The news is replete with tales of teacher burnout, student dropouts and a rise in the number of school principal vacancies. However, it is rare when the resignation of one school principal generates national media attention. Then again, David Loader, principal of Australia's Wesley College, is not your ordinary principal.
An examination of the past 13 years gives a sense of Loader's accomplishments during his 31-year career. In 1989 he committed his school at the time, the Methodist Ladies' College, to giving every child in grades 5-12 a laptop computer. This bold act instigated a learning revolution that is just beginning to ripple across the United States.
Loader built a residential campus for ninth grade girls in an Australian rainforest, constructed a state-of-the-art music center, traded a dated tradition of compulsory Saturday intramurals for a new physical education center and challenged his teaching staff to rethink the nature of teaching and learning. His last two schools created a learning community that includes everyone from toddlers to business leaders interested in personal growth.
An accomplished entrepreneur and consensus builder, Loader was not afraid to "stir the pot" when he thought it would benefit kids.
Loader continued to innovate and spark controversy at Wesley College, the largest independent school in the Southern Hemisphere. He granted autonomy to his three campuses, convened a process where students could help redesign middle-school education, constructed an early childhood center, established time for weekly staff professional development, and "built" a town (see Clunes sidebar).
Loader's creativity, intellect and candor have paid off time and time again. His schools have been recognized as being among the best in the world, and his 1997 book, The Inner Principal (Student Outcomes and the Reform of Education) by Library Binding, is a revealing account of the loves, fears, work and dreams of at least one school principal.
Editor-at-Large Gary Stager interviewed Loader about his career and his decision to leave his current position.
When you decided in 1989 that every child should have a laptop computer, few executives had laptops. Are you glad you promoted truly personal computing?
Schools are too conservative and are often serve the needs of parents and teachers rather than students. So in my mind I wanted to change the focus. I wanted students to be more in control of their learning. The idea of providing an individual [personal] computer, the laptop, for every student seemed an obvious way of doing that.
You created the position of associate principal instead of the traditional vice principal. Why?
The basic structure of schooling had to be addressed so instead of appointing a traditional assistant I looked for a change-agent as my assistant. I then supported this person with the necessary resources. The focus for this person was to be the creation of a learning community.
It is amazing how little we know, and even less we practice, in the area of learning. As adults we do not like to find the unknown, nor do we like to make mistakes. Such misadventures would force us to be learners. It is a strange contradiction that the so-called good teachers in the past were the ones who did not need to learn. This is not so today in schools or in businesses. The most successful organizations are those most capable of learning.
Why did you write The Inner Principal? Did it accomplish your goals?
I wrote The Inner Principal as a result of some lectures I gave to postgraduate education students. They were eager for the real, and often failure, stories that come from a practicing administrator. So often in my experience, successful principals tell their success stories and do not tell of the sleepless lonely nights.
Friends told me that to publish this could adversely affect my career. It has not done so. While peers are quiet about the book, they all seem to have read it. I am often asked to speak about such topics as the heart and head of leadership, burnout and leadership under stress.
Was the book received differently by your local school than the broader educational community?
Yes. I have begun to see in others a public acknowledgment of the stresses and strains of leadership and the ambivalence felt about decisions, so it has been a good thing to publish. I remember asking a successful principal what she did with a certain discipline situation. She replied that she did not have this problem. Today, many fellow principals are owning up to difficulties and are telling it as it is.
Can you describe your relationship with other school leaders?
Relationships with other principals were not always easy as I kept challenging the status quo. I did not tow the party line, and even when I made New Year resolutions to do so, I ended up disagreeing and then speaking out. This meant that the media often spoke to me, as they knew they would get an honest answer and often an unexpected one. I never sought publicity for myself, as I know only too well in Australia there is no respect for tall poppies. However, I usually ended up speaking out on behalf of good causes.
Why are you leaving the principalship?
Basically, I leave because it is time.
I am in my 32nd year as a principal. The job is very demanding and I would like to give myself a little more personal time. Quite often the work day begins with 7:30 a.m. meetings and ends with evening meetings finishing at 10 p.m. Even in social functions, you are still seen as the principal and it is hard to get out of the role.
On a more specific level, the projects that I have been working on have come to completion. The new projects require a commitment of more than six months to a year. I think you need to give them three years to get them through. I am not convinced that I have the energy for such a big push.
In the process of working toward certain goals, you win some friends and enemies. It takes energy, courage and commitment to push through those goals.
At 61, I haven't lost my desire to achieve, but I do not have as much energy for the struggle.
Do you leave behind any unfinished business?
Of course, I leave behind unfinished business, but I also know that one will never complete all the tasks they set.
What will you do next?
The goal is to do mentoring, working with governing bodies and principals.
My view is that leadership is a complex interaction between many elements including personalties, skills, followers and settings. Whatever the elements, all can be influenced positively by personal mentorship. Unfortunately much leadership development is exclusively based upon giving leaders more knowledge rather than affecting the way they behave.
As a result, many such programs fail to make leaders perform better.
In contrast, mentoring helps principals and council members to see themselves as others do, to more closely examine the interactions of other people as well as to define areas for focused professional development.
Aside from the remarkable collection of campuses you have constructed, buildings you've built and programs you designed, when you look back on your career what is it that makes you proudest?
Strangely, given the firsts with computers, residential education and learning, what I see as my greatest moment is a special event where the school community came together before a paying audience of 12,000 people to present an evening of drama, music and entertainment. That evening was the most difficult achievement in my career. It was also the event where I had no creative role except to support those who created and performed. Upon reflection, I have done this throughout my career. Our computing innovations were built on such administrative support.
Are there any things you would have done differently?
I would, in general terms, like to have spent more time out of the office, but not necessarily in the classroom. Rather, I needed to spend more time in the staff room with teachers. If they are on your side then you will win. Their knowledge is critical and needs to be factored into decisions.
What does the future hold for schooling?
I am still optimistic about schooling despite the efforts of some to take schools into some kind of academic Olympics where reading, numbers and more are measured and politicians can then be seen to be successful in creating the best education system. Schools are a way of reaching our youth. They can be made to work but it will take more than goodwill. It requires dedication, commitment and a willingness to speak out against that which doesn't benefit children.
They say that the worst thing is a principal with no vision and the next worst thing is a principal with only his/her vision (or did I get that in the wrong order?)
Gary Stager, email@example.com, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.