Whatever you think a week at Harvard might be like multiply it by 1000 and then you may be close. I have been asked by so many people to describe what it was like and I find it extremely difficult. I honestly believe that unless you were there you will never truly comprehend the power of this life changing experience. To be given quarantined time to work, study and live with 179 high quality leaders from 17 countries is an experience that will leave an indelible mark on my leadership. I was speaking to some parents from my school, Cabramatta Public School, prior to my departure and they were so pleased that our school community had been recognised, it gave them great pride that the Cabramatta area would be represented on a world stage. Walking to Harvard that first day and sitting in Radcliffe Yard looking around I felt an enormous sense of pride, but was also very humbled by the opportunity given to me.
What became evident very quickly at Harvard was that the issues that we face in Australian education are issues faced by education systems worldwide. Increasing societal demands, the pressure to balance high stakes testing against individualised education, teacher quality, leadership replacement, getting the right mix of leading and managing and developing school culture were topics of conversation across all 17 countries. What I would say is that our system in NSW Public Education have evolved into a dynamic and powerful force that has made many advances in comparison to some of the systems I encountered. Our planning model, funding model, community consultation, teacher development and early career teacher support structures and professional standards are areas that my colleagues at Harvard were very interested in.
From day 1 the heat was placed firmly on us as the leaders of our schools and systems. What is your strategy? What impact are you having on the culture of your school? Your system? I entered Harvard with a pre conceived idea that I would come away and fix things, systems, schools. I left more reflective of my own place in developing culture and building relationships and my ability to be clear about strategy. I need a deep understanding of this and my role in developing it before I can save the education world. My entire career I have lived by the mantra of relationships, relationships, relationships. A week in Harvard has only confirmed this view but has me reflecting on my previous ability to successfully uphold this mantra. Have my words and actions really supported this? Whilst I pride myself on being able to talk with anyone, I am reflecting on my true commitment to develop deep relationships across the schools that I have worked in. I have always worked well with my community and staff and obviously have a great knowledge of my students particularly those that I have taught but that really deep knowledge to understand what motivates and drives people I think has been lacking.
In some ways the course confirmed things that you already knew but really made you think deeply about why you held them to be true or why you considered them best practice. What struck me most was the power of relationships. When you have a group of people who know why they do what they do, they understand their purpose, collectively that sense of belonging is so powerful. Powerful relationships form bonds and develop culture and this sense of belonging can allow you to achieve the unimaginable. The key themes of being strategic, building school culture, immunity to change and developing teacher quality permeated most presentations. In addition to this a few quotes stood out for me. “Formative assessment never closes” Jon Mundorf. “You will never change what you are willing to tolerate.” Katherine Merseth. “A leader who is silent on mediocrity speaks loudly.” Kim Marshall
As leaders we have a significant impact on the culture of an organisation. I left more reflective of my own place in developing culture and building relationships and my ability to be clear about strategy. As a leader of a NSW Public School you need to very focused on your school vision. In the day to day operation of a school it is easy to get distracted and to try to take on too much. We get excited in our quest to improve what we do and sometimes this can leave you working across many fronts. Schools can get very busy and it is easy to get caught up with the noise on the periphery. You must know your strategic areas and be disciplined in ensuring that they remain the main priority. Ensuring that the main thing is the main thing, is the main thing. Our job is to educate our students, to develop lifelong learners who are well-adjusted citizens. Leaders need to ensure that the school stays focused on their strategic areas, stays reflective, stays sharp and continues to deliver high quality education for their students. Continually answering the following questions is a good practice to get in to. Why are we doing what we are doing? What are we doing? Is it making a difference? How do you know? I believe that if we keep these questions in mind then we can help all members of our school community reflect, continuously improve, and bring their ‘A’ game every day.
On the walls hung a huge banner “Learn to Change the World”. The course certainly left you feeling like you could do this but only after a period of inward reflection where you were challenged to change yourself first. Professor Robert Keegan delivered a lecture on Engaging Our Own Immunity to Change. This really challenged me to be very self-reflective. He asks why is it that people don’t change even when they know they should. He quoted examples of people who have had health scares that don’t change lifestyle choices, or consistently follow up with medication and had us reflect on changes that we have tried to make and the reasons why they may have not eventuated. He challenged us to test our underlying beliefs and assumptions around change. This was a very powerful lecture. He has a process that he lead us through to discover our own change immune system. I think this is something that I have certainly taken away from Harvard and can see how this will impact on all facets of my life. What will I change? I’m not sure but after a week at Harvard learning with and from some inspiring educators I will certainly have the courage to do what is necessary.