Profile of a Principal in Liminal Times

By Mary Coverdale, Director of The Learner First, Australia.

It’s becoming common to use the anthropological term “liminal” to describe the period of time we are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. It means the space and time between things, the state between a past and future state, where our flow of life is disrupted and new beginnings emerge. These periods are signified by common socioemotional responses to our current states of being. The interruption from the “normal’ way of doing things, and the blurring of our work and life boundaries and expectations, typically produces uncertainty and discomfort. Some people feel frightened, some feel confused and anxious, and some feel disoriented and unhappy. Some feel all of these and can become quite unwell.

On the other hand, some leaders revel in this space. They are comfortable with the idea that there is no longer a “script” or a “right” way to work, choosing to see these times as a gift—as a rare opportunity for transformative growth. Chris Dench, who has been the principal at Kilcoy SHS in Queensland for the past eight years, is this sort of leader. He is positive and open to learning, using the collective thinking and decision making of his staff to determine the way forward for his school. He understands that now is the time to be acutely aware of the well-being needs of his staff and students, and to actively and responsively listen to the people in his community. He is listening to them talk about what really matters and acting on the insights they share.

I was fortunate enough to be present at a whole-staff learning session where staff’s exit statements from a student-free day were collated and shared back to deepen the collective understanding of “why” they are undertaking the Learner First work. The school is preparing for a ministry review, and there is an opportunity to refine their vision through the lens of the moral purpose of the work. This orientation brings a shared understanding of concepts such as “deeper learning” and of how to support the success of the “whole child,” helping to change the cultural landscape of the classrooms. In 2017, Kilcoy SHS developed a statement that reflected the understanding that every student’s needs should be the focus of teachers’ capacity building experiences—“It is our moral imperative to empower students to succeed in the world beyond the classroom.” This purpose drove the work going forward.

“The Learner First completes the picture for us. As a deep learning school focusing primarily on knowledge acquisition through inquiry-based learning and global competence development, TLF has enabled us to bring the ‘whole child’ into focus. The addition of ‘Self-Understanding’ and ‘Connection’ is allowing us to wrap a warm blanket of well-being around our students.”

—Chris Dench, Principal, Kilcoy State High School, Queensland, Australia

Chris profoundly understands that meaningful cultural change can only be undertaken slowly and purposefully. Space and time are needed for collaborative feedback, decision making, and reorienting the school. It was identified through the group’s exit responses that student self-understanding and connection were two missing links in what was already a successful strategic improvement model. It was wonderful to observe the honesty and trust evidenced by the staff’s comments and questions. These reflected anxieties and concerns about change, managing new priorities, and handling the complexities of teaching and learning in a pandemic. As stated by one staff member, “It feels like I’m juggling chainsaws some days. The work I do needs to be ever-changing and responsive.”

In looking after the whole child, working on thinking skills and deeper learning, focussing powerfully on assessment alignment, and continually looking to improve the culture of the school, Chris has eschewed the dominant model of hegemonic leadership. He respects his teachers and students, he seeks feedback, and he creates trust and stability by embracing the opportunities that have been presented in these liminal times.