Finding a leading edge

Upper Coomera State College

“This place could get out of hand very quickly,” says Upper Coomera State College principal Mike O’Connor . “It’s big . And size breeds complexity.”

The numbers tell the story: there are more than 2000 students and 180 staff; some 50 nationalities represented and almost 100 students are from an Indigenous background.

Upper Coomera is a Prep to Year 12 school on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

With such a large and diverse student population and many specialist learning programs in place, the 30-strong leadership team of department heads, reading coaches and deputy principals must be on their game to inspire, motivate and energise staff.

“I’m very much committed to purposeful, deliberate coaching, not just ad hoc incidental learning,” says Mike. “People actually have to put aside the time to purposely and deliberately work with others on their development, not just think they’re going to somehow evolve into this wonderful leader through osmosis. It doesn’t happen that way.”

The school has also built a strong network of professional learning teams, using Gonski funding to employ reading coaches, for example, who’ve helped to build capability among teachers and improve student results. The teams have been “incredibly successful, particularly in our junior school”, says Mike.

“We set aside time, which funding has allowed us to free up, so that teachers can be coached and also coach.

“That’s a big deal in schools,” he says. “You often hear teachers say they can’t get to the work that’s actually about capability development because there’s always an interruption . We’ve been able to create a structure where they have that free time, that clear space to be coached.

“We’re seeing significant improvements in instructional practices in classrooms from that process,” he says.

For example, a literacy strategy to improve reading performance across the school includes introducing the “whole college reading framework” and employing extra literacy teacher aides. This initiative has also included coaching and professional development and engaging a new head of curriculum to coach and mentor teachers. This is part of a longterm plan to create a strong culture of teaching literacy at the school.

Administration and bureaucracy are also kept in check.

“The administration demands are always there. I think we as leaders need to be very efficient and effective in how we manage those and also quite selfish in pushing back to the bottom of the in-tray things that aren’t about our core business,” says Mike.