West Australian Liz Smith is a 21st century educator who very much has the future in mind – for both staff and students – when leading her school’s teaching and learning. She began her teaching career on the cusp of the new millennium at what was then Merredin Senior High School, in a country town located in the wheat belt east of Perth.
Four years later, she moved back to the city to work as a curriculum improvement officer in Perth’s Swan Education District. Smith was responsible for working with school leaders to review their school improvement practices, through the lens of instructional leadership focused on student outcomes.
Before long she returned to the school grounds, taking on a leadership position at Mount Lawley Senior High School, which at the time was developing its purpose-built middle school.
More leadership roles soon followed. Smith worked at a variety of high schools in deputy principal positions, “developing a wider leadership skill-set and understanding of the differing educational needs and contexts within our system”, she says.
Smith is now associate principal at Joseph Banks Secondary College in Banksia Grove, a northern suburb of Perth. “We opened in 2015 with two cohorts of students, Years 7 and 8,” she says, “and we now cater for Years 7–10. We will have our full contingent of students, Years 7–12, in 2019.”
Smith started treading a path towards teaching after her mother suggested following her media studies degree with a Graduate Diploma of Education. “And I never looked back,” Smith says.
Her orientation towards school leadership began from her very first teaching job at Merredin. “I was encouraged as a new graduate to take risks, to try new approaches and to share my successes and failures with my colleagues,” recalls Smith. “If offered an opportunity to learn something new as a teacher, or as a young teacher leader, I never said no – I took all opportunities offered to me to continue to learn and grow.”
When asked to describe her leadership style, Smith says she sees herself “predominantly as an instructional leader”, building and developing the repertoire of instructional skills of teachers through professional learning. At Joseph Banks, the staff work in multidisciplinary Professional Learning Communities, to support and develop the academic and pastoral needs of their students.
“Our middle years communities are vertical sub-schools and our senior school communities are horizontal,” Smith explains. “Our school leadership team focuses on learning for students, and learning for staff. We work in our college to develop teacher instructional skills to ensure each teacher has a repertoire of strategies to use when working with students. Professional learning for staff is a key component of our college plan to build the capacity of teachers to be teacher leaders.”
Knowing the narrative
Smith recognises the importance of bringing the whole-school team along with the leadership to achieve whole-school goals. “I think it’s really important that all staff know the narrative of the college,” Smith says. “We work to ensure staff create multiple opportunities for students to achieve success through engagement in rigorous programs.”
Joseph Banks’ leadership team works with staff through its Professional Learning Communities and staff support structures to ensure they are well supported. “This is especially important at the beginning of each school year, when we induct 20 new staff into our ways of working at Joseph Banks Secondary College,” she says.
Smith has designed and delivered professional development in diverse learning areas for all staff at her school, with themes such as Curiosity and Powerful Learning, Classroom Instruction that Works, and Professional Conversations (including coaching practices, classroom observation and instructional rounds).
The growth of Joseph Banks as a very new school is testament to the benefit of this professional learning. “Our staff have worked really hard over the past three years to develop our college,” says Smith. “They are a very hardworking and dedicated group of teachers and leaders, and our staff and student numbers continue to grow each year.”
Smith’s goal of building the capacity of staff extends to mentoring aspiring school leaders. “When I left Merredin, my principal’s words to me in a card were: ‘Remember, Liz, leaders leave leaders’,” Smith recalls.
“I have tried to be mindful of this in all positions I have held. My focus has been on supporting student learning, but also to support staff learning, to build the capacity of others, to develop leaders for our system and to promote continual learning for teachers.”
Indeed, Smith has coached colleagues who have become heads of learning areas, deputies and associate principals, and other leaders within the WA education system.
Of course, effective school leaders know the importance of continuing their own professional learning, while they support the learning of others. “I think to be connected, to be well read, to get out and see other schools, not just in your own state, but interstate and internationally too, is becoming more important,” Smith says.
“To learn and share with others is key. Problems or dilemmas you may be facing in your school may be in common with other leaders and other schools.”
Sticking to your principals
Smith has been active in her principals’ association, the Western Australian Secondary Schools Executives’ Association (WASSEA). In 2013, Smith took on the role of WASSEA’s conference convenor. “Since then, Liz has been the predominant leader of outstanding educational conferences for secondary school principals in Western Australia,” says WASSEA’s Eleanor Hughes, who was also the founding principal of Joseph Banks Secondary College.
“Since being co-opted to the WASSEA management committee, and as a member of the Professional Learning Sub-Committee, she has had a strong influence on ensuring that WASSEA has a focus on developing future leaders. To this end, Liz has ensured that each conference she has organised has had strong relevance for aspirant leaders, including ensuring networking opportunities.”
Given her reputation for leading inclusive, collaborative professional learning, it’s no surprise that Smith was nominated for a John Laing Award for Professional Development in 2016. The awards are managed by Principals Australia Institute (PAI), the national organisation providing professional learning and leadership development to leaders across all school systems and sectors.
“Liz’s commitment to facilitating professional learning for all staff in her school, as well as mentoring up-and-coming and aspiring school leaders, made her a standout candidate for a John Laing Award,” says Paul Geyer, chief executive officer of PAI.
Effective school leaders also know they need to develop and maintain their own support networks. Smith says professional peers, both in person and online, are of great help to her. She recommends having “a strong network of colleagues who you can phone for advice or to bounce an idea off, and peers in the school in which you work” to call on.
In the digital world, there are “a variety of online spaces where there are wonderful networks of education leaders who are only a tweet away”. Staying connected is key, she says, “to seek out new voices to listen to and learn from”.
When asked to identify her achievements in her school leadership career so far, Smith suggests that some are still a work in progress. “Working as a foundation member of a new school is both challenging and rewarding,” she says. “I think when we have had a few year groups graduate through our college, this might be a good time to reflect on key achievements.”
Her time at Joseph Banks Secondary College extends back to 2014, the year before the school opened, when she was hired to research how education was changing, and to begin developing the school’s ways of working, making decisions that were both learner and future-focused.
In keeping with her focus on students’ learning experiences, Smith has led a move towards personalised learning pathways at Joseph Banks, seeing staff create exciting and engaging courses linked to the curriculum that students can choose to study.
“This approach, while in its early days as we are a growing college, has provided students with the opportunities to be the architect of their learning path,” Smith says.
“Students have a lot of choice in terms of their course construction, from a wide variety of courses during Year 10. This is supported by our use of trimesters, which increases the number of courses students in the college can participate in over the course of the year.”
“Future-proofing” her students is another key priority for Smith. “Students in our schools presently will work in jobs that do not currently exist,” she says. “As leaders, we must ask: What are the things our students must know, understand and be able to do when they graduate, in order to be successful in their future pursuits and pathways? How can we future-proof some of the decisions we are making, and ensure that students have the ability to transfer their skills, knowledge and abilities into the future?”
Joseph Banks Secondary College has a goal for “all students to be literate, numerate and curious, through the provision of a broad-based 21st century curriculum”. To achieve this, in addition to Joseph Banks’ students studying the core subjects, an integrated curriculum for the middle years students has been developed that is future-focused, and looks to develop 21st century skills and capabilities. “For this to be established and to be successful, our students attend an integrated studies class three times a week in Years 7–9,” Smith says.
The proof will be in the pudding for Liz Smith, as she awaits the graduation of the first cohort of students to complete their secondary schooling at Joseph Banks. “In two years’ time, our current Year 10s will be our first graduating class, and I’m looking forward to celebrating their successes with our wider school community. They are a diverse group of students, passionate about their goals for the future, and I look forward to watching them grow into young adults who are ready to face the challenges of life after school.”
Smith holds high hopes for the school’s staff too, many of whom are on their own journey to school leadership. “My aspiration for staff is that we will have developed strong teacher leaders for the school, and for the system. I hope that our staff who seek promotion will have obtained leadership positions, either internally or externally, and that they in turn will be working to provide their staff with opportunities to develop the leadership capacity of the staff they now lead.” After all, leaders leave leaders.