Every Student Podcast: Maurie Mulheron
Teachers Federation President Maurie Mulheron joins Secretary Mark Scott for a candid interview discussing bureaucracy, banjos and leading a school.
Teachers Federation President Maurie Mulheron joins Secretary Mark Scott for a candid interview discussing bureaucracy, banjos and leading a school.
Hi, I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today's guest is a former student of Punchbowl Boys High School where he played cricket for Punchbowl Boys, not quite as famous as Jeff Thomson and Lenny Pascoe, students a few years ahead of him. He went on to have a distinguished career in education and today he runs the NSW Teachers Federation. Maurie Mulheron, welcome to the Every Student Podcast.
This is an unusual conversation, I am sure that none of my predecessors as Secretary or Director-General have ever recorded an interview with the head of the federation.
The way I viewed it I say to people when I am travelling around that I always value talking education with you and I thought it would be good to share one of those conversations with a broader audience. Early on in your teaching career, you started as a casual teacher in south-western Sydney and then you did a short stint at Finley High School. How important do you think it is in the development of a teacher that they have that kind of experience, the rural experience? Did you learn a lot from it?
I certainly did, I certainly learnt how far away towns were and how big NSW was. I remember driving the thirteen hours in an old beat-up Toyota, hitting Finley and looking in my rear vision mirror and noticed I had just left Finley. I learnt a lot about country people, isolation and how large our system is at the time of Finley. I encourage young people to go to country schools if they can, west of the divide. We did have a transfer system back then and there was always that safety net that you weren’t there forever.
You could come back.
Yes and that is why we are not getting as many.
It is still an issue. I have been out talking to lots of principals in regional areas and I think the staffing issue is as big an issue now and one of the interesting things that we can see, we can talk about this later on, is that there’s a real challenge around supply of casual teachers with all the teachers being recruited with Gonski funding out in schools now so we are dealing with all that. Were you always going to be a teacher? Were your old teachers at Punchbowl Boys High surprised to see you enter the staffroom?
I don’t think so, I always wanted to be a teacher from a very young age. My experience I went to Punchbowl Primary, I went to Punchbowl Boys High School, I played soccer for Punchbowl Soccer Club, cricket for Punchbowl Sports Club, we shopped at Punchbowl shopping centre and caught the train from Punchbowl railway station, it was all things Punchbowl at the time. I always wanted to be a teacher and I had some marvellous teachers, many eccentric. We had wonderful music teachers, English teachers but it was the English teacher that really inspired me to want to read literature and ultimately teach and to write of course.
When I talked with Eddie Woo one of the really interesting things about Eddie is that he turned up at day one of uni thinking he was going to be an English and drama teacher and became our most famous maths teacher. Was there ever any doubt that English/history was the teaching subject for you?
I toyed with music teaching, I had an extraordinary music teacher, a man named Arthur Cook, and we had a very small class, only four or five boys, and the principal was good enough to let it run. Arthur Cook was this comedian as well as a music teacher, he wore these incredible suits. He taught us to listen and one way he taught us to listen was to put a recording of a steam train on and we had to listen, every lesson, to these steam trains going loud through these speakers and he would say “what did you hear?” and we would say “a steam train” and he would yell at us “it is more than a steam train did you hear the missing piston, did you hear the change in the gradient” he taught us to listen. Then he taught us to look at music scores by instead of looking at the score to start with he would play the music and then fill the blackboard with coloured chalk so if the oboe played that would be a certain symbol, there was a tympani crash so there would be this massive coloured chalk and symbols and asterisks and dashes and ticks all over the board, it looked like no order whatsoever. Then he would play the music again and circle the common motives so then you would see that the violin picked up the melody, then the oboe picked up the melody and then he would give us the music score. By that stage, of course, we are now starting to see the structure of the music. Brilliant teachers like that never leave you, so I always wanted to be a teacher that somehow got to kids and inspired them.
Tell us about teaching English and history what was the intrinsic reward of that for you in dealing with the kids at your school?
It would be a bit glib to say that history teaching is the only job where the State pays you to undermine it but the love of literature, the love of theatre and drama. I could see the connections of course with history as well. When I went to university it was just a manner of making sure I majored in those two subjects and I loved that. I look back on those days of uni studying English, my parents came from a very poor background and both had to leave school at thirteen and fourteen, it was the depression years and I remember my father who was an avid book collector and reader he bought the same texts that I was studying at uni just to read them while I was going through. There was a kind of sadness to that he was a man in this fifties and sixties that was never an opportunity but was so pleased that someone in his family was going to uni and he was going to follow the kind of literature we were studying.
When you were appointed principal of Keira, you ran Keira High School in the Illawarra for a decade.
It ran me at times too.
How ready were you, day one, to assume the principalship? When you look back on it now.
Not really, I think I was prepared in a sense that I knew it was a very demanding job, I had been a deputy up in south-west Sydney for five or six years prior to that at Ingleburn High School so I knew what the demands were. If you go in and you just hope that you are going to be surrounded very quickly by good people and when I arrived in Keira I was surrounded by good people. I really found my feet in a sense that I had two very capable deputies, a good executive, a staff that were willing to take risks. In many ways, I fell into the school that I needed and Keira was the one.
One of the things that I have discussed with principals as I travel around and as you think about it most of our principals were clearly good teachers otherwise they wouldn’t have been promoted to be a head teacher or an AP, some will be quite adept in the admin side of running a school and finally when you get to be a principal it is really all about people. Complex demanding unpredictable students, complex demanding unpredictable teachers, increasingly demanding parents let alone the department and the demands that it puts on – but really the leadership thing is all about the people. How much did you have to learn about leading that complex demanding infrastructure?
I have always thought – and this is not my original thought but it is one that I agree with – that effective teaching is about effective relationships with kids and the first job of a teacher is to form those effective relationships and it is no different in leadership. Effective leadership is really essentially about forming effective relationships. I knew that when I went into it my partner had been a principal earlier than I had and gave good advice and said you have got to get to a situation where people want to talk to you, they are prepared to come and give you advice, you listen to that advice, having an open-door policy, talking to people, physically getting out of the office, going and visiting people, talking to them and also making sure that you are not seen to be someone who is leading from afar that you were alongside people and giving that physical presence of being alongside people, working with them. That is why I have always believed that you can’t be an effective principal if you haven’t been an effective teacher earlier in your career.
Because of the credibility and the insight that it needs to bring...
Absolutely. You can’t just talk the talk you have got to be able to walk the walk. When you are talking about assessment and strategies and pedagogy and behaviour management and what has worked for you and what didn’t work for you teachers can very quickly sniff someone out who is not capable of doing it themselves.
The interesting thing particularly for a high school teacher – if you are a primary school principal, you may have specialised in Stage Three or you may have been king of the Kindergarten kids but basically, you have taught lots of classes. How does a secondary school principal, particularly a new one, an English/history one, demonstrate that expertise with the team teaching physics or the visual arts teacher or the geography and economics teacher?
This is about forming good relationships with your head teachers and you have got to rely on the knowledge and subject expertise of your executive and head teachers and I had a good group of executive. You can’t be an expert in every single syllabus and subject but you have got to be able to at least talk to those head teachers and get them to be able to explain to you how they are programming, their assessments and strategies. It is why I sometimes look nervously at the number of non-curriculum head teachers that have been created in some schools. I am a great believer that the vast overwhelming number of head teachers should be from a curriculum background because that is where we deliver in the classroom.
An unusual path I would have thought from my observation to move from being principal of a school to president of the union. Has there been many school principals who have done that journey the way that you have done?
Not too many in the post-war period, I think Barry Manefield was a primary principal back in the late seventies to eighties. In the early part of the union’s history the principals were very conservative and dominated the union but in the post-war period that changed and certainly with the baby boom. Yes it is unusual but I have been involved in the federation since I joined, I began teaching in 1978. I had been on the executive for over twenty years, I have been a vice-president, I have been on the federal executive of the union, I have been involved in different campaigns around funding that for many years. It wasn’t as unusual a step from no involvement to suddenly becoming a president. I had been involved and when people prevailed upon me to come in and work for the union I finally agreed.
Answered the call. One of the interesting things; the federation represents principals but from the history that I can understand here in NSW in the last decade or so Secondary Principals Council, Primary Principals Association have developed stronger professional voices and have been more engaged by government and probably the department over that time. Sometimes I think when teachers think of who the department is or who the establishment is it is often the principal and so coming in with a lens of being a principal do you think that changes your perspective on the challenge of leading the union and the complexity of some of these issues?
I think it gives you insights into the fact that no-one has got all the answers and everyone has got an important role to play in a school. I think it is far too easy to have scapegoats and I think that having experience as a principal allows me to speak with some degree of credibility, I would hope, to principal groups. I was speaking to a principal group out at Fairfield only yesterday after school and many of the things that they were talking about resonated with me from my experience and I could echo back some of their concerns, some of the issues that they were confronting. I think it allows me to bring that perspective into the union and to make sure that we don’t have a them and us attitude. I think it is very important for people to understand that the principal is not the employer they are after all a teacher and the original use of the “principal” was as an adjective. They are the principal teacher of the school. I think that is important. We now have many principals on our state council, sitting on our state executive, we have a principals committee, we have a very successful principals’ conference, recognising that they play a very key role in our schools.
One of the things the department is now investing more in the identification of aspiring principals, putting them through training and development programs, trying to improve the professional development that is on offer to principals and there has been a lot of research that says historically Australia has under-prepared principals for the role. One of the reasons it is complex is all the people that principals have to deal with but also invariably a good principal wants to bring about change at a school. You were at Keira for a decade what were some of the challenging changes that you tried to implement and tell us about what your journey was on the transformation that you tried to bring?
It is an interesting question. The greatest challenge I found at the school very early on was potentially a decline in enrolments which also was connected to the gender breakup of the school. At the time it was called Keira Technology High School, we eventually dropped the technology tag. It used to be Keira Boys High School and we were next door to a performing arts high school, we had a private girls’ school in our drawing area, we had a private catholic boys’ school, we had a selective school up the road, we were in a potentially difficult situation. We found when I looked at the stats that we had – 70% boys and 30% girls. I remember taking the executive out in the playground and saying what do you notice and they said litter, I said yes we will fix that up at some point, kids out of uniform yes we will fix that up too. What I was trying to show to them was that the boys took up virtually all of the physical space and the same was happening in the classrooms. We set about then and we said that is our big tackle when we looked at the stats we were two-thirds out of area so we weren’t really gaining for the system we were just taking kids from other schools and were taking mainly boys and we were not attracting girls. When I looked at– I got all the data from the primary schools from Kindergarten on and they were basically 50/50 so how come it is 70/30 at the high school when our drawing schools, our feeder schools, our partner schools were 50/50 what is changing. That became the most important thing that we did was to create gender classes in Year 7 and 8, boys classes, girls classes, nothing magical about it but it allowed us to go to the community and say that we are very cognisant of the need for girls to be given space and boys also be given their chance to learn and we brought them together on other social things but for the core subjects we had separate classes. After three years of it, we also did a lot of professional development about gender equality and we looked at our curriculum patterns, we looked at performing arts opportunities and a whole range of things. What we did do, by the time I left Keira in 2011, we had gone from 70/30, 65/35 to 51/49% boys and girls and we were virtually all, bar kids with sibling enrolment rights, virtually all in area. We turned it around. I thought that was one of the most important achievements in recreating a comprehensive co-educational school which we had lost.
Was that a confidence builder for you and the team the fact that you could run your diagnostic, look at the data, come up with a strategy, see the results?
It was and it was a team effort I have got to say. You have got to be really careful that it wasn’t Maurie sitting in an office brainstorming. The initial conversation was the deputies and me over a beer one night; “what are we going to do”, “let’s throw a lot of ideas around”. Each idea we came up with we could think of a reason why we wouldn’t do it. Then we eventually came up with that the data is showing us we need to get more girls and local girls back into our school that is the simple equation that we have got to try and solve. Then when we went to the executive we had some push back, we had some people questioning it but I think there was enough faith that at least our motives were pretty genuine and by saying that we will be evaluating and it is a genuine evaluation we did an exhaustive evaluation after the first year. We took a lot of time to interview kids and parents and teachers, overwhelming support for it. The group that liked it least were the girls they wanted to go back and have the boys in the room – that blew us away, it was interesting. The fact that we involved people in it early on.
Did you stick with it? Is it still the case at Keira?
I am not sure now.
But all the time you were there?
Yes, all the time we were there and I think it neutralised sending the boys to our school and the girls to a private Catholic school for instance.
One of the interesting discussions we have had over time is to really think through the role of the system and the role of individual schools. I was reflecting earlier someone said to me “trying to change the department must be like trying to turn around a battleship”. I said to them “I think it is the wrong metaphor”. I think more of the armada; there are 2200 schools, 2200 principals like you at Keira all trying to do their best to improve the quality of teaching, improve learning outcomes, lifting the life opportunities for kids and if in fact if you can create an environment where enough schools are doing that, you are lifting the system. So part of the challenge is supporting infrastructure that you wrap around so that a principal like you or others can get the expertise, can get the support. I think you have been a bit critical that the supporting infrastructure hasn’t been as strong as you feel that it needs to be.
Absolutely. I think we really have got to have a mental picture that it is not the principal as the hero model that brings about systemic reform or even school-based reform. It may work for a finite period but it isn’t sustainable and that is why I have always been a fan of systemic reform. Sure, innovation is important and mavericks are important but we can’t reform a system on just the certain individual who happened to stumble into a principal’s position. We need to create that support, the big system priorities need to be there, build a framework around it and in that secure environment then you can get innovation. Innovation but within parameters after all people are only custodians of their school and they’re only employees passing through it, it is not their private academy so we have to make sure that people understand that there is a huge advantage to being a public education system that many private schools don’t have. We can achieve massive economies of scale, we can have standards being applied right across the system. We have got to find ways – as Cathy Wylie in New Zealand calls it – we have got to find ways to form those vital connections between schools so that we are not reinventing the wheel or having to choose your own adventure kind of approach.
I see it the same way. I sometimes say I will know we are on the right track when we hear how people talk about the department. If they roll their eyes, it is the dead-handed bureaucracy of more rules and more imposition, that we get in the way, then that’s not great.
We shouldn’t be frightened of the word ‘bureaucracy’, Mark. We have got 2200 sites, we have got a workforce of about 45,000 or 40,000 full-time teachers.
Yeah, more than that, yeah.
Then when we add all the other staff on over 100,000 people, we bring about 800,000 young people onto our sites each and every day. Why should we be apologising for saying we need a fairly large bureaucracy out there supporting this thing? If it was a corporation it would be a very large corporation.
Let me rephrase slightly: what you don’t want is the bureaucracy to be is a dead hand on the operations of schools. So I feel that we will know we are on the right track when schools feel that the strength of the department behind them. I have a challenge running a school, great resources, great expertise, they can pair me up with someone who has been through this battle in the past and this is what they did and can draw on best practice and there is a real sense of the virtue and the opportunity that comes as being one of 2200 schools and principals don’t feel alone battling the department and feel supported by the department. We talked about systemic reform. One of the ones that you talked about – that I have been talking about stirred on by you – is doing a better job at the key transition points, particularly Year 6 through Year 7. Do you want to talk a bit about that?
It is a critical need, we do it well in a lot of places. I would like to see a more systemic approach to it. When I was talking earlier about rebuilding our enrolments and bringing girls back, part and parcel of that that I should have mentioned was that we formed a very, very close relationship with our partner primary schools. When I mean close I don’t mean an expo night every few months, I mean virtually every week, every fortnight they were either in our school or we were there. We were either doing show lessons on Japanese or kids were coming up using our kitchens or we were having a joint concert band, we were inviting parents up to award nights, we had a whole lot of programs that we were running. Our PDHPE Year 11 would run their sports carnivals or coach. There is a multitude of programs all to breakdown the mythology that the high school was this great big scary place. We wanted to get to a point where the local kids in the primary schools and the teachers down there not just became neutral but became our advocates and I think we eventually did that. It was tough at first but we just started morning teas, chats, an early breakfast sometimes with the principals, then we formed a committee, then we got more formal, then we involved other people and over time and I have got to say my primary principal colleagues were brilliant. They just came on board, all of them came on board and we got tremendous support so that helped us change the myths that the primary school was great but gee where would I send my kid to a high school. Keira became the school of choice for the in area kids.
One of the interesting things that I see too, I sometimes think when I am visiting schools the most confident, happiest, top of the world kids are the Year 6 kids, they glamour their way to the top of that school, they are leading school assemblies, they have got the lead role in all the performances, they are out and about. We know through the Tell Them From Me survey you drop them in secondary school they lose that connection with the classroom teacher, they are all of a sudden bottom of a very big pile and the confidence and engagement can go and it just strikes me that as a system this is one of the advantages of being a system.
We need to resource it, of course, it takes a lot of time but certainly, when Year 6 kids come into Year 7 secondary teachers have a tendency to baby them and think they are the little ones whereas they were the leaders, they were the kids making the Anzac Day speeches. One of the things that we did, of course, was to have significant joint curriculum planning between the primary schools and the high schools so joint professional development days where we sent maths teachers down and English teachers down and we suddenly came back thinking oh gee the stuff that we are doing in Year 7 they were doing that in Year 5 we have got to maybe lift our game and our expectations. That was very informative. By the same token the primary school teachers adjusted too so if that is what you are expecting kids to be doing in Year 7 we now need to do much more, I think science was one of the areas that they were weaker on and they realised that the science syllabus in secondary was important and they put more effort into that. There were benefits both ways.
You can I can talk all day and we enjoy having long conversations. The podcast has more limited time constraints. I want to ask you one other education policy question. The other area that you are at me about and we are talking about and it is concerns that you have about how the promotion system operates. Just give us a sense of how you think we need to improve that?
I think we need to target people early and I think we need to do it more systematically and apply some standards. I think just having the CV and a short five or six questions at an interview, pot luck whether you get taken to an interview or not get taken, where the department doesn’t really know who went to interview, who didn’t, who was successful and who wasn’t, I think that is too hit and miss. We are not necessarily applying the same standards for a position at a difficult to staff area to a favourable staff area. I would like to see us get some more consistency and rigour back into it, early identification so really make those critical choices of who gets into positions because after all, they affect the lives and the working lives of both students and teachers in a very dramatic way. We want to make sure that we get the right people into those positions.
That is a conversation that we will be continuing once the microphones are off. One final question; you talked about your great music teacher and I understand you play banjo, guitar, mandolin and have begun to dabble in writing music, you have been writing music for a long time but most recently a musical about Pete Seeger tell us about that.
Pete Seeger, he died a few years ago, born in 1919 but he was regarded as the most banned, boycotted, blacklisted singer in American history. He was a left-wing protest folk singer, highly influential. Why was this person who was blacklisted, prevented from being heard on radio and TV for nearly twenty or twenty-five years why did he become one of the most influential? So I wrote a show about that. One of the reasons he became influential was he invented the college circuit, he basically went around and sowed seeds into the minds of thousands and thousands of college kids – people like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez. All these people who say oh yes he came to our high school, he came to our college, I wanted to pick up a guitar and write songs after Pete Seeger. So I think that is a fascinating tale, highly influential and we did it. I eventually got a chance to go to the US, to New York, I took some leave from teaching, my long service leave and went over and visited him in the States with my script where he took a red pen out and proceeded to tell me that the meeting with Woody Guthrie didn’t occur this way and the big concert with Paul Robeson was not quite as I have said it and he wrote things like “far too melodramatic leave it out, leave it out”, I was being schooled. I wouldn’t have minded so much if he had done it privately but in front of you it is very confronting and he got his banjo out and he sang a couple of songs, a private concert.
One day when you stop being head of the federation are you going to go and do the college and school tour to drive up a new generation of students?
If and when I leave, I will be getting on a plane and going to the US to buy a banjo, I have got one in my sights.
We will know when that time comes. Thanks very much for the conversation today.
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