26th October 2017
Susan’s father was the bank manager at both Minlaton on York Peninsula and Cummins on Eyre Peninsula. She has fond memories of country life. The family retuned to Adelaide for her secondary schooling and she went to Pasenda High School. Like hundreds of others at the time she came to teaching as a bonded student (1970). She completed a science degree at Adelaide University and the parallel Graduate Diploma in Teaching (Secondary) via Adelaide Teachers College.
Her first teaching appointment in South Australia was when she started at Banksia Park High School in 1976. The principal of Banksia Park HS at the time was Les Kemp. Another significant influence at the school was Deputy Principal Leonie Ebert. Susan remembers the school as very progressive. Like most other principals interviewed for this series, she remembers the late 1970s and 1980s as something of a ‘golden period’ in SA public education. Staff were young and enthusiastic. There was an exciting sense of change and innovation, even experimentation. Power and responsibility appeared to be passing from a traditionally highly centralised and controlling bureaucracy to the individual school. Secondary schooling was at the beginning of a period of profound change.
In the early 1980s she left South Australia and spent several years teaching in northern NSW (Byron Bay, Mullumbimby, Lismore). She then returned to SA and after short spells at Port Adelaide Girls High School and Woomera Area School, Susan had her first senior appointment at Risdon High School in Port Pirie (1986). She was then deputy principal to Peter Turner at Port Augusta High School (1987-1989).
Susan’s first appointment as principal was also at Port Augusta (1989-1994). In addition to the principalship at Port Augusta, Susan was also principal at Salisbury East High School (1995-2001) Blackwood High School (2005 – 2010) and the Australian Science and Mathematics School (2010 – 2017); and it was from the ASMS that Susan retired at the end of Term 2, 2017.
The more than 20 years of principalship across a variety of South Australian secondary schools is only part of the story of Susan’s years as an educational leader. Over her career she was directly involved in a wide range of education initiatives and programs. She was a member of the Girls in Science Task Force in the 1970s with Richard Jenkins, Lynne Simons, Jan Keightley and Tony Green. In the 1980s she was involved in programs to raise the profile of girls’ education.
In the late 1980s she was a member of the Priority Projects Team. In 1994 she managed the cross-sector Key Competencies Project and in 1997 she served on the Ministerial Maths Committee which was set up to promote Maths participation as a priority for the first iteration of the SACE.
She was a member of the SACE Board (2003-2005) and chaired the SA Government’s submission to the national inquiry on Vocational Education.
In terms of senior positions in the Department, Susan was a district superintendent, Central South (2003 – 2004). She was also a curriculum superintendent and one of the superintendents on the P21 Task Force. She worked as a ministerial adviser (Patricia ‘Trish’ White, 2002-2004).
Susan convened the Australian Principals’ Association Professional Development Council (APAPDC) 1995 -1997 and the International Education Secondary Principals Group from 2005- 2008. She was a principal officer on the SASPA Board from 1998 to 2011 and convened the ASPA national conference committee in 2001.
Overall, Susan’s career has been one that has covered virtually every facet of work and responsibility in both schools and the Department as a whole.
At both Port Augusta and later in the northern suburbs she was keenly involved in the development of the early VET programs to extend student choices, particularly the development of programs that could be run on a regional basis to serve schools working in partnerships. Many of these initiatives were subsequently applied in other education districts. She is proud of the work she did 20 years ago on the development of ‘learning communities’. She was involved in high-level policy work on school attendance. There was involvement in other important initiatives, long before they became established practice, including very early programs on ‘independent learning’ and ‘student voice’.
Not surprisingly Susan has definite views on the work and role of the principal. She is quick to describe the position of principal as ‘the best job in the world’. She speaks very positively about the work of the principal, minimising the hard work and pressures that go with the role. In fact, she goes so far as to suggest that anyone who becomes focused on the pressures and difficulties of the principalship – as real as they are – cannot and should not do the job. For her, the great strength of the role of principal is the unique power it gives the dedicated leader to improve school culture and all manner of student outcomes – scholastic, social and personal – as well as all the other attendant benefits, such as the quality of the teaching in the school and teacher satisfaction.
Susan argues that no other single position in the whole Department is either as powerful or critical. It is the principal who negotiates the many relationships between the Department and the individual school, the local school and its community, the staff and students of the one school and the whole student body within the same school. Importantly, this idea of the principal as some sort of consumate negotiator who is always able to identify and achieve the best interests of the school and its students features largely in her idea of leadership. And despite all the background ‘noise’ and the very real pressures of the position, she believes that the principal does have sufficient power to achieve such ends. Others might argue that the workload, never-ending pressure and increasingly more complex, and often dysfunctional, operating environment make the role of principal an almost impossible task, but Susan is focused on the very real power that the role gives to the educational leader who is determined to improve educational outcomes. She notes, ‘overall, principalship is an honour, not a challenge.’
In terms of leadership competencies, Susan sets significant score on the principal’s management and interpersonal skills. She believes that the principal needs to be a very competent manager. She needs to understand and be able to manage the highly complex operations and structures that underpin the daily functioning of the school. The leadership of ideas and commitment and vision is not enough. The school has to run efficiently, smoothly and predictably. At the same time, it is never just management for the sake of management. Rather, effective management is the essential base for higher level leadership. And the higher level leadership is always about improvement, and such improvement is invariably in terms of student outcomes. In terms of realising such improvement, Susan remarks that one of the roles of the principal is to intentionally ‘disrupt’ the status quo, to challenge what is accepted as ‘normal’. The skill is to do this in a creative and considered way to enable those involved to see the possibility – and desirability – of improvement. For Susan, schools never reach any sort of perfect state. The challenge of improvement is a constant. However, the realisation of improvement will always rest on the principal’s level of management skills.
Susan believes in the importance of mentors for new principals. They also need networks of colleagues. She also emphasises how important it is for principals, particularly the new principal, to have the opportunity to form their own leadership team. She is very keen on the idea of a formal handover whenever a principal takes on a new school. But she quickly adds that such courtesy and support was never extended to her, in any of her positions within the Department. As a related theme, she spoke about the responsibility of the principal to train new leaders and the importance of succession planning. In her customary direct style she wanted to remind beginning principals, and leaders generally, that everyone makes mistakes and faces difficulties in the role. The challenge was to ‘get over’ or ‘go beyond’ and learn from them. As for the ‘resisters’ that every leader faces, her advice was to not waste time on them but always focus on those willing to support and work with you. She also noted that in the face of any crisis the school faced – and any number are possible – the principal has to be the one that stays ‘rock solid’. The responsibility goes with the position. No matter what the pressure the principal just has to cope and be seen as the leader.
Specifically in terms of support, at the local level, Susan had a parting criticism of the current arrangement for secondary principals. As she sees it the current ‘partnerships’ arrangement discounts the importance of secondary principals from across a region or area being able to meet together on a regular basis. She far prefers the previous arrangement where secondary principles not only met together but planned and managed joint projects together on a regular basis. She admits that some secondary principals may be still doing this but the system itself gives preference to the relationship between primary and secondary schooling. Susan went further and argued that the Department itself tended to downplay the significance of the secondary sector. She believes that the Department tends to be primary-centric and that primary principals have come to exercise more power and influence than their secondary colleagues. She argues that this focus is at odds with the observation that it has been secondary education that has been the power house of change in public education over the past 40 years.
As someone with so much experience over so many years with so many aspects of secondary education in South Australia, Susan wanted to make the point that the Department itself had very little sense of its own history over this same period. As an institution – one of the most important in the State – she regrets that the Department has no sense of the profound changes in education that have occurred over the past 40 or so years. Despite the extent of the files routinely recorded and stored by the Department, the formal history has been neither written nor understood. And key people who held the history in their head have gone. One consequence is that it is a Department of ‘re-invention’ and constant ‘churn’. Vast amounts of ideas, knowledge and expertise have simply walked out the door. The length of history for the modern Department is the election cycle. Directions, programs, priorities come and go without historical coherence. She does not believe it is possible for a major social institution such as public education to function effectively – and even survive – without a clear and comprehensive knowledge of its history.
Susan made the point that high school represented the place and space where young adults found, and even defined, themselves. This means that high school is inevitably a challenging experience for everyone – students, teachers, parents and the wider community. The years of high school represent a concentrated period of enormous personal and social growth. Inevitably, young people will make mistakes and take risks. Above all, the high school needs to be a safe place. She expressed great confidence in young people.
In reflecting on her principalship, she found that finishing her career at the Australian Science and Mathematics was a great honour. Being able to lead a school set up for 21C curriculum design was very satisfying. The building itself influences how teachers and learners work together. It creates a harmonious and productive learning environment. Other features supporting the positive learning environment include the first-name-basis for communications between staff and students. The commitment to online learning resources promotes a genuine sense of ‘anywhere, anytime learning’. The jewel though for Susan is the interdisciplinary curriculum, designed for students by teams of teachers (and others), and the Learning Studies program. She feels she was able to ‘disrupt’ the learning environment as appropriate to ensure that innovative practices continued to develop. To build on that is the challenge of the next principal.
Susan spoke out against what she saw as the continuing effects of the ‘neo-liberal’ agenda. She sees it as ‘reductionist’ and the antithesis of what has traditionally been regarded as the progressive approach to education. She does not believe that the world of business and the corporation is a suitable model for the Department and public schooling. Public schools are far more sophisticated, complex and important social constructs. She also believes the Department has become too focussed on standardised testing of low level skills. Such a single-minded focus can drive only a narrow band of school improvement. It may have a degree of simplistic political appeal but schooling, particularly state schooling, is a far richer and multi-faceted social good.
Lastly, the essential advice Susan offered to beginning principals generally sums up her approach to the position: Be yourself. Explain yourself – let people know where you stand. Know a good idea when you hear it and enable/encourage it to happen. Be the coach and support staff, even when they make mistakes.