Principally Speaking: Saint Stephen’s College

Jamie Dorrington, Headmaster at Saint Stephen’s College on the Gold Coast talks to WhichSchool? Magazine about how the school is embracing innovation, while continuing to respect the values of its past.

How does the school’s philosophy and ethos guide it today?
We focus on character, but in particular on maturity, integrity and an abundance mentality. Maturity is telling the truth without offending others. Integrity is making and keeping meaningful promises. And abundance mentality is making sure everyone is recognised for their contribution. These come out of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, which was published in 1989.

Even though the school has a lot of innovative teaching practices, I still think those qualities are very important, even as students go on to become our employers in the future. We use these things to get our compass bearings. They keep us moving in the right direction. Even though technology is changing, a lot of those fundamentals haven’t changed at all.

How does Saint Stephen’s College differ from other schools?
I think most schools are aspiring to develop fine young graduates. We persistently focus on certain things and these become part of the culture of the school. We don’t have a rule book here, but students behave in a certain way and do what is reasonable simply because it is reasonable.

The three key qualities are perpetuated, particularly by the behaviours of our senior students. It’s about the way we do things without thinking about it – that’s just second nature here.

In what ways has Saint Stephen’s College evolved since you joined the school in 2003?
When I arrived 16 years ago, 60 per cent of the school was demountable buildings. Now we have among the best learning facilities in the country. We have lot of visitors from other schools coming in to see what we’ve done.

The way we approach education is a lot different. It is obviously much more technology-rich. Now we use a combination of digital technology and face to face teaching. That blended learning approach is very different to the way students were taught in the past. We have a team of educators here to assist students and use a lot of data to track and monitor the progress of our students.

Around six years ago, we also introduced an academic advisor program that promotes self-regulated learning. This continues to have a positive impact.
Saint Stephen’s has continued to build and improve on what we had. Our performing arts has gone from strength to strength. We are now one of the best performing arts schools in south-east Queensland.

We have continued to work with the culture we had, but are constantly innovating to make improvements.

How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
First of all, it’s not just me, this is also provided by my executive team along with other members of staff. It’s important to send consistent messages about where we are going and why we are going there. Saint Stephen’s College provides a lot of professional development opportunities for staff to encourage innovation. There are a lot of really good things happening because teachers and other members of staff are promoting them. To provide leadership, I need to ensure that staff are clear about expectations and ensure they get professional fulfillment in what they are doing. It’s not us versus them. I hope they see us as all part of a team – teachers, maintenance staff, teacher aides, we’re all in it together.

We also have staff attending and speaking at conferences overseas, so I’m hoping they get a great deal of satisfaction from launching initiatives.

What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of the students?
Unfortunately, it’s not as much as what I’d like. My job is to make sure I help maintain a healthy culture in the school and make sure the students are resourced with what they need to learn. I am involved from time to time in dealing with individual students to help clarify where they are going, and I try to be out on the grounds as much as I can, letting students know I’m there to support them.

What are some of the more critical issues faced by educators in the independent school sector today?
I regularly attend conferences all around the world, and it is the same everywhere in the western world. I find it interesting that it doesn’t matter where the conference is being held, the issues seem to be very consistent. Mental health issues in young people, a perceived lack of resilience on their part in some cases, and concerns about the consequences of helicopter parenting. Part of growing up is making mistakes and learning from them. We need to be careful that we don’t over-sanitise the environment in which our young people grow up.

The other important issue is the impact of social media and how students interact with each other. It’s difficult when in the outside world they are being exposed to the opposite message. Bullying seems to be everywhere on television and social media, and people are being made into celebrities based on these actions.

Can you describe any specific ways in which the digital era is beginning to disrupt the education field?
There’s a whole wave of adaptive software coming through which really allows for the personalisation of learning for individual students. This causes teachers to rethink what their role is. They need to move off the stage, and that’s a bit of a challenge for some teachers. In the last 12 months, we’ve really reached a tipping point in that regard. There are now a lot more options for collaborative learning.

We need to ensure children feel empowered to learn, not just have them relying on teachers as the gatekeepers of knowledge. We need to strengthen students so they can continue to be learners beyond school.

Another thing is that with all of this digital material, students can learn anywhere, anytime, if they want to. In the future, this may impact on how we structure our school days. Having students start at a particular time, have lessons that run for set amounts of time, and then having them finishing at 3.15 has a shelf life.

We need the opportunity for students to do more project-based learning, such as STEAM projects. We need to teach students to maintain their creativity and provide them with the opportunity to apply their knowledges in an interdisciplinary sense. We’re now well on the way to addressing these challenges.

Our supply chain shouldn’t focus on the teacher but should focus directly on the student. If we are talking about education and its impact on students, the future of education is very bright.

The challenge for schools is that if they don’t change, they will make themselves redundant.

Students need to be empowered to learn in a number of different manners in order to be valued members of the community and to be valued in the community.

All of those things will become more important as parents start to look at what the school is doing to prepare their child not only for university but for work too. Employers expect us to turn up on time and work in teams with our fellow employees. There are certain aspects of what we do that hasn’t changed at all, even though the technology has.

What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
NAPLAN grew into something it was never intended to be. It was originally identified as a safety net to identify children who had not been identified as having additional needs.
It has now grown into a league table. Unfortunately, there needs to 50 per cent of schools below the average and 50 per cent above. When people look at the results, those schools with scores below the average may actually be doing a better job because they are helping the children that need it the most.

Schools were a closed shop for so long, we weren’t open enough on what we were doing, so parents needed something on which they could base a decision. So they received NAPLAN and now there is this increased focus on it. But the results derived from NAPLAN don’t measure how the school is educating the whole child. My School looks at the bits that can be measured, like literacy for example, but some things can’t be measured. An interdisciplinary perspective or the ability to work well together in teams, for example, are qualitative not quantitative.

What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher, or specifically in the role of principal?
There have been quite a few, but what stands out are the times when I have been working with a student, telling them they can achieve, promoting their self-efficacy, and giving good reason for them to believe in themselves. It is rewarding to then see them feeling empowered, like the world is their oyster. It’s about giving students the ability to enliven, enrich and empower their learning, and to understand that people have faith in them and they should have faith in themselves.

What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
I think we need to be prepared to look at things differently. Education, above all other industries, really needs to be a leader in the pack with its potential to innovate. It’s important to realise that just because things have been done a certain way for the past 100 years, it doesn’t mean they need to be kept the same for the next 10 years. There are plenty of resources now available, but we as educators need to be prepared to change our paradigm.

It’s an exciting time to be in education. Once education was one of those things that seemed to withstand everything when it came to change – schools were like bunkers. But the fact is that we have got to look for every opportunity to have an impact on the learning of every individual student rather than just a vague sense of what’s happening with a class group or a whole year level.

It’s a privilege to be involved in education. The important role played by educators is understated. It is interesting that when we look at the countries that do so well in education – like Singapore, Norway and Finland – the reason they do so well is because learning is highly valued and their teachers are highly valued.

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