Open Day with a twist

Well, 2020 and a global pandemic has certainly forced our hands and made us try some new things over the past 12 months. But it seems the new initiatives, and new ways of doing things we’ve always done, are continuing into this year.

Our Open Day last week was no exception. Instead of an information night full of talking heads on the stage, we turned to video to promote our school and to complement the enrolment guides our families had already received.

We’ve received fantastic feedback from our community and the video is a credit to our Communications Team. I would love to hear how your school has tackled these ‘regular’ events with a twist!

When inaction is harder than action.

Below is a reflection I wrote a few years ago (2016)  in my first year at Catholic College Wodonga. I never published it then, but it seems now is the right time to do so. Sometimes we all need a reminder to slow down and think. Consider. Plan. One of my colleagues has this great quality that was given a name this week – “the anchor to reality”. Sometimes, I wish I had more of this trait. But perhaps it’s good I don’t. Perhaps it’s just really good I work closely with someone who does? 

* * * 

I like change. I think it’s exciting. I know others might find it confronting, challenging and at times, downright terrifying, but to me, change is something that invigorates and wakes me up.

Twice this week I’ve been reminded of the need to sit on my hands and slow down. These messages have not been connected, nor have they been directed at me personally. But I have heard them, read them and taken them personally. Both times, they have come from people I respect, so I’m going to try and listen.

The first message came from George Couros (@gcouros) in his book The Innovator’s Mindset (see my review here) where he reminds educators not to rush and jump on every idea that’s out there – even the good ones! He challenges us to consider the implementation of new strategies and warns that if we aren’t intentional, we may promote confusion and burnout, instead of inspiring innovation and deep learning. Instead he argues that we need to change our mindset that every new idea, even good ideas, must be immediately implemented. This is particularly pertinent for new leaders in schools. There is always the pressure to come in and put your stamp on things, but I’ve deliberately tried to avoid that this year; rather wanting to experience things ‘as they are’ in this school. It’s been challenging at times and I hope that people don’t think I’m sitting idly by. Trust me, inaction is not always the easy option.

The second message I heard during a conference where Peter Hutton (Principal of Templestowe College, Victoria, Australia @Tempcol) was the keynote speaker.  Listening to Peter, it’s hard not to get carried away with all the possibilities of how you could apply the TC model to your own school. However, he deliberately warns against this – you are the experts at your own site, you are the leaders at your own school and you will know what will work and what won’t. Not all schools are TC, so it’s pivotal that we do as George Couros suggests and change this “action mindset” to one that is much more considered and strategic. It’s pivotal that I do this. 

* * *

When I look back over these comments and consider what’s happened at our school since then, it’s easy to see plenty of examples of action. But, I’m most proud of the times when I worked closely with the staff and the community to ensure that what we adjusted was done so carefully and with due consideration; the times where I slowed my “action mindset”. These are the changes that have been the most significant and sustainable. 

Thankfully, I work with some great “anchors to reality”. 

Remote Learning: Student Feedback

There have been, and will continue to be, many teachers, educators, commentators, media “gurus” and others who have been spruiking the “learnings” that come from our remote learning experiences. However, very few have actually asked the students about their experiences.

A recent survey at our school garnered feedback from 829 of our students across all year levels 7-12. What struck me as we looked through the feedback was not only the varied experiences these students have had over the past six weeks, but also some of the insights and possibilities they have identified for school when we return face-to-face. There were certainly those students who did not enjoy this experience at all. In fact, 66% prefer the classroom environment to learning at home and 65% find it easier to learn at school. Some of the comments included things like: “It’s hard to stay motivated” or “I am glad that we no longer will have to Zoom or email for help”.

Yet, 33% of our students noted that they prefer working from home rather than school and 35% found it easier to learn at home compared to school. It is in exploring these responses that we might identify things that worked well at home that perhaps we could incorporate into life at school.

Screen Shot 2020-05-25 at 4.00.58 pm

         1. Our students loved the independence! 

“I really liked the aspect of being able to just get into my work after the teacher has explained it and being able to just ask questions if I get stuck.”

“I really enjoyed being able to get the instructions and sent on my way to do my work. I really thrive working independently.”

“That my learning is in my hands a lot more and I get more of a choice in what I learn at school.”

What does this mean for us as teachers/leaders in a secondary setting?  Surely we need to look at increasing opportunities for all students to work in increasingly independent conditions. The asynchronous approach to working on subjects when it suits them, not when we tell them that it’s time for English or Maths, is something else that schools need to get better at offering.

    2. Some of our students just want to get on with the work! 

“Less time listening and more time doing.”

“Streamlined explanations of topics and more flexibility as to what work for each subject is done when (that is working off a checklist at your own pace after a brief explanation of the key points from the teacher).”

“I really enjoyed the flexibility of working not just in my class periods but when it suited me and when I felt motivated to do the work.”

Teachers love to talk. Nothing ground-breaking here. When you give students the opportunity to work without all the talk, they get more done. But, what is interesting is that our students are willing to identify it and connect it to their completion of work – and how/when they choose to complete their work.

 3. Our students loved having a space “set-up” from which to work.

“Because there was enough space on my desk as I was the only one on it I found a lot easier to take notes and concentrate in class.”

“I just liked having my books in front of my all on my desk, it’s not so fun to be riding to school (as I am) with all my text/work books each day and have to have transit to my locker before and after periods.”

“I’m going to miss the desk space that I have made from remote learning.”

This is interesting, and one that I’m going to guess, most schools don’t consider. One of the first things I did when I found out I’d be at home and not at school, is set up my work space. Students too, took pride in their workspace and spread themselves out over desks, kitchen benches and dining tables. Coming back into a classroom where they have to share a desk with a peer and pack it up after each lesson will be something they need to get used to again. What can schools do about this ‘personalised space’?

     4. Breaks between classes were effective. 

“The amount of breaks in between classes were great.

“15 min intervals between periods I liked.”

“I like how we have a 15 minute break in-between period two and three.”

Much has been written about the benefit of regular breaks on students and their learning. In readiness for remote learning, we adjusted our  timetable and added breaks in order for students and staff to re-frame and prepare for their next lesson. This has been one of the more popular decisions we made for our remote learning timetable. Returning to school, we must consider how can we build these into our day (with appropriate supervision of course!).

     5. Our students, and teachers, value the dialogue of education. The monologue is            very tiring. 

“This was a tiring experience.”

“I did not like being stuck in the house all day, and having all our work on the computer.”

“I didn’t like being alone at home.”

“I can’t wait to talk to my teacher in person.”

I was talking to one of our staff today about how I miss the dialogue and the interaction with students. Teaching is not designed to be a monologue. It requires a huge amount of energy to engage a group of teens with their learning in any subject face to face. But many teachers also gain energy from those interactions. Via Zoom or Google Meets or Microsoft Teams or WebX, the engagement is difficult to gauge and instead of being energy giving, it often saps it out of you much more quickly. Our students are tired and we’re tired too.

But we can’t wait to get them back onsite. We have so much to talk about and so much to learn from their experiences.


**If you’re a parent, school staff member or a student and have comments you’d like to make about your remote learning experience, please leave a comment. I look forward to hearing from you.

RL Student Survey Feedback

The path of significant change

This post is a reflection of some significant curriculum changes introduced in 2019. I wrote it thinking about what we’ve achieved and the upcoming school year.

An idea…

For many who have been following my blog over the years, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that I don’t think many high schools are good at offering students the chance to explore their own interests or pursue a long-held dream.

The development and expansion of the Horizon program at CCW was borne out of mine and others’ frustration at the lack of opportunity presented to students in traditional schools to explore their own areas of passion and interest. However, providing this opportunity to ALL students required a re-think of curriculum structures and a challenge to the way it’s “always been done”. Determined to engage our students and get them excited about learning again was our mission;  choice and purposeful learning was our desired outcome.

We’re lucky that our staff are often the drivers of change. In fact, 80%+ of the staff thought exploring a vertical style curriculum was good idea and inspired the leadership team to take the plunge into what we’ve called,  Pathways.


To do this successfully, we needed clarity about why the change was needed; what was our why? We needed it in a statement that we could return to over and over again if we got carried away and taken down rabbit holes…

The shift to vertical learning in Years 9 & 10 at CCW is based on the dual priorities of student engagement and student choice. Explicit skills, linked to clear pathways, are offered in flexible units across the curriculum.

Once we had our purpose and we were clear on what the Victorian Curriculum requirements were for all learning areas, we could get creative! This was the fun part. Ideas were thrown up on the whiteboard, ideas were thrown out the door and some of the ideas stuck. What we came up with was a two-year structure that allowed all students to meet the requirements of the Victorian Curriculum F-10, but one that still provided them with opportunities to explore their passions and curiosity in deep and valuable learning experiences.

Arriving at the structure was a fun and creative process for leaders, but now the hard work began in earnest – and the hard questions… How would this work for 2020? What could we have ready? Should we stagger the introduction? Should it just be Year 9 in 2020 and then bring in Year 10 in 2021? Where would we find the time to plan and create all these new units? How would we present this to the community? What would be the parents’ reaction? All great questions, and to be honest, we didn’t know the answers to all of them initially.


The Leadership Team knew that this change would require some heavy-lifting. For this significant structural change to be successful we needed to enlist the support of all leaders and staff in the school, not simply the leadership team. Sharing with this combined group the why, the proposed structure, and solving problems and answering questions as they arose together, was a pivotal part of the success of this change.

Leadership provided the Learning Area Leaders (Learning Coaches in our setting) some clear guidelines and a timeline for the development of new units and allowed them to lead this change in their own learning areas. How each leader worked through this process deserves its own blog; there were so many different approaches to the same challenge. Yet, what was consistent was that they all led. They gathered their colleagues, employed an appropriate sense of urgency, created a moral necessity to change and then led from the front in terms of planning and putting in the hard work. With a tight timeline, these teams managed to come up with some outstanding results.


So what does all this look like for our students? Well, they have 24 semester long units across Years 9 and 10. Once they have selected the minimum required number from each learning area, they are free to choose units from any learning area. If I loved Science for example, I could essentially complete 6 semester long units of Science across Years 9 and 10 and still cover all learning areas in the Victorian Curriculum. Same could be said for Art or Technology or English or Humanities.

Our students currently have 83 semester long units across all learning areas to choose from. This number will grow as staff and students work together to create new units of work that might be on offer from 2021 and beyond.

Our camp program will also shift significantly in order to accommodate the changes – stay tuned for a future post about the new camp structure and offerings.

If you’re interested, here is a link to our Pathways Course Guide and the presentation we used to inform our wider community in the early days. We’d love your feedback on our new structure or if you’re doing something similar, we’d love to hear from you.




Students not units

This post has been a while coming, but the events over the past few weeks have brought it to life in my mind.

Firstly, our Principal Darta Hovey has been challenging our new and future leaders to develop a personal mantra that will guide their thoughts, actions and motivate them to complete a project and assist them to stay the course. Quietly, I’ve been challenged by this. I’ve been wondering about my own mantra and whether or not I even could put into words why I do my job? What gets me out of bed in the morning and gets me to work? It’s a tricky thing to get down into a tweet-sized sentence.

Secondly, one of the leaders in my school organised the developmental item for our Learning and Teaching team meeting. We were paired up and had to watch a different clip, but all were about the craft of difficult conversations. I was asked to watch a TedX talk by Susan Scott. The title of this talk was The Case for Radical Transparency.  One of the things she mentioned I’d heard before, but it finally made sense to me this week, was “the quality of the conversations within an organisation will determine the quality of the organisation”. Who is invited into the conversations? Where are these conversations happening? And, what are the conversations about? These are all good questions with which to ‘audit’ a school.

Thirdly, we’re in the midst of a Learning and Teaching review at my school. This is where we self-assess our school on a number of things: accountability, high expectations, purposeful learning, purposeful teaching and leading learning. We determine whether we are developing, achieved or exemplary in each of these categories and then provide a range of evidence to support our decision and set some future goals. We then have an external panel come into school for a day to review our decisions and evidence. Effectively, to validate our decisions, to challenge us and to guide us to see areas for growth that we may have missed. This process, whilst arduous and at times feeling like an additional ‘thing to do’, has actually achieved its purpose and highlighted things we’re doing well and things we need to work on.

And finally, yesterday I attended the funeral of a student from my previous school who tragically passed away. It was the first funeral I had attended for someone so young. And while it was a poignant celebration of his life and the love others felt for him, what struck me most was the young age of the students in the massive crowd and the ripple effects his death will have on the community for years to come.

Now, how do these four things all tie together? Well, I’ve been playing with a mantra in my head for a few weeks and now I’m ready to share it – “students not units”. We need to be talking about students not units. Our focus should be on who we teach not what we teach. Our conversations, those things that determine the quality of our school, should be about the kids in our class and how they’re travelling, both socially and academically. ALL conversations should be grounded in this very simple truth – students not units.

Our meetings should be strategically focused on students – how do we challenge X? What supports have we put in place for Y? What has been working in your class for Q? These are the conversations teachers want to have, but never seem to have time for them. These are the conversations that call on the wisdom and experience of the people in the school, the conversations that remind staff they’re not alone and that this concern is not something that only happens in their class.

For too long I’ve attended meetings, planning days, passed and started conversations in the corridors where the talk has been about what we’re teaching, not who we’re teaching. We can get so caught up in the assessment, the lesson plan, the activities, the fun stuff we want to do, that we can be blinded to who is sitting in front of us. What do they bring, what baggage are they carrying? What do they know? What do they need to know?

And please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that a pithy mantra of three simple words will quickly change the culture of a school or shift conversations spontaneously, but the above events have spun my axis around to remind me why I do my job – students not units.


* If this post has raised concerns for you contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Australia).

What’s a lesson look like?

If I’m really honest, I haven’t thought much about instructional models since I finished my Masters a few years ago. However, the release of the Victorian DET document High Impact Teaching Strategies last year, coupled with some feedback from my students made me re-visit what I was doing in the classroom.

I’ve been teaching senior English classes for a number of years and one of the greatest challenges is providing students with time to practice the skill of sustained, analytical, writing. They know they need it, but so often, I was allocating this important skill to the margins of homework. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think there’s a tendency for teachers to not value that writing time in class. But it was clear I needed to change this.

In order to deliberately build in more writing time into my lessons, I had to think about the structure of my lessons. Our school has 4 x 72 minute periods and so I had 72 minutes to work with – below is the template I designed based on the I do, we do, you do model.

Common Lesson Structure – VCE English 72 minute period

Component of Lesson Plan Time Allocated
1.     Homework Conversation Students spend time reflecting on the homework (this may be in small groups, whole class, individually) 10 – 15 mins
2.     Explicit Instruction Teacher explores in detail ONE element for the class – establishing the learning intention/success criteria. Things that could be discussed include, but are not limited to: a passage analysis, characters, key event, point of interest, language/style, elements of the study design, themes, vocabulary development, skills etc. 10 – 15 mins
3.     Discussion – small group, whole group The discussion will be informed by the explicit instruction. The aim of the discussion is for students to clarify the instruction, ensure they have a developing understanding of the teacher’s instruction/discussion and assist each other to reach understanding. 10 – 15 mins
4.     Writing Activity Independent writing activity – ideally, this is a development of the discussion component of the lesson, which stems from the teacher’s explicit instruction. 10 – 15 mins
5.     Wrap up – set up Teacher reminds students what they have been working on this lesson – connecting it back to the learning intention.

Teacher sets up the homework to be completed by the next lesson, to ensure the productive use of class time.

10 mins

I don’t think this is anything ground breaking; but stopping and thinking very deliberately about the skills/knowledge and understanding I want my students to have has forced me to put this down on paper and commit to it. It’s also allowed me to consider how I employ the High Impact Teaching Strategies in my classroom: Explicit teaching, worked examples, collaborative learning, multiple exposures, questioning and feedback are part and parcel of this structure.

Another way I’ve shown my commitment to prioritising the writing time is by completing the writing tasks myself in class. I’ve found this is one sure-way to stop talking and interrupting the students, by grabbing a whiteboard marker and modelling the task myself.

Of course, I could always do more, but bringing these to the front of mind has had a powerful impact on my teaching and on student learning.

I’d love to hear about your instructional models, lesson plans, templates and activities that get the best out of your students. Comment and let’s share!

April 2018

Who are our Horizon students?

My last blog post Outside The Square introduced our independent learning program, Horizon. In this post, I explore how the planning team came up with the criteria for the applicants, which year levels were invited and the application process. I also introduce you to each of the 13 students that we were so lucky to work with at Catholic College Wodonga. 

Initially, we set out thinking that this program would be for high achieving students who were looking for a challenge in their school day. However, after many conversations with the team and some healthy disagreements, it became clear that the opportunity to work on passions and learn in an authentic, independent, way should not be limited to those who have already learnt to play the school game. It would have been much easier to manage and plan, if the program was for high achievers, but at a large regional Catholic secondary school, we cater for all students, and so, Horizon did too.

We thought long and hard about the year levels we would invite to participate in this program. We decided to focus on students in Years 8 – 11. Our thinking was that students in Years 8 – 11 have experienced enough traditional learning in school to decide if they would benefit from a different experience. Year 11 VCE students needed to have successfully completed 6 units before being allowed to engage in the program, ensuring enough units for successful VCE completion if they decided to return and complete the VCE after Horizon.

Students applied in any way they felt best able (written, video, interview, presentation) to answer these questions:

  • Explain your experience of school so far …
  • Why do you want to be a part of the program?
  • What do you think it will look like for you?
  • What are your areas of interest / what are you passionate about?
  • What makes a good team?
  • What motivates you? What do you put effort into?
  • Why would the program be beneficial to you?
  • Provide the name of two referees who can talk about you as a learner.

40 applied. We shortlisted. 21 were interviewed by the Principal and another leadership team member. 14 were offered a place. 13 accepted. We chose not to replace the student who decided not to participate.

After the application process we had the following students: 7 x Year 8s (3M, 3F), 3x Year 9s (2F, 1M), 2x Year 10s (2M), 1x Year 11 (1M).


Mr W (Year 9) – has struggled at times with motivation and engagement in the classroom. Applied to participate in Horizon to develop skills that would be useful for a career in agriculture. His ongoing project was to design, budget for and finally build a steel dog-box for the tray on the back of his ute.
Miss WP (Year 8) – enjoys school and learning. Applied for the Horizon program to allow her to more intently follow her passion of astrophysics. Projects included exploring quantum entanglement, light pollution and high altitude balloons.
Mr W (Year 11) – has a keen passion for Hospitality. He completed VET Hospitality throughout the program, in addition to solo-catering for 25 people on a 5 day business retreat. This catering opportunity was his ongoing project including recipe development, budgeting and creating a timeline for the event. Mr W has successfully obtained an apprenticeship as a chef and will not be returning to complete his VCE.
Mr G (Year 8) – has been making short films for many years. He chose to apply for Horizon to allow him more opportunity to develop his film-making skills. Mr G engaged with script editors in Melbourne through Skype, worked with media professionals on camera handling and completed a short film as his ongoing project.
Miss C (Year 9) – has a real interest in health and healthy living. Keen to explore the impact of different diets on her own body, Miss C prepared meals and lived through a range of different diets – paleo, Mediterranean, gluten free, vegan etc. all the while keeping a journal of her dietary adventures. A website presenting all her learning made up her ongoing project.
Miss B (Year 9) – couldn’t decide where her passions lay, so she explored a number of them – learning Italian and building.  Miss B engaged in active work experience to fully immerse herself in the building industry, took time to have Italian lessons and returned to playing the piano throughout the semester.
Mr G (Year 8) – listed his passions as: history, politics, geography and basically the world. Fascinated especially with World War Two, Mr G pursued this interest through 3 essays exploring the impact of that event on scientific and technological advancements, social movements and military advancements.
Mr S (Year 8) – loves the media and has an arsenal of equipment at his disposal that he wanted to improve his skills using. Developing a website as a means to showcase his skills and work was his ongoing project, but his drone footage of a whole school event that local media picked-up both in print and on TV was a highlight.
Miss P (Year 8) – came into Horizon listing her passions as Vet Nursing and agriculture. Miss P struggled to settle on an ongoing project, being too young for work experience didn’t help. In the end, she settled on exploring the different forms of agriculture and explored the impact of different soil types on crop growth.
Mr T (Year 10) – jumped at the opportunity Horizon presented as a means to explore his interest in programming and gaming more broadly. Working on both the hardware and the software, Mr T was able to produce a hand-held game device with two different games. Mr T also took the opportunity to explore other areas of interest such as diabetes and insulin.
Miss H (Year 8) – impressed the application panel with her interest in and knowledge of biology and genetics. Throughout Horizon, Miss H’s attendance at school increased exponentially and she explored a range of different genetic mutations and their consequences.
Mr C (Year 10) – is a keen animator, but had had little opportunity to learn the skills and master the craft of animation. Horizon allowed him to explore this interest and in the end, each of his weekly projects culminated in a fully animated short film incorporating movement, lip-synching, and all elements of feature length animations.
Miss S (Year 8) – is fascinated with toxicology and especially interested in the debate surrounding medicinal marijuana. Her ongoing project explored this through a film that zoomed out from the physiological impacts, the neurological impacts right to the social impacts of medicinal marijuana.

These were our first Horizon students, and we’re so proud of what they have achieved. I will continue to share this story through this blog, but please contact me if you have any questions or would like more information.

Shaun, November 2017.



“Outside the square”

“Horizon is the closest I have come to not just seeing outside the square, but being there.” @DartaHovey, via Twitter 6/617.

For the past 18 months I’ve been working with a team of Learning Leaders from Catholic College Wodonga (@CCWodonga) in NE Victoria, Australia, trying to solve a problem. We’re not sure, but we think we have a potential solution.

Our problem was – what is stopping students in our school from really engaging and wanting to do their best? Are we giving every student the opportunity to pursue their passions and areas of interest – in an authentic way, not just a tokenistic nod? Where do we hear our student voice?

Our solution – Horizon.Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 1.06.54 pmHorizon is an independent (but collaborative) program that we have begun this semester for 13 students across Years 8-11.

Students effectively have a blank timetable that they fill with the following three elements:


  1. A weekly challenge – where they set a question that they want to answer (about anything!) on Monday and present their findings on Friday.
  2. An ongoing project – an area of interest that the students pursue in a sustained and developed manner over the course of the semester.
  3. A collaborative project – connected to Catholic Social Teaching Principles and located in the local area for the common good.

In addition, the students can also choose to continue attending some of their classes, or apply to attend classes that pique their interest (a Year 8 student may apply to attend a Year 11 Physics class, for instance).

Also, Tuesday and Thursday are non-compulsory school days. We know that learning doesn’t simply happen at school between the hours of 9am and 3pm, so, if the students’ weekly challenge or ongoing project requires (or would benefit from being somewhere other than school) a visit to a worksite, a chat with an expert, a day in a library/museum, or a day at an airport, then Tuesday and Thursday can be used for these experiences.

Application Process

Students were presented with the program outline in year level groups. A parent information night was held prior to applications opening in order to get their support and clarify any questions they had (it was fundamentally important that they were onside!)


Students then applied in any way they felt best able (written, video, interview, presentation) to answer these questions:

  • Explain your experience of school so far …
  • Why do you want to be a part of the program?
  • What do you think it will look like for you?
  • What are your areas of interest / what are you passionate about?
  • What makes a good team?
  • What motivates you? What do you put effort into?
  • Why would the program be beneficial to you?
  • Provide the name of two referees who can talk about you as a learner.

40 applied. We shortlisted. 21 were interviewed by the Principal and another leadership team member. 14 were offered a place. 13 accepted. From Years 8, 9, 10 and 11.

We’re 7 weeks into the program and we have identified strengths and gaps. I’ll be blogging over the coming weeks about some of the challenges we’ve faced and how we’re going about tweaking the program. I’ll also share more details about what our students are up to, how we’re monitoring their learning, the literature that supported our program, the role of the teachers and how it’s working logistically.

We’d love to hear from people who have tried similar programs or who want more information.


Shaun (@shaunmason79)

The choice to lead

I was lucky enough to hear Simon Sinek speak in Melbourne last week at the “Start with Why” Leadership Forum. A quick bit of reading about the event and I was excited, but I was a little concerned that The Growth Faculty event could be very business-world oriented and those of us in the realm of dealing with individuals rather than numbers, could be overlooked. I was pleasantly mistaken.

After listening to him and having had 48 hours to sit on some of his insights I thought I would get down on paper a few things that really resonated with me, so here goes:

  1. Leadership is a choice.

Simon made it really clear that none of us have fallen into leadership. We have not had it thrust upon us without wanting it. We made the decision to step up, apply, and get given the opportunity to lead. We wanted this. We chose it for ourselves. And if you didn’t, then what are you doing?!

The challenge then, is it make the most of it. Not hide behind it. Own the fact you are a leader.

However, the risk is that leaders will fall into doing the job they have always done, the one that they are good at, the one for which they likely got promoted from. So, Simon reminded us that we are no longer responsible for “the job”, but responsible for the people who are responsible for “the job”.

  1. Leadership has nothing to do with being in charge, but taking care of those in your charge.

The effective leader is not ‘in charge’, but rather supports those with whom they work. The effective leader provides a safe space in which colleagues thrive and where they will be prepared to take risks and potentially fail.

Simon talks about the circle of safety where leaders have established behaviours and where it is there role to protect colleagues from the dangers outside the circle. This is the price of leadership. In Simon’s words, this is why we get the bigger offices, the bigger pay-packets etc. So, that we will be the first to take a hit for the team, the first to confront the danger when it arises. We need to be the self-sacrificing leader rather than the self-serving leader. Leadership is the choice to take care of other people.

3. Know your why? 

If you have ever read or seen Simon’s work, you will be familiar with the concept of knowing your why. Why you do what you do – and the fundamental importance of operating from this space all the time.

Simon stressed the importance of this again, but spoke about how we come to know our why. The observation that this is not aspirational, but often a story of how your organisation came to be (an origin story), struck a chord with me. Working in a regional Catholic secondary school, we have recently re-connected with the Mercy Sisters who started our school many years ago.

Hearing stories from long serving staff about these Sisters and the approach they took to education and the community more broadly, assists all staff at our school, not just new staff, to understand and appreciate the why of some of our decisions. Putting these origin stories front and centre at our school brings our why to life.

Ensuring all staff and students know and understand the why of our school is fundamental.

Shaun Mason, 2017



The challenge of working in a “good” school.

Lots of schools are looking to improve and challenging themselves to innovate. But what drives innovation more than a need to improve, some sort of imperative or potential crisis that needs to be averted – think Templestowe College in Melbourne (see Principal Peter Hutton’s TedX Talk).

But what if your school isn’t in crisis? What if your results are consistently strong and in fact on the improve? What if different data suggests students and staff are genuinely happy? It’d be easy to rest on your laurels, but of course we don’t want to do this. We see things that we would like to develop and improve. Yet, where schools in crisis have an imperative to change/innovate, “good schools” face another hurdle – the difficulty of convincing staff, students and parents that the improvements are necessary and worth the effort. Legislated changes (i.e new curriculums or system level edicts) provide an opportunity, but they rarely engage staff enthusiastically to radically overhaul how they operate. It requires something else.

We’ve been thinking about a formal independent learning program during the past twelve months. We’re pretty excited. But, excitement will only get you so far, and in a school that’s performing well, this excitement can be quickly replaced with the “that’s unnecessary” retort, or the “yes, but…” brick wall.

Last week I led a group of staff and students through a process to help us explore what this program might look like in our context. Having student involvement was pivotal as this is all about the students. Our day began with us asking one question – Why do this? We started with our gut instinct…”not extending our top achievers enough”, “losing kids in the middle years”, “not engaging our learners” etc. But, we moved very quickly to the available evidence. Where do we see these concerns playing out in our school data and what are our students saying?  When we started looking, it was there, we found it: The Why. It didn’t take much, but without it we had nothing.

So many new programs and proposals are presented to school leaders that are designed to do a range of things; engage students, solve their literacy woes or increase their Year 12 results. The pitch often starts at the WHAT, HOW, WHERE and WHEN we could implement these programs and more often than not the WHY is conspicuously overlooked.

My Principal reminds us over and over again to ask this question of why because without it nothing else makes sense, and because with it, we can justify our decisions and actions.

In a school that is travelling well, the answer to the question ‘Why’? provides the impetus for improvement and a force for development.

Shaun Mason, 2016.