New Primary Leaders
New Primary Leaders

Michael Cowie

Michael Cowie is an Honorary Fellow of the College of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Edinburgh. A former headteacher, Michael was previously Co-Director of the Masters Programme in Educational Leadership and Management at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the North of Scotland Headteacher Preparation Consortium, a partnership involving the universities of Aberdeen and Dundee and nine education authorities. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Continuum, 2011


Content Type:

Book chapter

Education Level:

Primary Education



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At the Edge of the Silent Centre: An Australian Principal’s Reflections on Leading an Isolated School

A novice principal reflects on his experience with Helen Wildy and Simon Clarke

DOI: 10.5040/9781350091252.ch-002
Page Range: 19–30


Apart from Mt Augustus and a couple of smaller ranges, there is little to break the landscape stretching flat in all directions for hundreds of kilometres. The dark red soil is dotted with spindly stunted shrubs bearing sparse, small, silver-grey foliage and the occasional windmill against the horizon. This is cattle country. Kangaroos, feral goats, some sheep, black crows and wide-winged eagles live and die here. Sunsets are spectacular, but driving at sunrise or sunset is dangerous: carcasses of kangaroos, goats and cars litter the roadsides. The main road is the highway to the minefields further north. Road trains carrying dongas (portable houses), dump trucks, graders and refrigeration units hurtle along at 110 km per hour. This is not a trip for novices.

We are 1,100 km north of Perth, the capital city of Western Australia, and 460 km inland from the Indian Ocean. The quickest way to get here is to take a regular though infrequent flight from Perth to one of three airports within 700 km of the community. From there you can charter a small plane. The drawbacks are that the charters are very costly and also inflexible because they fly in and back on the same day. Alternatively, you can hire a four-wheel-drive vehicle from one of the three locations. The drawbacks to this option are that the vehicles, though pre-booked, are not always available when you arrive, and the roads are unsealed and some are quite dangerous. The most flexible and reliable, though time-consuming, travel option is to do as we did and hire a vehicle in Perth and drive the 1,100 km yourself. The trip takes one and a half days. All you need is a robust vehicle, a long-range fuel tank, a good driver and plenty of patience.

The community is situated 40 km from Australia’s largest monolith, Mt Augustus. But this rock does not have the iconic status of the next largest monolith, Uluru (Ayres Rock) in the ‘dead centre of Australia’, which attracts millions of tourists each year. The only tourists here are occasional travellers lost on their way to Mt Augustus, hoping to buy food and fuel. Neither is available.

There is uranium here, but political pressures prevent the deposit from being mined. The land was previously a privately owned cattle station. After the Native Title Act of 1993, the property was released to its traditional owners, the Wadjarri tribe, whose families continue to roam this part of the state. As well as the school, there is a shop, a swimming pool, a health centre, an administration house, a telecentre, an oval and 50 residences. Up to 15 people may live in a house at a time, so the population varies between 20 and 300 people. Apart from the administrator, shopkeeper, pool manager, the telecentre manager and a few men who collect the rubbish and tidy the grounds, the only people in paid employment are the school staff and office staff.

Expanses of grass surround the school buildings. There’s too much uranium in the bore water for it to be drinkable but it is fine for the lawn, which explains the grassed oval in front of the school and the expanses of lawn around the school buildings. John Anderson, the school principal, buys drinking water for his family from the shop in the nearest town, 303 km away on an unsealed road. Having to ration drinking water is only one of the challenges facing John and his family living in this remote Aboriginal community on the edge of the silent centre of Australia.

There are four classroom teachers, four Aboriginal and Islander Education officers (AIEOs, teacher assistants), the principal, the registrar and a gardener/ cleaner. There are 61 students on the roll, but the record attendance is 53 students. Twenty students on any day is considered good attendance. Today there are 15 students.

This is John’s first principal appointment. He is halfway through his third year as principal, having taught for 13 years. John is married with two primary school-aged daughters. It is a sunny winter’s day, and John is wearing shorts with a cotton, short-sleeved, checked shirt. He is relaxed and unhurried as we sit on a couch with our backs to the single security-screened window in his office. He swings around from his computer to face us and chat, and then takes us for a stroll around the school grounds. During these conversations and later over coffee in the staff room, he tells his story.

John’s story

I trained as a secondary teacher with a bachelor’s of education in environmental education. I did not set out to be a teacher, but by the time I had finished the programme I thought: Well it looks like teaching is what I have been trained for. I taught at a technical high school in Victoria for 7 years. I taught science, mathematics, home economics, outdoor education and society and environment. I remember clearly my first weeks as a teacher. I sat at my desk in the staff room and thought: ‘I have no idea what to do. My last 4 years has not prepared me in the least for being in the classroom’. I always felt I wanted to extend myself beyond the classroom as a professional educator. During those years I was a year coordinator and a member of the principal’s advisory committee. The school provided vocational training, and at recess and lunch times I hung out with the manual arts and tech guys, most of whom had careers as carpenters and plumbers and so on before becoming teachers. They used to rib me: ‘You haven’t had a life. You went to school then you went to college and now you are back at school. What do you know of life?’ At the time I laughed this off, not taking it seriously. Over time, though, I must have reflected on what they were telling me and started to look beyond the classroom, beyond teaching and even beyond my life in the Victorian country town.

Before long I met J, who later became my wife. She must have related to the restless side of me. I have always considered that we are here for a good time, not a long time, especially as I notice how sedentary and cautious are the lives of my siblings and J’s too. She said to me one day: ‘What about going overseas?’ I had been to New Zealand and Malaysia as a tourist previously but never worked overseas. We signed up for what is now called Australian Volunteers International and we were offered Botswana. We had the time of our lives: it was a time of sadness and happiness; of both confronting and joyous experiences. We were adventurous, driving around Africa and camping in the bush, waking to the sounds of lions and hyenas. The curriculum was prescriptive and involved a great deal of assessment. Even as the only ex-pat teacher, I must have felt confident in myself because, unlike the other teachers, I was comfortable talking to the principal and offering ideas for teaching, particularly for integrating Internet Technology (IT), a role that probably led to my becoming the head of science at the secondary school in north Botswana at the age of 31.

When my contract ended I couldn’t return to teach in Victoria. I had taken a redundancy package offered by the government to reduce the number of teachers in the public sector and was not allowed to teach in that state for at least 3 years. J and I had a new baby by the time we returned home to Victoria. Because we had always been attracted to the west of Australia, we decided to get in our old Land Cruiser and head west. I was offered a temporary science teaching position in the north of the state, at a town called P. ‘Where is that?’ I asked. After that I was offered another science-teaching job at M, still in the remote inland of Western Australia, where I taught for 2 years. When the deputy principal retired my wife encouraged me to apply for it in an acting capacity. I remembered that the deputy principal in Botswana had said to me: ‘You’d make a good deputy’. I had that position for 2 years. When a substantive position in a rural town 1,500 km away in the lower southeast of the state was advertised, I was again encouraged by my wife, and also by the principal of M High School, to put in my application. I won that job and stayed the mandatory minimum 2 years. I did not like the job. It was a shared position between teaching and being a deputy. I felt I was doing neither well.

I had a phone call from the principal at M High School telling me of vacancies for both principal and registrar at nearby B Remote Community School. By then we had two children and my wife was an experienced registrar. It seemed as though those jobs were made for us. We applied for and won the positions. So back up to the northwest we moved, and this was the start of my time as a principal. There was no training or induction for the principalship. On offer, though, was a remote teaching service induction programme for all those starting in the outback. I went to this, but it was not very useful. I had already taught in some pretty outback places.

However, my first principalship was like being dropped onto a busy highway and I was running along behind trying to catch up. My predecessor had left the school in good shape. Although teacher turn-over in schools like this is very high, when I arrived all the teachers had been there the previous year. Teachers were well used to the context, and the school had established routines, functioning processes and harmonious relationships with the community. I was lucky.

The job turned out to be what I expected to some extent. I knew I would have to learn a great deal, not only about being a principal but also about the school community. I did not appreciate how much I would have to learn about being the head of a school that catered for students from kindergarten (aged 4 years) right through to the end of secondary school (aged 17 years). I thought I would be well prepared from my years as a secondary teacher. In reality, the students performed at around low primary level, even the secondary students. I desperately needed to learn about the primary curriculum, early-years teaching strategies and working closely with teachers on curriculum and pedagogy. All this was new to me.

Despite these challenges I did not for 1 minute doubt that I could do the job. I am easy going and get on well with people. I might be stressed at times but I never show this. I might be quiet at home or snappy at my wife, but generally I have good coping skills. Looking back over the time as a principal I see that I had to do some things that do not come easily to me. One of these is to tackle issues up front. I don’t like creating waves. I prefer to let things slide, believing that they will work themselves out in the end. Perhaps I am too laid back! But this attribute led me to have a very difficult time last year.

Some parents don’t worry too much about school. Families move around a fair bit. The students might be on our roll but come to school here only a couple of weeks in a year. They might go to another school, but mostly they don’t bother. The central office might track them down; our registrar phones other schools to try to find them. I go round regularly and talk to the parents. However, many children simply don’t go to school. I think that it is the responsibility of families to get an education for their children. We offer it to them, but we can’t make them come to school. We can ensure our programmes are engaging, stimulating and relevant. There are many other reasons for nonattendance. The most powerful is the funeral ritual. Later this week two funerals are scheduled at towns in the area. Of course, all families here are related in this part of the state. It is customary for all relatives to attend funerals, even when this entails a couple of days driving each way. By the end of this week I expect the only students at school will be the children of the teachers. Even our AIEOs will attend the funerals.

This year all our teachers are new and inexperienced. They are not, however, young. Each brings a former career and many rich life experiences. For example, our one male teacher, though recently graduated, was formerly an opera singer and he brings a background of art, music and drama to his specialist teaching responsibilities in these fields. The early-years teacher, an indigenous women, and unofficially the deputy principal, grew up in this part of the state and spent some years as an AIEO before undertaking studies to qualify her to teach. The middle primary teacher has Years 3 to 6 classes. Prior to training as a teacher, she worked as a theatre nurse and travelled the world. She is here this year, in her first year of teaching, with her 13-year-old daughter who had previously attended a prestigious and competitive academic school in the city. This young girl is now beginning her secondary schooling at our school, as one of a dozen or so secondary students, ranging up to 17 years of age. This group has one teacher, another new graduate, who teaches all subject areas through literacy and numeracy. That this teacher is trained as a primary teacher is not a drawback: in fact, she is perfectly suited to the students she has, as they perform at a low-to-middle primary level. Our challenge, though, is to cater for the teacher’s 13-year-old daughter. I wonder how we can provide her with a rich curriculum of learning areas and experiences that will prepare her for tertiary entrance in the future.

Like all Aboriginal community schools in this state and elsewhere in Australia, our school is richly resourced. Our classrooms are packed with teaching materials and we struggle to spend all the funds we are allocated in a year. For example, ten new computers have recently arrived. They are sitting in boxes in the staff room. One day we will set them up in the computer room, which is already fully equipped and little used. In the recent federal government stimulus package we have been allocated funds for a new library. When this is built we will have another spare room and we can use one for a large storeroom. Most teachers probably don’t know what we have stored already. Cleaning out the storeroom is useful: we will all see what is there.

While the community is rich in material goods, it is chronically short of food. I don’t know what the community folk eat. We go to town, 303 km away, and buy $1,000 worth of groceries for our family and for the school. We provide apples and oranges for the students at morning recess. When the community people go to town they buy only what they can afford and that doesn’t last long. Adults receive government living allowances but often this is used for alcohol. The local shop no longer operates because it ran into deep debt. When it did operate, the owners would go to town and bring back pies, soft drinks and chips to sell. These didn’t last long. There used to be a women’s group who met in a house next to the school and prepared lunches for the students. Since the funding for this was withdrawn the students aren’t provided lunch. At lunch time my two daughters eat their sandwiches and fruit that we prepare for them. Some of the Aboriginal students have lunch with them; usually they go home, but sometimes there is little food for them so they just ride around on their bikes until the siren goes for the start of the afternoon session. When the families go off to funerals they fill their cars with five to ten people so there is no room for their dogs. Each family has five or six dogs and these are left at the community. They roam the streets, looking for food. After a few days they are hungry, barking, snarling, jumping our fences, getting into our bins. It is hard to imagine how students can concentrate on their learning programmes in a context like this.

Our students love art. Our strategy, therefore, is to link as much as we can to art. For example, all the buildings are decorated with murals; the classroom doors feature local issues graphically, such as hunting, the rains and animals. The older students do mathematics using a set of activities in which answers to calculations are matched to segments of a picture that, if all are answered correctly, will generate a complete image; students then colour in the picture and put this on the wall for display. You see the walls are covered with these types of pictures. Another example is the task the art specialist has set these older students: redesign the art room to make it more like a gallery. They were offered the opportunity to look at art galleries on the internet then clean up and rearrange the furniture and walls to set up exhibitions of students’ work. Students are well mannered and happily engage in such activity.

Despite the lack of food, the students are healthy. We are fortunate that this community does not have a tradition of petrol sniffing, alcohol abuse or other drugs. It is not a designated dry community, so members do buy alcohol and bring it in. There might be a drinking party that lasts for a few days. We hear the loud music all through the community. No one gets much sleep. After a few days we are exhausted and irritable, and the whole community is unsettled. This is when disagreements break out, and at times there is violence in the community. On the whole, however, compared with many other similar settings, ours is peaceful for most of the year.

I am most challenged by the task of keeping on top of all the work. This job is not easy. There are seemingly endless tasks. I make a list, and by the time I knock off two of them another ten have been added. You never get on top of it. There are so many aspects to deal with: issues with students and their learning, behavior, attendance, health, interpersonal matters; issues with teachers and their professional learning, social well-being, and interpersonal matters; issues with parents and their relationships within the community and their lack of interest in the school and their children’s well-being; issues with the community as a unit and its financial difficulties and general dysfunction and finally issues with the education system and the endless demands for bureaucratic accountability. I am also a husband and a father of two school-aged girls: I love to spend time with them. I am happy to put in a good 8 hours at school each weekday but I do not believe I can or should do more than that. I hear of principals who work 10 to 12 hours a day and all weekend just to keep on top of things. I would never do that. I strongly believe that I am responsible for the well-being of my family. That is my top priority. If they are well and happy, then I can do my work. Having a wife and children helps me. It gives me perspective. This is how I balance my personal life and my professional work.

I am happiest when the school is humming along. I wake up in the morning and get up with a spring in my step. I look forward to going over to the school. I am confident that all the students are learning. Teachers are getting along. The parents are not complaining. I don’t have system people breathing down my neck or demanding reports from me. I am best at getting along with people. I think my greatest success here has been to build good relationships among teachers, throughout the community and between all the students. I feel comfortable talking to parents. I walk around the houses and knock on the door if I want to talk to a family. I never go inside a house: that’s out of bounds. If I see a bunch of old ladies sitting around the fire outside, I go up to them and have a chat. I like to be out, talking with the parents and families. They know who I am and what I stand for. It’s humming along nicely now. But it has not always been like this.

In my time as a principal two serious incidents occurred, both of which shook me to my core and challenged me as a human being. The first happened 4 months into my first year as a principal. Two of our teachers were driving the 500-km trip to the nearest coastal town. The sister of one of the teachers had come to visit. The teachers were returning from taking her to the town so she could return home. The road is generally sound, though unsealed, and the teachers had made the trip on many occasions. Why the accident happened has never been clarified, although there was speculation that a tyre burst. The car swung out of control and rolled over five times. One teacher had her neck broken; the other died instantly. She was a wonderful teacher, beloved by all students and highly respected in the community. Her husband, who was our Vocational Education and Training (VET) teacher, was inconsolable. As a school we were devastated. I closed the school out of respect but also out of necessity: none of us was fit to face a class of students. Now we have a lovely framed photograph of her hanging in our reception area. We remember her every day. My challenge was to support our staff through their grief and back to normality. This was made both easier and more difficult because we were an extremely close group, almost like a family. Among the staff there was respect and collegiality that helped us to mesh together, in good times and then in bad times.

Although I had no formal preparation for dealing with this shocking event, I had been through something similar when I was deputy principal at M High School some years earlier. The 6-year-old daughter of our art teacher was raped by a community member down by the creek. Everyone was shocked beyond words. The principal was away and one deputy was acting as the principal. She was expected to address the staff. She could not do it. I was the other deputy principal and was called on to do it. I had to take charge. I sent three teachers home because they were not coping. I sought advice from the district office. I was advised to ‘continue as normal’. However, I saw that teachers were too upset to be at school so, against my line manager’s advice, I closed the school the next day. We all needed time to come to terms with what had happened, not that any of us can ever get over that.

The second incident that challenged me as a principal was less sudden, more gradual and insidious. It occurred last year, my second year in the position. I might have handled it differently, looking back even now. I expect that as the years go on and I learn more about being a principal I will realize more acutely how it could have been dealt with better. But this is what happened and how I reacted. At the start of 2008 we were short four teachers. This was at a time when we had a staff of six, before the current cutback when we lost our kindergarten and VET teachers. I had a call from a couple who was teaching at a government primary school in a wheatbelt town some 600 km south of here. They came to visit us and seemed nice enough. I was attracted to the idea of getting two teachers, a married couple, both experienced teachers, used to rural life, one a middle primary teacher and the other a VET teacher. It seemed too good to be true. It was.

They were duly appointed to the school and we began the year with most teacher vacancies filled. A good start, I thought. Pretty much from day one, the atmosphere in the staff room changed. Gone was the harmonious, supportive, family feeling of the group we had the previous year. The new male VET teacher was clearly out to cause trouble. He niggled and confronted and soon had everyone off side, with him, with me and with each other. You could cut the air in the staff room with a knife. He talked very fast and stood right up close, with his head in your face. He was a tall man, well built and a dominating figure in a room. He undermined every idea that was put up. He got involved in the politics of the community and fostered discontent among the families. Parents were annoyed with his interference. He was harsh in the classroom, and we had complaints from parents about his rudeness to their children. He openly stated that he did not like indigenous people. Now at first I thought he was just trying it on and my best strategy was to let him wear himself out. If I didn’t intervene, then he would have nothing to push back on. Staff were getting increasingly unhappy. I needed to take some action. I spoke to him, asking him to settle down, get on with his teaching and stop aggravating staff and parents. He wouldn’t even listen to me. By now one of our best teachers was so stressed she took a term off. I was getting anxious. I couldn’t sleep at night. I didn’t like coming to school. The only person who seemed able to manage him was J, my wife, the registrar. Her strategy was to bite back. He couldn’t take that and steered clear of her. But it took its toll on her too and she needed to take stress leave. I knew then that I had to take action. I consulted the district director and had this man moved to nearby M High School, where I had taught previously and where the principal was experienced. The plan was that he would be able to start afresh. I heard, though, that he did exactly the same things there. That principal wouldn’t stand for it. He negotiated swiftly with the department to get rid of him. He was paid out, and the last I heard of him was that he had joined the army. I wouldn’t want to repeat that year. In hindsight I should have tackled him right at the start, set the standards and protected the teachers, students and community from him. If his wife hadn’t been such a good teacher, I probably would have thought about getting rid of him more rapidly. I know I am a fence-sitter. I just don’t like confronting issues. I still wonder if I would have the confidence to do that, even now.

I would have to say though that these two experiences – the death of our much-loved teacher and getting rid of the destructive teacher – coming one after the other so early in my career as a principal have tested me. I know I am tough. These challenges were about as hard as they get and I pulled through.

I am not clear about my future. I am never one to plan, but I do have lots of dreams. We own a 55-acre block down in the south of the state, with rolling hills, a creek and a great bog shed that we have furnished. A neighbour runs sheep on the property. We go down there for holidays sometimes and feel nourished by its beauty, especially after the harsh ruggedness of this environment. I have dreams of living there. The most important thing for us as a family is to settle down in a town with a decent school for our girls. We want them to be in one school throughout their secondary school. It has to be a good school so that they can have good career prospects. It has to be a large school so that they can build friendships with young people their own age and background. I would be unlikely to find a principal’s position in such a location because what I have described is keenly sought by all young principals. I will probably have to revert to being a deputy principal. I don’t mind the backward career move but I do worry whether I would be content to be second in charge after having been the boss. I am now used to being on my own. I have never had the experience of working as part of a leadership team. I need to learn how to do this and I expect I will find that a challenge.

When I leave here at the end of this year, having completed my mandatory 3 years’ service, I qualify for remote teaching service leave. I could take that leave – one term – and add it to my accumulated one term of long service leave and we could go for a long holiday. We could travel around Australia. We could go overseas and see more of the world. Both of us are well paid and I worry sometimes that we are spoiling our children. Each year we have a good holiday. We have been to Bali a few times; we go to Sydney, Melbourne and, of course, down to our farm. We stay in high-quality hotels and resorts. J and I sometimes dream about buying a motel or a hotel in a rural setting and running that for a few years, just for something different. Or we could go back to Victoria to be close to our families. Both of us have siblings who are having children now. It would be good for our children to grow up with their cousins.

I talk to a number of people about my career. My wife is open to ideas, and we dream together about possible futures for our family. The principal at M High School asks me how I am going and tells me about jobs that come up. He even set up mock interviews for me to practise when I went for the job I have now. He has been a good support and friend for me. The district direct or has a bit of an interest in my career. When he visits, which is about twice a year, he asks me how I am getting along. In my first year I was assigned a mentor by the department. He was a very experienced principal, and I found it helpful to call him from time to time. I have a good network of mates, from my time teaching and as a deputy. I feel I can call up people when I need direction. But it is lonely here. I am the only professional male, except for our newly appointed graduate teacher. The closest like-minded male is over 300 km away.

If I were asked to give advice to an aspiring school leader in this context I would say that being a principal is tough. You have to deal with competing pressures pulling in different directions. It is a struggle to avoid getting snowed under by endless small tasks. I work hard during the week but never during the weekend because I want to be a good dad to my girls. It is hard to see the big picture. For example, the emails are relentless and it’s hard to sort out the dross. The main issue for me is that the department is stressing educational leadership while bombarding us with administrative trivia. I believe that the best way to prepare for being a principal is to get on top of the trivia. Find out how to deal efficiently with the desk work. Learn the policies and procedures so wading through the paperwork doesn’t get you down. I am geographically and professionally isolated so I have had to learn all this alone. Fortunately being a deputy principal in two previous schools gave me some experience. I doubt I could have moved straight out of the classroom into the principal’s office, as many of my peers have done.

I need to learn how to be an educational leader. I have mastered the business of running a school but that is only a fraction of the principal’s job. Teachers need support, and I am not sure how to give what is required. Students need appropriate programmes but I haven’t the skills or experience to work with teachers in a way that helps them provide what is needed. The best way I could develop this expertise is to work closely with a knowledgeable and experienced principal in a mentoring relationship. I want to know more about dealing with teachers, tackling hard issues and bringing out the best in them. I guess you’d call this leadership.