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.
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.