Principal profile: Mandy Sanderson

Principal Mandy Sanderson has chalked up four decades as a teacher and leader for a simple reason: she regards the profession as a constant learning curve.

Mandy Sanderson is in her 40th year of working in schools, and when speaking to her you get the impression that her enthusiasm for her profession has only grown over that time. In 2016, Sanderson, principal of St John the Baptist Primary School in Maitland, NSW, received a John Laing Award for Professional Development from Principals Australia Institute (PAI).

Sanderson knows her area well. She began teaching in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese in 1978, spending her first seven years of teaching at country and city schools. She then embarked on the path of school leadership in the roles of primary coordinator and assistant principal. “I loved the extra responsibilities and the scope to help shape the educational agenda of the school,” she says.

In 1988, she became acting principal at St Kevin’s Cardiff, then moved on to be principal of St Vincent’s Infants School, East Maitland, and Our Lady of Lourdes in Tarro, before arriving at St John the Baptist in 2002. “Each school has been their own unique experience with different challenges,” she says.

Early inspirations

Teaching has always been a vocation for Sanderson. “It seemed to be in my blood from as early as I can remember,” she says, recalling her prized childhood Christmas present of a blackboard easel. She looked up to her educators and is still in contact with her Year 2 teacher.

After becoming a teacher herself, she was mentored by others who recognised her budding leadership skills. “During my first few years teaching I worked with a Josephite sister who could see potential in people that they couldn’t see themselves,” Sanderson says. “She pushed us to our limit and beyond to extend our range of skills and breadth of experience as educators. I remember being told at 3:30 one afternoon that I was compering the book week ball that night. Hundreds of people would be there and I was paralysed with fear, but compere it I did – and loved it so much they couldn’t get the microphone off me!”

Sanderson began to relish taking on extra roles within her school. “I was constantly in overdrive with ideas of alternate ways of doing things to the tried and trusted ways. I wanted to take a risk, have a go and dare to be different to the school down the road.”

Improvement through innovation

As she has worked to innovate in her schools, Sanderson has been conscious of the need to bring the school community along with her. “I needed to be careful to pace the school’s improvement so the community supported, followed, respected and embraced growth and change. Managing the discomfort some may feel as the practice is challenged is something a good leader does innately.”

At St John the Baptist, Sanderson decided to shake up the status quo of teaching strategies. “A few years ago I became very disillusioned that our very concentrated teaching was not resulting in the level of achievement of which I knew our students were capable,” Sanderson says. “We needed to teach the same content but we needed to develop a different strategy.” She set out on her own professional learning journey.

PD the key

“I immersed myself in professional learning and explored a range of different approaches,” she says. “I attended conferences, went on observational visits to other schools, listened to international speakers, tossed ideas around endlessly. My AP and I, and then my whole leaders of learning team, would feed back to staff our insights and observations, and our enthusiasm was contagious as they became impatient for the development of a teaching and learning framework that was a perfect fit for St John’s.”

Professional learning was facilitated for all teachers too. “I brought a range of presenters to our school and immersed the teachers in superb presentations by accomplished educators. All staff, part-time and fulltime, undertook a co-coaching course. The skills that coaching developed in the teachers changed the dynamics of our staff, as they found a new confidence in collaborating with and mentoring each other. This was our turning point – the level of professional dialogue among staff was astounding.”

The changes Sanderson and her team introduced included rigid protocols surrounding staff meetings, agreed practices in numeracy and literacy, daily timetabling and observation of each other using newly acquired skills in giving feedback.

Sanderson knew her role in this transition was pivotal. “The essential ingredient was my involvement in leading the change every step of the way. Our staff meetings are collaborative and focused on leading learning, so every teacher is aware of what each class and particular students are doing, and problem areas we have all discovered. What happens in classrooms is transparent, and teachers feel supported rather than intimidated by whole-staff conversations about their own classrooms.

“Our teachers can see the manifestation of their new learnings in the learnings of their students, and once teachers see that, their dedication to the task is sealed.”

Paul Geyer, chief executive of PAI, says Sanderson’s passion for innovative, vocational learning is very much in the spirit of the John Laing Awards for Professional Development. “Great schools have great leaders – like Mandy – who inspire their staff and their students every day,” Geyer says. “PAI enjoys presenting these awards each year, recognising and celebrating the role principals play in providing leadership and development in their schools and the wider community. Mandy’s efforts at St John the Baptist and her previous schools made her a deserving recipient last year.”

The importance of support and mentoring for school leaders

Sanderson readily explains that being part of a team is vital to being a successful leader. “I could not manage without the support of others,” she says.

Support at a school level comes from her executive team and staff, and she also receives mentoring from her Diocesan leaders. “It is crucial to have someone at the next level who supports or just listens when you need it,” she says.

“It’s not a sign of weakness to seek help or advice but a sign that you are actually human and have an
extremely stressful and all-consuming job. Our Diocesan leaders have made Principal Health and Wellbeing a major Diocesan priority in their ongoing strategic plan.”

The many “hats” that principals are required to wear can be challenging, Sanderson admits. “Being able to manage the myriad expectations from society, government departments (all of them), the school system, media, parents and even ourselves is a constant juggling act. Finding workable ways to meet these expectations proves more difficult every year – and if anyone has the answer I’d be happy to hear it.”
High expectations of school principals are held by the very youngest in our community too. Sanderson recalls being interviewed by two assistant directors for her performance appraisal recently. “A little child with ASD overlooked the fact that the door was closed, the secretary was trying to stop him, and two people in suits were meeting with me. [The child] wanted me to kill a spider and no one else could do it because ‘you are the principal!’,” she recalls. “I killed the spider!”

Influencing the next generation

At St John the Baptist, Sanderson sees her achievements as “team achievements” with her at the helm. “Being recognised by ACARA as a school with significant growth in NAPLAN, and being honoured with leadership awards from PAI and the Diocese, are the results of determination and hard work by a lot of people,” she says. She’s proud of her school community. “We have seen a range of skills blossom in our teachers that they didn’t know they had, been a part of the huge growth in the Lower Hunter area and shared the lives of many children and their families.” In the next two years she plans to develop a Gifted Education protocol to provide gifted children with learning experiences that suit their style and level of learning.

The social and emotional impact of her work over the past four decades is precious to Sanderson. “We are so much more than educators and teachers of Key Learning Areas,” she says. “Yes, people know you as their teacher and principal, but what they remember is how you helped, cared, acted or loved them through difficult times in their lives. We can never allow the pressures placed on us by society to raise student achievement to minimise the fact we are also raising the next generation of compassionate human beings who will take this planet into the future.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 edition of Education Review.