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.
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?
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!
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!
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!