Leonie McNair and Harriet Thyne - The Launceston Preparatory School

Leadership Series: Leonie McNair and Harriet Thyne

A unique insight into lead­er­ship and the expe­ri­ence of run­ning a school as Co-Principals

Draw­ing from years of expe­ri­ence and wis­dom, the series will demys­ti­fy lead­er­ship and pro­vide valu­able insight to edu­ca­tors start­ing their lead­er­ship jour­ney. This time we were for­tu­nate to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk with Leonie McNair and Har­ri­et Thyne from The Launce­s­ton Prepara­to­ry School.
Leonie McNair and Harriet Thyne - The Launceston Preparatory School
Harriet and Leonie - The Launceston Preparatory School

Hel­lo Leonie and Harriet,

First­ly, we’d love to hear about the won­der­ful school you lead. Please tell us a bit about The Launce­s­ton Prepara­to­ry School?

Our school began in 1982 and is non-denom­i­na­tion­al, non-sys­temic, co-edu­ca­tion­al, offer­ing edu­ca­tion to 150 stu­dents in Ear­ly Learn­ing to Grade 6. Our phi­los­o­phy draws from many, but the devel­op­ment of the whole child” – aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, social­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, phys­i­cal­ly and artis­ti­cal­ly – is at its core. 

We spend most of our time in coach­ing stu­dents, believ­ing that chil­dren learn best by doing”. This allows teach­ing to be most con­struc­tive and learn­ing to be most last­ing, because chil­dren are actu­al­ly prac­tis­ing the skills they need under the eye of a teacher as coach who can refine, sup­port, and re-teach each stu­dent as nec­es­sary. It also allows us to effec­tive­ly focus on indi­vid­ual needs, sup­port­ing those who require addi­tion­al sup­port either by way of exten­sion or remediation. 

We have a Socrat­ic strand to our teach­ing and learn­ing. The empha­sis in Socrat­ic think­ing is upon deep­en­ing the children’s under­stand­ing and for­ma­tion of ideas on issues they have been study­ing. A Socrat­ic strand runs through all our teach­ing, across every cur­ricu­lum area, and stu­dents from 5 years of age are also timetabled for Phi­los­o­phy ses­sions each week. 

Anoth­er fea­ture of our school is that stu­dents are delib­er­ate­ly organ­ised into mul­ti-age group­ings (as dis­tinct from com­pos­ite class­es). Whilst Ear­ly Learn­ing and Kinder­garten stu­dents are kept as homoge­nous groups, all oth­er chil­dren are grouped as 5 – 7 year olds, 7 – 9 year olds and 9 – 12 year olds. We have found this sup­ports indi­vid­ual achieve­ment and the self-esteem of the students.

With­in these ver­ti­cal groups, we active­ly main­tain small class sizes. We believe that the opti­mum size for a class is 15 – 18 stu­dents and so that is the max­i­mum range for our stu­dents in their mul­ti-age group­ings. With­in that class size, how­ev­er, stu­dents will be coached in even small­er groups accord­ing to their par­tic­u­lar skill needs at the time and not nec­es­sar­i­ly con­fined by a pre­con­ceived and often arti­fi­cial idea of what a child of that age should be covering. 

Also, stu­dents at The Launce­s­ton Prepara­to­ry School do not stay in one room with one teacher through­out their day, as is usu­al­ly the case in pri­ma­ry schools. There are many ben­e­fits from this way of plan­ning: a vari­ety of teach­ers is stim­u­lat­ing, chil­dren learn to get along with dif­fer­ent peo­ple, phys­i­cal­ly mov­ing between lessons and see­ing the results of oth­er children’s work in oth­er rooms can be refresh­ing and stim­u­lat­ing, and it facil­i­tates the stu­dents’ tran­si­tion to high-school.

We are very proud of the beau­ti­ful premis­es which our school occu­pies and which are phys­i­cal sym­bols of the ethos of the school. We believe that schools do not need to look like insti­tu­tions and indeed there is a pos­i­tive val­ue in them look­ing like homes. Thus, since its incep­tion in 1982, The Launce­s­ton Prepara­to­ry School has sought to main­tain the appear­ance of a home in its phys­i­cal facil­i­ties even when adding new build­ings. The gra­cious­ness of the two old homes on the Elphin Road frontage is com­ple­ment­ed by the new­er Ear­ly Years cen­tre and mul­ti-pur­pose hall, and the beau­ti­ful gar­dens and cre­ative play spaces that draw them together. 

It’s incred­i­bly unique that your school has a Co-Prin­ci­pal struc­ture, can you please share with us how this works and how it came to be?

The Co-Prin­ci­pal­ship at The Launce­s­ton Prepara­to­ry is indeed a unique struc­ture and one we often have to explain to those who haven’t vis­it­ed our school to see it in action.

The Co-Prin­ci­pal­ship has been in place since the school’s incep­tion. Two teach­ers decid­ed that they need­ed to cre­ate a school that har­nessed the curios­i­ty, imag­i­na­tion and enthu­si­asm dis­played by chil­dren in their first years of school, and main­tain this love of learn­ing and thirst for knowl­edge until the chil­dren left the school in Grade 6. They want­ed to send the stu­dents off to high school and beyond as capa­ble, thought­ful cit­i­zens who are life-long learners.

As Co-Prin­ci­pals have either retired or moved on to dif­fer­ent posi­tions in oth­er schools, oth­er Co-Prin­ci­pals have been employed to take their place. Leonie McNair has been our longest serv­ing Co-Prin­ci­pal and has been the guid­ing force” behind the suc­cess of this lead­er­ship mod­el. With such a breadth of knowl­edge about every facet of our school, Leonie is able to expert­ly assist and guide new Co-Prin­ci­pals as they take up the mantle.

It hasn’t been coin­ci­den­tal that each new Co-Prin­ci­pal has been a cur­rent mem­ber of staff at The LPS. For a Co-Prin­ci­pal­ship to be suc­cess­ful, we believe that there needs to be an estab­lished rela­tion­ship. Inter­per­son­al con­nec­tions, com­pat­i­ble per­son­al­i­ties and being able to leave one’s ego at the door are vital for this mod­el to work. Each Co-Prin­ci­pal needs to be gen­er­ous of spir­it, will­ing to con­tribute to a heavy work­load (as both Co-Prin­ci­pals have teach­ing loads as well) and to help the oth­er to achieve com­mon goals with­out seek­ing per­son­al ben­e­fit. For us, this has been best achieved by build­ing upon the strong rela­tion­ships built up from teach­ing side-by-side for a num­ber of years. Com­bined with a deep under­stand­ing of our school phi­los­o­phy, a love of the school and a com­mit­ment to its suc­cess, each Co-Prin­ci­pal­ship has just worked!

What are some of the key chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties that have arisen dur­ing your shared leadership?

It is dif­fi­cult to think of chal­lenges in our shared lead­er­ship as it has been one born from a long friend­ship and strong respect of one anoth­er. We think per­haps the biggest chal­lenge is to com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er on near­ly every aspect of our school days so we are kept abreast of all that is going on with the stu­dents, their fam­i­lies and with our staff mem­bers. This can also be seen as an oppor­tu­ni­ty. When there are prob­lems, chal­lenges or indeed, oppor­tu­ni­ties to make change, which invari­ably there are, two heads are bet­ter than one! A Co-Prin­ci­pal­ship pro­vides each of us with a safe sound­ing board so that togeth­er we can nav­i­gate what­ev­er comes our way with the reas­sur­ance that we have each other’s backs.

In your time as school prin­ci­pals, are there some piv­otal moments that have stood out for you? What might they be and why?

Leonie

I have worked with three Co-Prin­ci­pals dur­ing the course of my tenure in the role. All have been hap­py and suc­cess­ful rela­tion­ships! Each change has been piv­otal because it has been impor­tant to open myself and my lead­er­ship to new ideas and ways of doing. Each has been vital to the growth and the devel­op­ment of the school, nur­tur­ing it from infan­cy to adulthood! 

Har­ri­et

My deci­sion to step into the Co-Prin­ci­pal role was a piv­otal moment! It takes courage to step out of one’s com­fort zone and it was not nec­es­sar­i­ly a path­way I had long planned. How­ev­er, I am glad I took that step at that cru­cial moment in the school’s life and mine!

The School

In 1997, the school made the strate­gic deci­sion to com­mit to its cur­rent site and seek oppor­tu­ni­ties to acquire adja­cent prop­er­ties to allow the school to grow with­out mov­ing to a green­field site. A big fac­tor in this deci­sion was the range of won­der­ful phys­i­cal facil­i­ties close by which we could use instead of dupli­cat­ing them on the school site. 

What have been some of your key learn­ings about school lead­er­ship over the years?

No mat­ter where you are in your lead­er­ship jour­ney, it is impor­tant to be an effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tor, approach­able, empa­thet­ic and fair. We often talk about being able to see the shades of grey in every sit­u­a­tion, ensur­ing that all per­spec­tives are con­sid­ered and all par­ties get a chance to be heard. This is made so much eas­i­er when we are able to share prob­lems at the coal-face. Hav­ing a teach­ing load ensures we are direct­ly involved in the issues that arise with stu­dents, their fam­i­lies and the staff of the school. 

School lead­er­ship is also about lis­ten­ing. You need to be a good lis­ten­er but you also need to have the courage to make the deci­sions when and where they need to be made. Peo­ple won’t always agree with what lead­ers do but they do deserve a well-rea­soned ratio­nale that is behind the deci­sion you make.

What advice would you offer to aspir­ing lead­ers as they con­sid­er embark­ing upon a school lead­er­ship role?

Lead­er­ship of a school is not about stamp­ing your mark as a step­ping stone to oth­er positions. 

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath­wa­ter! Build upon and around what is work­ing well in a school rather than chang­ing for change’s sake.

School cul­ture is para­mount. You can do almost any­thing in a school where the heart is sound. 

Make the time and effort to build rela­tion­ships – with stu­dents, with their fam­i­lies, with all staff mem­bers, with Board mem­bers, with neigh­bours and the com­mu­ni­ty. These are the blood sup­ply of your school’s cul­tur­al heart. 

Be pre­pared to lis­ten and learn. 

What advice would you offer to schools and their lead­ers look­ing to adopt a sim­i­lar mod­el of shared leadership?

Before adopt­ing a Co-Prin­ci­pal­ship mod­el in any school, we feel there first needs to be an estab­lished rela­tion­ship and trust between the two can­di­dates. In our school, we have found it has worked best when we have recruit­ed from with­in the school as both par­ties know each other’s strengths and weak­ness­es and their pas­sions and pet-hates. In a Co-Prin­ci­pal­ship, each par­ty must be pre­pared to leave their egos at the door, accept­ing that suc­cess for one is suc­cess for both.

We feel that a Co-Prin­ci­pal­ship does not need to be a mod­el just for small schools. In our case, we do not have clear­ly defined roles but we cap­i­talise on each other’s strengths and utilise the strengths of those around us when required. It will nev­er be a per­fect 50/50 rela­tion­ship and there will always be swings and round­abouts with work­loads. Hav­ing a teach­ing load on top of lead­ing the school means at times the work­load is very heavy but we now try to ensure that we both main­tain an effec­tive work/​life balance. 

What do you think will be the key oppor­tu­ni­ties or chal­lenges for schools in the years ahead?

It is per­haps clichéd but nonethe­less true that tech­nol­o­gy will be both a chal­lenge and an oppor­tu­ni­ty. The world it is open­ing up to young peo­ple is so excit­ing but our use of tech­nol­o­gy needs a guid­ing frame­work and vig­i­lance to pro­tect young peo­ple from the pitfalls.

Teach­ing is a high­ly reward­ing pro­fes­sion but one that involves a lot of hard work! As time goes by, there seem to be more demands on teach­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the sup­port that stu­dents and their fam­i­lies require. Man­ag­ing the stress on teach­ers that these demands bring will be an increas­ing chal­lenge for school leaders. 

It is both an oppor­tu­ni­ty and a chal­lenge to work with uni­ver­si­ties to ensure that teach­ers are well-trained to meet the demands of the profession. 

Per­haps with the demise of the extend­ed fam­i­ly and the pres­sures of work, par­ent­ing is a skill that many peo­ple strug­gle with and increas­ing­ly look to schools for support.

Are there any fur­ther words of advice that you would like to share?

Our final words of advice would be to nev­er lose con­nec­tion with the stu­dents because that’s where your zing moments” will come from! No mat­ter how dif­fi­cult things may get with your posi­tion, the stu­dents will be what inspire you get out of bed every day!

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