Doing what’s BEST

Contribution to ANTSEL online conference 2008 – hosting and facilitation by Cybertext 

I wonder how familiar the feeling is? Sitting with laptop open, deadline approaching, and a commitment made long ago to make a contribution to an online conference. Just a few words related to one of the key questions being asked.Let me also add that I’ve never been to the Northern Territory and don’t pretend to have any appreciation at all of what it might be like to lead a school there. I thought, though, that it may be useful to share some thoughts of mine about the things which seem to sit behind the leadership behaviours of those I see who seem to be doing a great job at the business of leading schools. Now, before we go on, a word about semantics. You’ll notice that my previous sentence contained words like ‘job’ and ‘business.’ I’m hopeful that these few words might serve to prompt the reassurance that while school leadership may encompass processes where performance is measured relative to objective and quantifiable targets, it is also a people business. In our schools, all sorts of people work in partnership to add value to the lives of our future leaders. As we lurch ahead into a paradigm more akin to the internet, with its multifarious ways of approaching the same objective, the strength of our connection to some fundamental human values becomes critical.For a couple of years now, I’ve been lucky enough to speak to a number of groups at conferences and other gatherings. One of the recurrent themes has been based on an acronym and an idea thought up in one of those reflective moments that we all share from time to time. This is the idea.

Everybody these days seems to have a view about what schools should be doing. After all, just about everybody has been to a school for a significant amount of their growing up and they have, therefore, some strong views about what ‘school’ might be all about, and even, maybe, what it could be.

Politicians balance the responsibility to make sound policy decisions as a moral obligation with the need to remain populist enough to get re-elected. In terms of public policy making, this can mean that the populist view is seen as the ‘best’ view. It has been my contention that our role as leaders is to work toward making the ‘best’ view the populist view.

‘OK’, I hear you ask. ‘So what do we mean by the ‘best’ view?’

(This is where some tragic fascination with acronyms comes in. If nothing else, please accept it as proof positive of a long association with government education.)

To me, when we need a set of words to describe some of the fundamentals of school leadership, I think of the acronym BEST: Balanced; Ethical; Sensitive and Transformational.

Balance is a key ingredient in building the sorts of relationships within the workplace that provide a productive and supportive environment. A balance across all hues of the spectrum sees an ability to retain those things from the past which continue to add value to the school experience we offer while developing and articulating a strong vision for the future.

An example I’ve cited in the past is the flag-waving role of the goal umpire in an AFL game. Clearly, there was a time long ago when the sheer distance from end to end and the need for Sean on the scoreboard to be sure that Colin, the goal umpire, was signalling a goal and not a behind. These days, with video it hardly seems anything beyond a colourful anachronism. Maybe that’s the point. There are times when some of those little rituals from our past actually provide that which is a bit special. Provided we are clever about our judgement around what is really important, then we should feel comfortable if we take a bit more cultural baggage with us on our journey forward then the rationalists would have us pack.

Balance this piece of sentimentality against the need to eschew those practices which perpetuate a view of the past which is actually working against our ability to move ahead.

Leadership is best informed by a big picture view, along with the ability to zoom between close and longer fields. We live in a world where curious dichotomies exist between close local communities and the longer distributed social networks and internet communities. It is this context which shows, in stark relief, a need to employ a construct which is ‘tight, loose, tight. That is: we need to be tight around our expectations, what we see as important, what we want to be the outcome of what we do. We also need to be tight around the expectation that we be able to measure our success, our growth, our level of frustration: our performance. Then, like some chocolates, it is the bit in the middle that creates the excitement. It is the bit which empowers, which says: ‘Within this framework of clarity around expectation and evaluation, you have permission to make this happen in ways which suit your context, and which are undertaken to provide the best ‘lift’ possible’.

I’ve been lucky in the last few years to work with a leader who promotes this construct. The outcome has been the building of a greater capacity within schools and groups of schools which is gathering momentum and, most importantly, observable behaviours based on empowerment and focused on creating local solutions.


Like a seesaw, it is never really balanced when it is all down at one end. The good leaders I have seen manage to spend their time managing that place in the middle, where balance is maintained at times with some fancy footwork. Schools are always a key place within their communities and the cultural fabric which surrounds them will always have its threads woven from a rich background. Balance is about the leadership capability to make decisions based on consideration of all points of view, and to understand both the macro and micro environments within which the school operates.

We have all been to school and have a view about what it is.

We have always worked toward getting better and better at School Planning. Spirals of continuous improvement and aspirational targets allow us to create improvement to what we currently do.

We have all been to school and have a clear view of exactly what School Planning means.

It becomes interesting to swap the order of these two words around. We then begin to talk about Planning Schools. Now you’re talking! If we’re planning schools, who are we planning them for? What do we want them to learn? How will we know that what we do has a positive affect in the lives of these people? How do we demonstrate to our people that what we have planned has assisted in the creation of great futures for our young people? By what measure can we quantify this benefit? Does this school have to look like anything which we might now see as a school? And the list could go on.

How do we get the popular paradigm about what schools might be to shift closer to that of a place where there is an opportunity to learn the dynamic of being an interactive participant in the multiplication of human knowledge? And the joy which that can bring?

When young people are introduced to the idea of school as something which is not a ‘rite’ but rather a ‘right’ of access to education: a divergent and powerful opportunity, then there must be a much greater commitment from all parties to the value of learning.

We will have to continue to do our bit and to remain optimistic. To do otherwise is to condemn, without the opportunity for their input, the future of our children. And for those of us still lucky enough to have something to do with our young people, and their amazing talents and abilities to recycle and create, we realise just how poor the future would be without them.

Balance is not always black and white but rather sometimes at various points on a greyscale continuum. When we consider that so much of the conflict which we see comes as a result of a polarisation of opinion or ideology, then an approach which promotes the capacity to see a range of viewpoints, and to blend ideas to construct a new position, or piece of knowledge must be a more positive view for the future.

If ‘B’ is for best, ‘E’ is for ethical.

In its simplest form, ethics is about asking the question: “What is the right thing to do here?”

As big people with a trusted role in providing environments for little people and growing adults, the notion that we should do the right thing is really not too onerous. The care, safety and well being of the people entrusted to us will always be a responsibility and privilege. Along with an obligation for ethical decision making, leaders seem to do best when their value system seems clear to those around them, as evidenced by deeds and the basis upon which they choose their actions.

It’s hard to spend a lot of time on this letter. Ethics are critical. Good leaders operate ethically. Our young people deserve our commitment to at least endeavour to operate as ethically as humanity will allow.

The ‘S’ in BEST could be sympathetic, or sensitive. Either way, it is the commitment to intelligent relationships which is the key outcome. Intelligent relationships are those where there is recognition of the perspective of others: where there is empathy and an understanding of the need to both draw in and to reach out. Sometimes, before we can have everybody on the same page, or even on the same bus, we may need to send a cab around to where they are at: just to get them to the bus stop.

There are some leaders who seem to perform this remarkable piece of cat-herding with absolute grace. It is not so easy for all of us, and it is perfectly natural that we will make some errors along the way. It will be, as leaders, our capacity for resilience which will be one of our greatest assets. We want to encourage an environment of considered risk taking in which innovation is encouraged and where we plan schools to meet future needs while retaining a balance of community and cultural valuing. Effective leaders seem to surround themselves with intelligent relationships, where sensitivity to the needs of others is critically linked to an ability to learn from experiences and to construct new understandings and knowledge to connect with powerful awareness in our past,

So, ‘T’ is for transformational.

Many readers would be aware of the body of literature around the idea of differences in types of leadership behaviours. Basically, some of the more recent leadership ‘types’ could be summarised as ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational.’ In a very basic way, transactional leadership is based around an environment of transactions which have a sense of giving and receiving, of input and expected outcome, of just reward for work output: targets and key performance indicators which are absolutely measurable.

Transformational leadership is about changing from what is to what could be. It is perhaps more difficult to describe but easy to point at when we see it. I tried to sum this up in a PowerPoint slide which simply says:

A transformational leader is more interested in the change they can make rather than the change they should get.

It is about vision, and the capacity to get others to share the vision. As I walk through the playgrounds of schools with school leaders, the calls of the young people to the leader let me know how they are seen. Schools where the leader is seeking to lead transformation have a different feel from those where the focus is on transaction: of meeting obligation and managing risk.

Please don’t interpret this as meaning that good organisation, systems and risk management are not important. They are, but they are also the ‘givens’ of the role and we should simply sort out systems to ensure that they happen and pay attention to working out ways that we can effectively use ICT solutions to assist us in this. Upon this platform of sound operations, we can then build for transformation. Good leaders seem to be able to get the first bit sorted quickly, leaving them with the emotional energy to invest in transformation of things which matter even more.

So, there you have it. Doing what’s best: a context and imperative for school leadership.

Beyond this fairly esoteric look at leadership behaviours, there are just a few things which also spring to mind.

The first is the concept of ‘being there.’

This is the fairly simple notion that schools seem to have a more vibrant being with a leader who is committed to ‘being there.’

‘Being there’ is both a physical idea and one of connection. The good school leaders I have seen are connected and engaged with their school. They carry the calendar of the life of the school somewhere in the van of their consciousness and their demeanour is evident in school events.

This connection is clearly valued by communities and by staff in schools. The role of the school leader as a ‘teacher of teachers’ may be the best way we have to conceptualise the role of school leader with its inherent list of expectations around planning, organisation, motivation, engagement, facilitation, evaluation, feedback provision, and so on.

The other key issue for me in looking at the quality of leaders is around their willingness to model effective uses of ICT.

I believe that school leaders need to be modelling effective use of ICT to support all aspects of what a school does. It is about creating a mood where people begin to accept as the default, that a solution will usually be available, if you are curious enough and creative enough to seek it out.

In other words, it is not so much the possession of the piece of knowledge itself which is the critical issue, but rather the ability to extract the learning objects from exponentially growing streams of knowledge, and reassemble them to express understanding.

It is not what we teach so much as what we teach about learning, and the vast horizon of possibility it creates.

So, to sum it all up, I’m suggesting that good school leaders are there: connected with purpose and the people who will work with them supporting this purpose. They operate with an ability to balance between a range of expectations and cultures, to maintain an ethical basis for decision making, to be sensitive to the needs and aspirations of those around them and the motivation to transform: to make a difference.

To do what’s BEST.

Discuss presentationABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mr Roger Pryor is a School Education Director with the NSW Department of Education and Training, based in Newcastle, where he has responsibility for 33 schools. Roger was a primary principal for nearly 20 years and also spent time as a deployed principal within the School Leadership Development Unit and as the President of the NSW Primary Principals’ Association. As a representative of NSW primary principals, he had the opportunity to see the way that policy is developed at state and federal levels and to be involved, as a representative, in a number of national processes aimed at developing quality educational policy.

Roger is committed to the effective use of ICT to support quality learning environments and recently presented a keynote address at the NSW Computer Education Group annual conference. In the last few years, he has developed a number of key presentations which have been delivered in a wide variety of situations across the State. An internet tragic, Roger has also continued to be a website builder and user of online platforms for a range of things. In addition, he has continued to assert the obligation we have as school leaders to model and promote the creation of environments which more adequately engage the learning styles of the ‘digital natives.’

As a School Education Director, Roger’s role is a balance between providing support and maintaining accountability for the principals of the high schools, primary schools and special schools within his ‘patch.’ He considers himself lucky to have a group of principals who make this task a happy one and has tried to reflect some of the behaviours which seem to make things work well in this paper.

See his blog at:

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