Moving schools during the pandemic was a challenge principal Mike Newell embraced.
As a principal Mike Newell demonstrated his leadership agility and responsiveness when he changed jobs during the early stages of the pandemic. When the first lockdown occurred, Mike was not only supporting his successor at Northern Southland College, but also started his new principalship at James Hargest College without being able to meet people in person.
“It was a surreal experience, straddling both places for a while,” recalls Mike. He remembers working closely online with his new senior leadership team, followed by online introductory meetings with the Junior Campus staff and then the Senior Campus staff. There was no time to ease into his role as he wanted to support his new staff as they adapted to teaching online, help students connect with their learning and begin to build a new relationship with the wider school community.
With having now navigated the pandemic for 2+ years, Mike is pleased overall with how the school has managed. “The majority of staff have coped very well and in fact have developed their IT skills quicker than they would normally have. The important thing is that we have learnt that we can adapt. We sometimes get stuck in the way we do things but when you can’t do something like you use to, you have to change. Covid has shown us that we are able to be agile and do things differently.”
A key priority for Mike has been to keep his communications and messaging clear, concise and ultimately beneficial for whom ever it was intended. “Because there was so much information received by the school every second day, we had to make sure the right information went out to staff and they weren’t overloaded with too much.” His message to his senior leadership team was “if it’s not critical for this term then don’t put it out. We do not want to create unnecessary stress for people”. Staff liked having one person who provided accurate information for them, and therefore subsequently felt they were valued and being kept safe.
The intent was the same with communication to the community – making sure emails were clear to understand and including the right amount of information. “At the time everyone probably didn’t really appreciate the level of anxiety there was in the community because it was so new and that’s where schools did their bit, trying to be calm and thinking about people’s wellbeing.”
Throughout the impact of the pandemic, Mike has also made sure that they have gained a good understanding of how students have been feeling and what their views have been on their learning experiences. He did this through a range of surveys, but largely by visiting classes and listening directly to students. Senior students really liked the increased amount information that had been posted by teachers to the digital learning environments. This meant that when students were in lockdown they could work at their own pace and manage their own time. Once back at school, student feedback was that despite the interruptions to their learning at school, they wanted to retain the usual evidence exam process (practice exams). Mike says that “we don’t listen to our students enough. . . and often as leaders and HODs we have a view, but it will be different to what the students think”.
The school has taken a strong stance on the continuation of mask wearing for staff and students on both campuses. While this position was not popular with some parents, overall compliance has been very high. Mike says their approach has been to appeal to peoples’ sense of community and responsibility for the health of everyone.
Mike is clear about what he wants to achieve, deliberate in his actions, but is also pragmatic in his approach as a leader. “We’ve learnt throughout the pandemic how to be more flexible in the way we think and operate as a school. We can think yes we can do it this way, but have we thought about doing it another way?”
Maintaining a ‘How can we make this happen?’ attitude, there have been many schoolwide processes, activities and events that have been positively enhanced and improved, including: modified student camps, digital parent-student conferences, staff working from home and in some cases moving to part time, online prize givings and celebrations, and so on.
With a growth mindset, Mike’s message to students has been to acknowledge that not everyone’s experience of the pandemic has been easy, but know that throughout the challenges and difficulties that have been overcome, everyone has been able to change, adapt and grow – a good lesson for life.
About the school
James Hargest College
Y7-13 Co-educational State School
1800 across the junior and senior campuses