AITSL The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

Cultivating Great School Leaders

Cultivating Great School Leaders - Margery Evans, Chief Executive Officer of AITSL, 19 March 2014.

Some of the most challenging people I’ve ever worked with have also been the best leaders and likewise some of the best teachers I’ve worked with have been uncomfortable colleagues. Yes, I’m calling it, good leaders (and good teachers) aren’t always the easiest people to work with. 

This dilemma came to mind when I was listening to a podcast of a radio interview with Phil Beadle, a former UK teacher of the year. Hearing Phil speak I was struck by his passion for education, his commitment and drive, his intelligence and wit, and his genuine care and concern for the students he works with. Much of what he said about teaching mirrors the contents of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, which was a nice validation from someone so obviously dedicated to excellence in the profession.

As I was listening, though, I couldn’t help but think that, in spite of all the great qualities he displays, if I were Phil Beadle’s principal, I would feel like my leadership was being challenged on a daily basis. I would feel uncomfortable and I would have to reflect. A lot. Why? Well, because, Phil Beadle, and people of his ilk, constantly push the boundaries as they seek even better ways of doing their jobs, and they do it with an enthusiasm and vociferousness that just can’t be ignored. When they find something is wrong or not working, they call it out. They don’t wait for the glaciers of policy to shift and catch up with their thinking, they just keep going, often in the process ‘massaging’ the rules.

That got me thinking about the best school leaders I have worked with. Some of the same characteristics came to mind, particularly the willingness to find a way around the system’s rules and policies in order to get better outcomes for their students. 

The thing is, though, their behaviour is purposeful, aimed at getting the best outcomes for a particular group of students, in a particular school, in a particular context and community. 

The notion of greater independence for schools to make decisions at the local level is something that has been featured in the media lately. This is not new thinking by any means and, perhaps as a result, the range of responses to the idea was somewhat predictable from: ‘there’s no evidence that greater independence improves student learning’, through to, ‘we’ve been doing it all along, so what’s the fuss all about?’

Whatever your reaction to the notion of autonomous schools, at the heart of every successful school is an excellent leader who demonstrates deep knowledge of their profession and the willingness to move mountains to exercise that knowledge to the benefit of their students - the sort of commitment and will Phil Beadle and other teachers like him also demonstrate. 

Yes, sometimes this can see great leaders labeled as difficult, but it is their independence of thought and action that, in part, makes them great leaders and, unsurprisingly, a key attribute most of these great principals share is their knowledge and understanding of when to push boundaries and when to leave well enough alone. 

Moving from being a good leader to great one isn’t easy. That’s why AITSL is using the Australian Professional Standard for Principals as a foundation on which to build a Leadership Continuum. This Continuum will be based on a set of profiles that describe leadership in concrete ways at a range of levels of sophistication and complexity.

I’d like to ask for your help in shaping and validating the Leadership Continuum by taking 15 minutes to complete this survey.

As we move to greater independence for schools, the need to have quality leaders will grow in importance. Without a framework such as the Australian Professional Standard for Principals and resources like the Leadership Continuum, our capacity to nurture and support great leadership in our schools will be limited.

Your participation in the Survey will be of great value to our work, and, as always, your comments are much appreciated.


Submitted by Prof. Muhammad ... (not verified) on

A great work for the educational projects

Submitted by Gai Chambers (not verified) on

Thank you Margery. I loved the thoughts you expressed in your blog. Let's hope aitsl can shine the light and show the way - thank heavens for mixed metaphors!

Submitted by Julie Murray (P... (not verified) on

Leadership in schools and sites occurs at all levels and is evident in individual educators in a range of instances. This leadership is frequently exhibited by teachers, on whom Principals and Site Leaders depend in order to reach high level outcomes for students and children. I agree, that the best teacher leaders are those who are proactive, eager to initiate and lead programs and projects often of their own device. The best teacher leaders are those who work in support of site leaders, complementing programs and the learning agenda that has been embarked upon. These teacher leaders, who work so closely with Principals and Site Leaders (the formal leadership strata of their schools and sites), should be encouraged to support the work AITSL is doing in regard to the development of a Leadership continuum. Indeed, the work of teacher leaders is often the precursor to more formal school and site leadership.

Submitted by Ken Gilbert (not verified) on

Hello all from Armidale..
Hardships, challenging experiences and others (good and bad) are sources of great leadership learning in supportive environments.

Submitted by Merridy Jamieso... (not verified) on

As an educator of 40 years[mostly spent in the classroom] my goal of providing excellence in teaching and learning and my consistent reflecting and reviewing of my practice has caused some friction over the years. I believe my pedagogy has been misinterpreted by leadership who aren't confident in what they are doing. However debate and discussion can be productive for all in the educational process with great outcomes for the students.

Submitted by Shaun Killian (not verified) on

A thought provoking article - thanks.

I often have often thought of teaching (and leading teachers) as problem-solving - and yes - sometimes the problems can be systemic things to work around.

It's a point made in (point 3), but your article puts a different perspective on the same idea.

Teachers (including myself) and principals need to push the boundaries to improve how well kids do at school - not because things are broken, but because things can always be even better (think medicine 30-50 years ago).

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