Self, system and school

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26 April 2021

Long-serving principal Steve Bellesini has delivered the address on behalf of leaving principals at the 2020 Celebration of Principalship:

I would like to frame my address tonight in what I believe are the three domains of the professional lives of principals. They are: self, system and school.

First, I would like to focus on the concept of SELF. Principals are doing a demanding job and need to recharge their batteries on a regular basis. We know from Phil Riley’s annual Principal Health and Wellbeing Surveys that there are stressors associated with the role of the principal. Citing the 2019 report, the top three of 19 ‘sources of stress’ were:

  1. Sheer quantity of work
  2. Lack of time to focus on teaching and learning
  3. Mental health issues of students.

Sometimes we can neglect our own wellbeing as we press ahead. If there is a quiet place in the school where meditation or mindfulness activities can take place, then this is a desirable goal. Time for personal prayer and readings around spirituality and reflection are also essential to recharge the spirit.

Staff wellbeing is the other side of the same coin of our wellbeing. Cartier watches don’t have to be given out to show appreciation for a job well done, but rather something like a timely note of appreciation to staff members – not just for what they do, but for who they are. The feedback I received from colleagues over the years certainly had an impact on my own sense of wellbeing.

I think it has been a wonderful initiative from the leaders at MACS to tweak the role of principal consultants, as they now have a wellbeing check on school visits. These may have changed to a Zoom meeting with COVID, but I found the visits to be very valuable and set up a relational platform even with the business that followed.

A sense of humour and fun in the workplace never goes astray, even though my ‘dad jokes’ would sometimes test the barriers of humour and maybe contributed to others’ stress levels.

The next domain is SYSTEM. One of the biggest benefits for our Catholic schools is that we are part of a system rather than individual schools in the Melbourne Archdiocese. The notion of synergy, where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, can be attributed to our teamwork. We all contribute to our principal networks and at times join committees and undertake projects, usually emanating from MACS.

Michael Fullan talks about ‘top down/bottom up’ change. This challenges us to be systemic thinkers, and explore ways that leaders in schools can create opportunities that will enhance the mission and vision of Catholic education. One of the best projects I have been associated with is ‘Voices from the South’, where a group of DPs including myself provided an opportunity through annual symposiums for teachers to share their stories of practice from the classroom. We believed that teacher narratives were contained within the classroom walls that didn’t see the light of day. The emergence of Professional Learning Teams since the late 1990s has helped open up the doors of the classroom, but the wider community still tends to only hear the voices of the experts, which are essential, but not the only narratives to empower us in our practice.

Other suggestions systemic thinking can be enacted may be:

  • A middle years project (Years 5–8) between primary and secondary schools with an emphasis on learning and teaching, such as the Middle Years program that was prominent in the 1990s. Tonight may be a good opportunity to start networking on that one.
  • The creation of a depository for teachers’ postgraduate projects and theses, where we can all get easy access and once again make secret narratives public.

The third domain is SCHOOL. The connectivity between school and parish is the main reason why I value Catholic education so much. After three years of teaching, I was invited by the parish priest at the time, Fr Jim Wall, to become the first full-time lay Parish Pastoral Associate in Victoria. My five-year stint was preceded by 12 months studying at the National Pastoral Institute for a Diploma in Religious Education in order to prepare me for this role.

When I went to school in the 50s and 60s, I attended Parade College for 12 years. You’re probably thinking at this stage that Parade is a secondary college and I must have taken 12 years to complete my secondary schooling, but I can assure you that Parade was a P–12 school in those years. When I was a young person growing up in the parish of Mary Immaculate in Ivanhoe, I didn’t attend the parish school but my family’s link to the parish nurtured my faith and involvement. The point I wish to make here is that, in this era, things are reversed as the attendance data would suggest and the importance of the school as a pathway to the parish, especially through the sacramental life, is essential. It’s not for me to make judgments of the sustainability of what was taught and faith life of our families, but any links can always be retrieved in the future if those school/parish links are made. Monica Dux, in her recently published book Lapsed, recalls her six-year-old daughter’s request to become a Catholic. This rekindled in the author thoughts about her own childhood in a Catholic primary school and the legacy she carried.

I’m not sure of the impact of the new governance model, but I hope that principals, RELs and teachers in partnership with priests seize every opportunity to enrich the lives of our children through the parish. Social justice initiatives through Caritas and Mini Vinnies, cultural days with a parish flavour and Carols by Candlelight are just a few of the ways schools can take up this initiative.

The most challenging aspect of my role as a principal was to understand and implement the notion of instructional leadership. I saw this as primarily a presence in the classroom, but was unsure what it actually looked like. My wanderings around the school provided lots of opportunities for student wellbeing, but how to effectively engage in the learning was always a bit of hit and miss. The work of Lyn Sharratt in promoting learning walks and the adoption of the five key questions helped put a framework around my classroom sorties.

I believe that this could be extended further as protracted engagements in classrooms with student learning and maybe principals adopting something like an LSO role. This could have many benefits, as data would come to life and feedback between teacher and principal create a more dynamic conversation both inside and beyond the classroom. Now this may seem a lofty goal, as I stated earlier in this presentation that the second biggest stressor in the Principal Health & Wellbeing Survey was ‘lack of time to focus on teaching and learning’. However, because it was listed as a desire by principals to do this, it implies that actions such as this and the assorted range of other learning and teaching foci should remain a priority.

I’m not sure if I have been too controversial tonight, but I have attempted to quantify the time that principals spend in each of these domains. For the record, I believe that’s 5% SELF, 5% SYSTEM and 90% SCHOOL. Irrespective of time, it is the quality of what we do within the three domains that is the more critical factor.