern Region) of the Catholic Education Office, Sydney 1981-1986, a member of the Christian Brothers province Leadership Team 1983 – 1996 and Acting Director, Catholic Education Commission, NSW 1993 – 1994. He has been Director of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Broken Bay since August, 2000.
A graduate of Sydney University (B.Sc. DipEd), Br Tony subsequently graduated with Masters Degrees in Science (Macquarie University) and Education (Canberra College of Advanced Education). He more recently graduated with a Doctorate in Education (Ed.D.) from the Australian Catholic University. The subject of his dissertation was Catholic Schools Consultants in New South Wales: Their Leadership, Relationship with Principals and influence on schools.
Br Tony has been a member of several bodies, including the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations, Sydney, Archdiocesan Catholic Schools Board and Diocesan Schools Board, Broken Bay. He was Chairman of the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations from 1998 to 2002. Presently he is a member of CEC (NSW) and of the Conference of Diocesan Directors (NSW).
He was recognised as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2008, and awarded a Fellowship of the Australian College of Educators (FACE) in 2009.
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