Reflections on Educational Leadership – ACEL 2017

Educational leadership is critical to help systems across Australia meet the challenges faced by our current and future citizens. The literature states this. And the profession understands this. It is not merely the efforts of helping teachers be the best they can be in their craft, but it is the manner in which leaders interact with all across the organisation that helps sustain change efforts, ultimately helping to lift student outcomes.

The 2017 ACEL conference, held in Sydney in early October, had a simple theme yet it was a catch cry for educators - Respect the Past, Lead the Present, Shape the Future. This theme demands we, as practitioners within education systems, understand how we have arrived at our current system performance and circumstances, how we might lead effectively in the here and now - appreciating our story and history - and what this means for how we can and must shape the future we believe is needed to evolve education systems to greater effectiveness for all young people.

It began with David Marquet (@ldavidmarquet) exploring how organisations create thinkers at all levels, not just the senior level of leadership. A truly devolved leadership approach with empowered individuals at all levels creates opportunities for collective learning and insights that would otherwise be missed. It is okay for leaders to not know things. And it is right for others to help shape the overall leadership of an organisation. Space is needed, both physical and dispositional, for thinking to be expressed in an open and collaborative manner. It is only when this is understood by all in an organisation can the collective commitment to the vision and mission be more fully realised.

Learning from others took place throughout the entire conference. There were moments of deliberate and formal learning and sharing, through concurrent workshops focused on specific practices, insights and program implementation, to more informal collaborative reflections to make connections from the sharing to our own workplace contexts. Some of the insights I had as a result of these experiences were:

The power of designing solutions for real world school problems with insights from students, and what can be unlocked when this is codified as a discrete piece of curriculum that other schools can implement (DMAustralia)

The commitment from many jurisdictions across Australia to targeted and intentional professional learning in areas that the research has shown have some of the greatest impact on student outcomes - instructional leadership, building leadership at scale, and the importance of cultures to both champion and adopt new practices for change.

Tania Major and Mariam Issa both explored the power and necessity of understanding another’s story and community, for without this understanding, learning is hampered and connection opportunities are lost. As Mariam shared in her keynote, we don’t all live in one reality - I live in my reality, you live in yours. When you take the time to understand my reality, we can connect deeply and have greater insights into each other’s perspectives, needs and wants.

Pasi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg) took us through an interrogation of data to truly understand how Australia is placed when compared to the rest of the OECD countries as it relates to student learning (based on PISA scores). We learned that a correlation of student learning outcomes to the level of ice cream consumption is as absurd as making simplistic judgment statements about other countries effectiveness without knowing the complete contexts. Yes, Australia still has work to be done, and in some domains we are slipping (such as student equity). The concept of Small Data, if properly embraced across systems right down to the classroom level, may uncover the clues we need to spot pockets of excellence emerging, or areas of weaknesses before they become systemic.

The movie, a Kings Speech, shows us the importance of finding your voice, and having the confidence and tenacity to share this with others. Ben Walden showed us how this power can and should be wielded to affect great influence. The stories of past leaders, both their fantastic and flawed attributes, were woven into a narrative of powerful influential leadership. “To be, or not to be - that is the question” serves as a reminder that leaders must actualise all elements (spirits, heart, mind, and body) of influence in order to lead and inspire lasting change in schools and education systems.

And finally, Professor David Hopkins laid out elements of the past, present and future, that systems need to attend to in order to see positive systemic changes realised here in Australia. Much of the shift has begun, in terms of the right drivers for change, and he left us with an exhortation to better understand ourselves as we travel the journey towards more effective, empowered and enabled educators helping young people in their own education journey.

The conference both affirmed and confirmed things for me. It confirmed the power of effective leadership in delivering successful outcomes for education, It confirmed that many people across Australia are striving hard for these very same outcomes, working through their own policy and structural challenges to that end. It confirmed the collective commitment from passionate individuals to a moral purpose both worthy, hard and difficult, yet deeply satisfying in the pursuit of the ideal. It also affirmed that Bastow’s motto, Ducere Exemplo, has and continues to be actualised as it does indeed Lead by example in delivering its work to the Victorian Education system.

This was an engaging, inspiring and insightful conference that both reminded me of the great work I have been privileged to be part of, and the work still do to to. Now more than ever, great leadership is needed to help shape and lead the balanced development of the next generation of Australians and global citizens.

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