Nelson File

Leadership Series: Nelson File

The first in a series of lead­er­ship dis­cus­sions with lead­ers from across the state

Draw­ing from years of expe­ri­ence and wis­dom, the series will demys­ti­fy lead­er­ship and pro­vide valu­able insight to edu­ca­tors start­ing their lead­er­ship jour­ney. To begin the series we were for­tu­nate to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk with Nel­son File, Prin­ci­pal of The Friends’ School.
Nelson with Two Students at Friends School
Nelson with a Student at Friends School
Nelson File

Hel­lo Nelson,

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

There have been a few piv­otal moments that have stood out for me. My family’s move from The Amer­i­can Inter­na­tion­al School of Mus­cat (Oman) to Hobart, Tas­ma­nia near­ly 10 years ago was one of them. I had nev­er been to Aus­tralia before, pri­or to the inter­view for the posi­tion, just as I had nev­er been to Oman before inter­view­ing for that posi­tion near­ly 20 years ago. Mov­ing Schools and coun­tries is always a risk as you are nev­er quite cer­tain what you will real­ly encounter on a day-to-day basis. I can unequiv­o­cal­ly say that both moves were invig­o­rat­ing, fas­ci­nat­ing and pro­fes­sion­al­ly enrich­ing experiences.

Since being at The Friends’ School, the two biggest per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al chal­lenges were respond­ing to an his­tor­i­cal sex­u­al abuse alle­ga­tion from decades ago, and the chal­lenges that the Covid pan­dem­ic brought. In learn­ing about the sex­u­al abuse alle­ga­tion, I was so incred­i­bly sad­dened to imag­ine the ter­ri­ble pain and suf­fer­ing the for­mer stu­dent had lived with for a very long time. How could the School (and me as its rep­re­sen­ta­tive) best assist that per­son? I was for­tu­nate that the Pre­sid­ing Mem­ber of the Board of Gov­er­nors sup­port­ed me through that chal­leng­ing time. The pan­dem­ic pre­sent­ed its own chal­lenges, espe­cial­ly in the begin­ning when we were all strug­gling to under­stand what the best way for­ward was. The polit­i­cal lead­ers pre­sent­ed pol­i­cy by press con­fer­ence’ expect­ing near­ly instan­ta­neous imple­men­ta­tion of these decrees. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, at first, the ques­tion of whether to have schools remain open, or shift to dis­tance learn­ing, was politi­cised in Tas­ma­nia with polit­i­cal lead­ers offer­ing advice that dif­fered from the pub­lic health advice. Anoth­er addi­tion­al dif­fi­cul­ty was that each state’s pub­lic health advice dif­fered, lead­ing to our com­mu­ni­ty to ques­tion why Tas­ma­nia, at least ini­tial­ly, had dif­fer­ent direc­tives to oth­er states. 

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

We all know that there is no mag­ic wand (like Dumbledore’s Elder wand, although I do have a copy of one in my office!) that can instant­ly make changes come into effect. Change is incre­men­tal, day by day, sup­port­ing staff to grow and learn so they in turn can assist stu­dents to grow and learn. From time to time there are piv­otal moments when a shift’ or imple­men­ta­tion of a plan hap­pens that seem very large, but in ret­ro­spect, staff look back and won­der how the school rou­tines worked pri­or to the change.

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

Who you are as a per­son is not tied up in a posi­tion title, nor are the con­tri­bu­tions that you can make tied to where ever you may be. Be will­ing to take pro­fes­sion­al risks in order to grow as a per­son and an edu­ca­tor. Most impor­tant­ly, make cer­tain that the cul­ture you are work­ing in res­onates with your own val­ues so that you can come to work each day putting what you deeply believe in into practice.

Can you share with us how you think edu­ca­tion has changed in your time as a school leader?

Dur­ing my more than 40 years in Inde­pen­dent School edu­ca­tion across five dif­fer­ent nations, it seems that edu­ca­tion has become more legal­is­tic’. Per­haps some of the growth in legal frame­works is required, but I hate to think that what we do to assist young peo­ple to grow into thriv­ing, con­tribut­ing adults in soci­ety will be some­how less­ened’ because of increas­ing legal oversight.

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

The posi­tion of a leader in an inde­pen­dent school has always been com­plex. But those we looked to as we were grow­ing in our career appeared to do it more seam­less­ly than I do! I think we need to be increas­ing­ly aware of the social and emo­tion­al needs of our stu­dents, fam­i­lies and staff. This seems to be a key chal­lenge ahead of us all.

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

Teach­ing and edu­cat­ing stu­dents is hard work. We poten­tial­ly could come into con­tact with hun­dreds of peo­ple (staff, stu­dents, par­ents, alum­ni, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers) each day. We work with them, build rela­tion­ships, lis­ten, cajole, and nav­i­gate our way for­ward to assist the stu­dents to grow in a pos­i­tive set­ting. One is nev­er quite cer­tain what sit­u­a­tions will present each day because we are deal­ing with peo­ple. As lead­ers, I think we need to have a focused flexibility.

Tend­ing to the cul­ture of the school that you want to see is the most impor­tant task a leader should do each and every day. If one gets the cul­ture of the school right, then oth­er aspects of the role are more eas­i­ly tackled.

At The Friends’ School, I have some degree of con­fi­dence that all staff are focused on help­ing our young peo­ple devel­op into pos­i­tive, con­tribut­ing mem­bers of soci­ety that think clear­ly, act with integri­ty, have care and con­cern for oth­ers and the envi­ron­ment, are com­mit­ted to assist­ing oth­ers and will be aware of glob­al issues and con­cerns. The goal of the School remains focused on what are we doing to assist our stu­dents evolve into adults who will make the world a bet­ter place for all of us to live.

I think it is also impor­tant to keep front of mind the fol­low­ing questions:

1. Why does the school exist?

2. How do we expect every­one to behave? (And how do we react, with­in the school’s val­ues and frame­work, when poor behav­iour is presented?)

3. What is it we do day to day, and are we doing it?

4. What is impor­tant today, and in 5, 10, 15, years into the future?

5. Who must do what?, and

6. What does suc­cess look and feel like?

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