29 January 2013

Networking Pays

It was a dark wet early winter’s morning. Wishing for a torch, I gingerly stepped my way along the dark drive to the beckoning and brightly lit building. Inside, shaking off the wet and gloom, I found a room full of strangers.

It was an invitation-only Chamber of Commerce breakfast, and around me were some of Auckland’s top businesspeople, there to hear an associate of mine speak. I wasn’t important – only there as the cheer squad. Even though my work requires frequent mixing in similar environments, I still found myself working hard not to feel a little overawed in this august company.

Have you ever been in a similar environment? Would you seek it willingly? Not the usual milieu of a school teacher, surely. I suspect many of you might say, ‘Give me the hockey and footie field, the parent/teacher interviews, the performance in the school hall.’ Many people don’t enjoy glad-handing with unknown people from very different worlds.

As I slid into my seat, an attractive well-groomed strawberry-blonde woman slipped in beside me. ‘What corporation is she the head of?’ I wondered. We did the customary card dance, and to my delight I met Linda Fox, who was the Principal of Kelston Girls High School, Auckland. ‘This is different behaviour for a school principal’ I thought. ‘I’d like to know more.’ And so Linda is the subject of this article’s interview.

Before I get to our interview, a few interesting snippets about Linda and the school.

  • She was Chairperson of the Waitakere Secondary Schools Principals. In the past they had established Futures West, a ‘time out’ facility for students with learning and behavioural difficulties. They then were working on an initiative to enhance academic achievement opportunities in Waitakere secondary schools.
  • Linda was also on the executive of the Auckland Secondary Schools Principals Association
  • Kelston Girls, by Auckland secondary standards, was not a large school – in 2002 it had a roll of just over 900, which includes just under 100 international students.
  • Every year they run a customer satisfaction survey – of students as well as the entire staff (including all ancillary and support personnel). Year 9 students are surveyed on their orientation to the school and Year 13 students for their thoughts after five years schooling. The staff find the feedback very valuable for ongoing planning.
  • They’ve run the Rotary Peer Support scheme for some years, and Year 9 students really like it. For most of them, 900 other students is a daunting number: the buddy support of Year 13 students goes a long way to make them feel at home.
  • The school had a very effective ICT programme, was well equipped with hardware, software and cabling, and had a school-wide focus to send students out competent in the digital world. Every student, in their first year, learns a selection of basic programmes such as Excel, Word, and keyboard skills. (I cheered – I can’t work out why such a time-saving skill isn’t compulsory everywhere). But there’s more. The skills are integrated into the curriculum. In the latter half of the year, Year 9 juniors had two major assignments that require use of their ICT skills – one with a Science/Maths theme, and the other English/Social Studies.
  • The school was one of a small cluster of schools selected to be part of the Microsoft Digital Opportunities programme, with 2002 being the first full year. Students can leave with Microsoft MOUS and MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional) qualifications.

Q. Linda, what core success principles have helped you arrive at where you are today?

I believe the most critical factors are energy, good health, a positive outlook, and a strong support network of family and friends. If your health is poor, or you don’t feel good about yourself and life in general, you’ll become depressed, fatigued, and exhausted. That equals a negative energy drain. I eat very healthy food, try for regular hours, exercise – usually gardening or walking. We tell the students about holistic health – so let’s be role models, quite aside from the personal benefits. And learn how to nurture good relationships – they carry you through the tough times, give you places and people where you can unwind and be yourself.

Q. The readers of this article are very interested in finding practical tips and strategies to help them be more efficient. What are your best efficiency tips?

I’ve got two. Writing lists keeps me sane – gives me a path of ‘must do’s’ for the day and the weeks ahead – things don’t get forgotten. However, I’ve learnt not to be driven by those same lists. It’s very important to be flexible. There’s always something that can be left.

The other one – years ago I worked for a Head of Faculty who wouldn’t leave school until her desk was cleared. I don’t always achieve it, but when you can arrive in the morning and the desk doesn’t depress you, even before you reach it, you at least start the day with a clear head.

Q. What would be the most important time-saving equipment you have?

The mobile phone and email are two wonderful inventions. I do most of my email at work. The aim is to keep work and home separate. I’d rather drive back to work (about a half-hour drive outside of peak traffic) than take it home. The work hours are long, but home is my time.

Q. Any particular strategies to deal with interruptions?

I try to be available as much as possible for my staff, but am glad many parents these days make appointments. After all – principals are CEOs of large businesses.

Q. Time-saving tips for young teachers?

Silence is golden – from the teacher! I learnt the hard way, that learning is a 2-way thing – it’s not empty vessels we’re filling up! If we talk too much, or we’re over-prepared, we leave no space for our students’ contributions, which are of huge value. However, I’d like to add that the commitment and innovations of our beginning teachers always impress me.

Q. My experience with teachers has shown that, over the last 10 years, there’s been a disturbing increase in the amount of paperwork and accountabilities required, demanding an increasing amount of time away from the core job of teaching children. What are your thoughts on this issue?

The whole workload is way overdue to be looked at. Since ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ it’s been put in the ‘too hard’ basket. There are simply not enough hours in the day for teachers to do their work well, based on today’s requirements.

Highly paid educational theorists run workshops telling us to be reflective educators, and we’d like to be – but when? With staffing ratios as we have them now, we have NO spare time to be creative, reflective, look for better ways – we’re in survival mode. OECD statistics show that New Zealand teachers have less non-contact time than elsewhere. We need more dollars and teachers so staff can have more non-contact time: although the Ministry of Education says they give us enough, I don’t know where it is!

Q. Any broad brushstroke comments on New Zealand education you’d like to make?

We’re going through a major upheaval in education. In the future there will be significant changes, at least in secondary education. The idea of one teacher to 30 students in a classroom will disappear. There will be more flexibility, much greater use of technology: we do not have to be in classrooms to teach. And, if a school has expertise in a particular area, they could focus on that, instead of trying to be all things to all people.

The resources tied up in many schools could also be used far more efficiently and by more students, especially in the cities. Several areas come to mind: ESL education; the hours that schools are open could be extended; learning ICT skills; and providing facilities for use by the community.

There are some excellent programmes around, such as the Gateway Programme, where the facilitator liaises with the community and the school to give the less academic students part school and part work experience. It worked very well at Penrose High in the past. A partnership between businesses and schools seems to me an immensely sensible approach to meet the needs of senior students seeking apprenticeships and practical skills in the work force because they will continue to be protected by the one safe place in their lives – school! Qualifications and experience of this type are as important as the more traditional qualifications needed for tertiary study.

One final secret

As you read this article, you may have wondered how Kelston Girls scored the benefits of the Microsoft Digital Opportunities programme. Remember where I met Linda? One of her secret weapons of success is her commitment to networking – not just with other educational professionals, but also into the wider business community. A casual chat with her local MP was the link in the Microsoft chain.

How much networking into the community do you do? And what help do you want? Someone much wiser than me said: ‘Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened unto you.’

Nothing in life is an accident. Success in any endeavour comes to those who seek it with focused, educated and diligent intention.





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