Talking deputies

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Keryn McGuinness in conversation with Kate Myers

Keryn McGuinness, 44, is assistant principal at MacRobertson Girls' High, a selective school in Melbourne, Australia. There are 845 girls on roll in Years 9-12 (14-18 years).

Outline your career path The only professional people I knew when I was at school were teachers. In the early 1970s the main way working-class kids could get to university was to accept a teaching scholarship - that's how lots of women my age came into teaching.

I studied history and politics and my first year of teaching was very boring and unchallenging: new teachers got junior classes and I craved more intellectually stimulating work.

From early on I was interested in being involved in whole-school decisions and after three years I became head of department. I enjoyed working with teachers beyond the classroom.

After three more years I qualified for long-service leave so I went to Japan because of my husband's job and it was there that I did the most difficult teaching I've ever had to do in a junior boys' academic high school. When I returned I worked in a a co-educational school in a disadvantaged part of Melbourne where I was treated like a junior teacher. I applied for jobs outside teaching but got promoted and soon after became an Advanced Skills Teacher Level 1.

What is teaching like in your part of Australia?

While I'm glad we have some devolvement, Victoria's education department retains a central responsibility for policy. There is a tradition of support, research and of schools working together.

What do you enjoy about the job?

I like being able to look at the whole-school picture now and having a role in shaping the future. I enjoy problem-solving and helping other people make things happen.

And not enjoy?

This year I have no teaching timetable. Teaching is my core skill, but as you get promoted what you love most you do least. I love day to day interactions with students but now I have to engineer them. I don't like the culture of "them and us". I've worked hard to break down the barriers but some staff still see it that way.

What is the most important aspect of the job?

My primary responsibility is to ensure that students can learn and teachers can teach. On a day-to-day basis that means routine matters such as making sure bells ring on time. In the longer term, it means planning project groups. I analyse our performance and look for trends, which is increasingly important.

And the most difficult ?

The isolation and loneliness in school can be very difficult - as can dealing with suspicion of new ideas. Over the years, I've learnt that to be innovative in a traditional setting you have to take people with you and this takes time.

As a deputy you can beome totally reactive. After the first 6 months, I found I was doing things that anyone could have done and I needed an education focus. Lastly, managing yourself is a real skill. I often feel like a duck in a pond; I have to be calm and professional because people rely on me, but underneath I'm paddling like crazy.

Who are your role models?

My mother because she has a very strong work ethic; a former principal, and now my current principal, who is my mentor.

Any plans for professional development?

Because of the potential isolation, you need to commit to professional reading and development activities. I go to national and international conferences. Next January I am going to Toronto to present some of my work at a symposium of the International Congress of School Effectiveness and Improvement.

The key part of training for me was seven years ago when I did a summer school designed for women in leadership at Melbourne university, which gave me credits towards a masters degree. It also gave me an understanding of the new language of economic rationalism.

In 1994 I went to the Institute of School Leadership, held in Southern California. It helped me understand the Victoria context from an international perspective and gave me an understanding of the education environment and legislative issues.

In Victoria, after one year in a principal class position you become eligible for accreditation, which is linked to a 3 per cent salary increase. A couple of years ago, I spent a whole day being put through a range of rigorous activities and role-plays, which I found very enjoyable and valuable.

How is your relationship with the principal?

Very strong and based on absolute trust and mutualsupport. We have a terrific senior team and are all moving in the same direction.

What are your school responsibilities?

I'm responsible for student support and school operations, but we do change roles each year.

What support networks do you have?

I'm not a networker and have always thrown myself into the school community. Now I'm in the principal class I have to seek out support networks. I'm a member of the Principals' Association and I talk on the phone and go out for meals with other assistants and principals.

What sort of head would you like to be?

I believe educational leadership is vital. I would lead from the front and people would know what I stand for because I would make that clear. I would be aware of the need for the support of others. I would like to work in the kind of school where teachers felt they had a direct hand in shaping the future. I'd want to be visible - and not just confined to an office all the time.

Kate Myers is visiting professor of education at Homerton College, Cambridge

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