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The Principal As Storyteller-In-Chief

If we don’t tell our story, someone else will, and more often than not, another’s version will not be the one we want told. Leaders need to become storyteller-in-chief…By doing so, we create the means by which we share all of the positives associated with our schools and create a much-needed level of transparency in an age of negative rhetoric toward education.

Eric Sheninger (2017) Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times

In 2018, I had the privilege of spending time with Mr Ray Trotter of Wooranna Primary School who was embarking on writing a paper for a reputable educational journal. He had been commissioned to write about the 21 years of reform at the school under his leadership, entitled One School’s Journey To Create A New Education Paradigm.

The depth of Ray’s ‘school story’ demonstrates how a principal can show digital leadership through what Eric Sheninger calls becoming a ‘storyteller-in-chief’.  Trending online topics in business circles have parallels to the way principals speak and write in education in concepts such as ‘leaders as meaning makers’ and ‘thought leadership’. For example, Duke Corporate Education at Duke University teaches its business management students that

Leaders need to gather narratives, artefacts, perspectives, and ideas that reveal ‘latent purpose’. This is an oblique approach of listening in to what people are thinking and feeling – rather than asking them to define the purpose, which is a mistake that many leaders make. Only then can leaders start building the narrative that will eventually morph into organizational purpose.

The question thus arises: how are principals not only the ‘official voices for their schools’ but also their ‘meaning makers’ and ‘thought leaders’?  As public audiences pay attention to what they say and write, how are they modelling the power of the spoken and written word, which, in a digital world is attached to a variety of social media apps and authoring software?

School stories inspire.

What I witnessed at Wooranna Park Primary School, I believe, was how its principal remained focused on the core vision of a child-centred school for over twenty years. The paper that Ray was in the process of writing was, in fact, the most complete version of a recurring theme. In a nutshell, it told how a conventional government school went about transforming itself from the mid-1990s for the benefits of its students. In the process, it outlined its ‘reason for being’ and the burning principles that drove the changes in classrooms and how the staff took up the challenge of proactively engaging in school-based reforms.

It portrayed a complex account of how pedagogies arise from embracing a vast educational world of ideas into the minutiae of everyday classroom practices.  How were ‘big ideas’ translated into practices that saw the students becoming more responsible and autonomous learners? How was the school preparing students to live democratically, ethically and joyously? What messages were emanating in each classroom about student agency and social coherence?

In an interview I conducted of Ray (September 2018), he acknowledged that once a child or an adult believes, ‘I can’t learn this’, they cannot learn.

You’ve switched off the brain’s ability to learn. I was lucky enough to have a mentor at university who never answered any question I asked. He always referred me to a book. I liked that. Yeah, because there are times when, you know, I think as a teacher it’s good to put some onus on the person to read and learn by themselves. On the other hand, sometimes you can cut through a lot of extra work by just giving an insight. And, yep, I think it was Piaget that said, “Once you teach a child you to take away the opportunity for that child to ever fully understand something.”

By embracing a ‘school story experience’, the school leader is positioned to inspire through example how to develop a personalised curriculum that resolutely embraces pedagogies that enable student agency.