Fuel for your soul
I had the privilege and joy of interviewing Pitsa Binnion, Principal of McKinnon Secondary College in late 2022 as she approached her retirement date and the transition to her post-principal life.
During the interview we were interrupted by a former student entering Pitsa’s office. He embraced Pitsa warmly and was obviously very pleased to see her. After he had left, Pitsa told me he had experienced some significant family challenges and that she had gone to what sounded to me like extraordinary lengths to enable him to attend and thrive at school. When he successfully finished Year 12, Pitsa employed him part-time to work in an area of passion, keeping him tethered to the school, where he had a strong sense of belonging and stability.
This interaction and story typify Pitsa’s approach to school leadership – young people at the centre; generosity of spirit and self; and vision and values enacted in everyday action.
I asked Pitsa what she considers to be some of the more important aspects of leadership for modern school leaders. Without hesitation, she responded, ‘compassion, kindness and empathy’.
She explained that leading a school is ‘a people business’ with an emphasis on ‘building relationships’ and having a ‘great team around you’. And the central focus of the work, she says, is ’to make young people shine’.
Pitsa highlighted the importance of big picture thinking, as well as being courageous and taking evidence-based risks. She also referred to the need to be highly visible as a leader and to be available and present, as well as the importance of problem-solving, critical thinking and flexibility.
I asked Pitsa if she thought there were any differences for middle leaders, assistant principals and principals in terms of the primary aspects of leadership on which they should focus. Her view is that all leaders, whatever their role or span of work, need to be across their responsibilities. Leaders of areas or aspects of schools, or of programs, need ‘clarity about what you want to achieve in your portfolio’, and as part of the school leadership team.
When asked about the importance of vision, Pitsa was unequivocal about the need for leaders to create a vision, and to do so in an inclusive way. Her view is that vision should be based on values and everyone in a school community should be invited to participate in creating the vision. Not only does this create buy-in, she says, but you get much greater clarity through collective efficacy.
In terms of the role of a school leader in helping to build a positive school culture focused on student learning and wellbeing, Pitsa pointed to the importance of the vision and values as a bedrock for building culture. She also emphasised the need for leaders to model the culture and associated behaviours. Pitsa underscored the importance of acknowledging and celebrating examples of appropriate behaviour in others and equally of never turning a blind eye to behaviours that do not fit with the vision, values and culture to which the school has committed.
I asked Pitsa how important she believed professional learning was to helping leaders develop the knowledge, skills, capabilities and dispositions they need to lead effectively. Pitsa said professional learning is ‘absolutely critical’ and that it was both an individual activity and one that is hugely beneficial to undertake with others in a collegial approach.
Pitsa noted that school leaders often are and feel too busy to take the time to participate in professional learning, but that it was very important as a leader to prioritise and invest in your education, learning and growth, and in that of your team.
She described professional learning as ‘fuel for your soul’. I couldn’t have described it any better myself.
Pitsa won the Colin Simpson Outstanding Secondary Principal Award at the 2022 Victorian Education Excellence Awards.
Each year, this award recognises an exceptional principal who has demonstrated leadership excellence in a Victorian government secondary school. The recipient is judged to have made a significant contribution to improving staff and student achievement, engagement, and wellbeing; raised the quality of teaching; and improved the overall performance of their school.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Well hello Pitsa and good afternoon and welcome to our first blog I think we're going to call it from the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership. How are you?
PITSA BINNION: Very well, thank you Marcia. Nice to be with you.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Thank you Pitsa. So, for people watching at home Pitsa Binnion is known to just about everybody I think but in case you don't know who Pitsa is, she's the principal of McKinnon Secondary College and she was recently awarded the Colin Simpson Secondary Principal of the Year award for 2022 at the Victorian Education Excellence Awards. So that was a wonderful evening and Pitsa was there celebrating with her family and that news has been very warmly received by your school community I understand Pitsa. So, congratulations.
PITSA BINNION: Thank you so much. We're absolutely thrilled. Yeah, it's obviously you know, it's a really wonderful award to finish my career with really. It's absolutely beautiful and everybody's been so generous with their lovely comments. Yeah, I've been delighted.
MARCIA DEVLIN: And you noted there that you're finishing your career so that's one of the reasons we wanted to grab you before you go off and probably do travel and all sorts of interesting things and hopefully come back and continue to work with the system. But before you do go off and retire, we wanted just to ask you a little bit about leadership and about professional learning around leadership.
So first question Pitsa is what do you think are some of the most important aspects of leadership that a modern school leader needs to focus on?
PITSA BINNION: I've done a bit of thinking around this question, and I really think that one of the things that is really imperative today is compassion. I think compassion and kindness and empathy really builds those relationships that are so critical if you're leading a community.
So, you know I often say things about emotional intelligence. You've got to sort of read the room. You've got to read your audience. You've got to know your people and I think I have found that compassion with your people actually is critical in running, a you know, a school in 2022. So, you've obviously got to be committed and dedicated and passionate. You've got to talk the talk but also, you've got to walk the walk. You've got to be really on top of what your people are like, what they need, in order for them to be able to deliver the outcomes for young people.
Yeah, and so I think that you know, one of the other things that I think you've got to really invest in is being visible to your community and making sure that you are, you know seen by everybody. And that's the bit that will make you happy, you make those connections. It brings you an incredible amount of satisfaction and joy.
You've got to be a bit of a problem solver. So, I think you know that goes without saying. You always have to be critically thinking and make sure that you're flexible. And I always say the world is not black and white it's actually grey and you've really got to understand that because you can't just put an overlay on a situation and say right well this is what I'm going to do. You have to be really flexible.
You've got to be courageous. I sort of think that that's a really important aspect of leadership and sometimes it's sort of thinking outside the square a bit and being able to take a few risks. Not that I would say, you know we're all risk averse but you've really got to be thinking big picture and think about what it is that you're trying to deliver.
And you've got to build a great team around you. I think you know that's absolutely critical if you're going to be a wonderful principal and leader of your school.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Yeah fantastic. What a great set of hints I guess and suggestions for people. But it's very interesting that you started with compassion and kindness and empathy and EQ. I absolutely agree with you on that. And it's something that people really need to think about and it's something that we assess in the Victorian Aspiring Principal Assessment. There's an EQ component where people's peers and superiors and people who report to them are all asked what's this person like interact with and deal with. And you have to pass that component of the assessment in order to be eligible to become a principal. So you didn't know that by the look of your face.
PITSA BINNION: No, I didn't.
Really important because it's a people industry. And so it's not actually just about the finances or the buildings. It's actually about you know, bringing your people along to enact you know, it sort of undertake things that will make the community even better. That make young people shine. And in order to do that you really have to have buy-in from a lot of people and I think that that compassion actually comes back.
So, whatever you, however you live your life in in school day to day, if you can be a little kind to people they will never forget that kindness. Young people don't forget it from their teachers and teachers don't forget it from their principals and neither do parents. So, it's really important.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Lovely. So just building on that then a little bit, do you think there's differences in terms of what a leader, a modern leader needs for middle leaders, for assistant principals, for principals, for system leaders - what aspects do you think are different? If so, and what should they focus on?
PITSA BINNION: Look I think every role and nobody knows what being a principal is like until you actually principal. And they don't know what a system leader is like until you're a system leader. And they don't know what you know, until you walk in those shoes, you're really not clear. But look, looking back I think that they are all very different and require some different strategies and approaches.
And I think what I would say about middle system leaders is that you've got to be responsible for your portfolio. So just be across your brief and do it really well. You've got to be a dot the 'i' and cross the 't' person. You've got to make sure that you have clarity around what it is that you are trying to achieve in your portfolio. So it's a much more manageable task and I think then that you know, they need to help their team. The team around them to achieve those manageable goals.
And I would say always start with the data. You know when I first started, it was funny they used to call me the data queen. And I was not very good with maths but I'm really good with stats and it helps me to unpack you know, why are we doing this. Help me understand and I think that's what I would say to middle managers.
Principals have to look at the whole portfolio, the whole school organisation. It's a much broader aspect of leadership. And system leaders have an even broader responsibility.
But looking at it from a assistant principal's point of view, hone in, be aware of all these other things but you're not responsible for that. You are actually responsible for making the best achievement in your little part of the puzzle. And help your people keep referring to their chapter.
Assistant principals are really always responsible for an accountability, they have an accountability around one aspect of the school, yeah in particular. Could be curriculum, it might be professional learning, it might be - but you're always also interrupted because you've always got naughty students that you're dealing with. There's always critical incidents or a meltdown from a parent or another aspect. But they've got to be really available and present and visible as well. But I would say that the huge difference is the part of the puzzle. You're not responsible for everything, you've got to be across, you've got to be a great team player, but you've got to deliver outcomes in your portfolio.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Yep, great. All right and you mentioned team there which we might come back to. That's fantastic. Thank you.
What do you think about the idea of a vision? Like how important do you think it is as a leader to have a vision?
PITSA BINNION: Well, you know as the principal when I was first appointed as principal, I have to say, you know I'd been here for a number of years before that, I was assistant principal for eight years and I was a leading teacher for a couple. So, I'd been immersed in this community before I became the principal. And it was like the McKinnon way, well what is the McKinnon way? And what is it that we're trying to achieve? And unpacking that is incredibly powerful.
So, I would say that was one of the first things I did. I actually invited everybody, anybody who wanted to come that was part of the community and I said we're going to unpack what the McKinnon way is. We're going to unpack what our vision is and we're going to come up with four or five or six values that we really believe are more important than anything else. And that will hold us in good stead.
So that was the first thing I actually did. And once we unpacked it as a staff and about 70 people came along and we played with it. Then we took it to the entire staff body because you know some people were unable to be available. And then once we took it to everybody, we again wordsmithed it and came up with a precise ‘this is what we're trying to achieve’, ‘this is what we focus on’, ‘these are our core values’. We then took it to the parent body and the student body.
What it does is actually buys collective efficacy. It helps everybody to be very clear about what it is that we're on about. And also, it helps you to make other people accountable because everybody's contributed to the vision development, we've come up with this, we're all in it, this is what it means to belong to our community, and it gives you clarity.
It's like writing an essay without a detailed plan. You can actually tell, it's really obvious if people have not gone to the trouble of having that plan. So, I think it gives clarity, it's absolutely critical.
So, if you have the opportunity as a leader, as a principal to develop a vision, then do it. If you've come to a school and you've been appointed as principal and there is an already established vision, unpack it further. It's a living document. You've got to refer to it and make sure that it's still relevant. Do we want to change anything? You know really have commitment and obviously the school council has overview of it. But I think it helps everybody just have clarity, it gives you impetus to say to somebody if they're not following a particular, you know, things that we're focused on, you can have a really important conversation and say well why not? You know this is what we said we're going to do, why are you not now contributing to that? Why are you undermining that?
And with children it is so important because it helps them in terms of values. I don't know how many times I've had those conversations saying to people and they're everywhere, they're all over the place, so once we develop the vision, we put it on our paperwork, on our walls, in our front office, in kids’ diaries, in classrooms, every classroom has it. So, when people slip up, you can actually say 'uh-uh that's what we're on about'. You know, remember that. Respect is critical so I think it's so important and I cannot underestimate the value of it.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Okay, fantastic. Thank you. Really helpful.
So just switching tack slightly now and to student learning and well-being. So, the two as we know in FISO 2.0 are equal. There's not one above the other or one supporting the other but equally focused on student learning and well-being. And you and I understand the importance of a positive culture. Positive school culture that's focused on there. How do you think a school leader can build that culture? It's an easy thing to say but in practice it's a very challenging thing to do. What advice would you have?
PITSA BINNION: I think the McKinnon culture is something I'm hugely proud of. It's taken a long time to develop it and again you start from foundation, and you build on it. And I think when you think about culture, you have to think about student achievement. It's you know the best gift I can give any student is to actually be successful in school. And I don't mean that by academically successful, but they have to have a strong sense of belonging, well-being. They have to make sure that you know we have the highest expectations of them. You have to really communicate with parents and teachers and help everybody understand what it is, that it goes back to the vision.
You have to work with teams of people and say if this is what we're trying to achieve, if we're trying to you know build a respectful community then we have to be the exemplars. We have to demonstrate that in everything that we do. If we have to engage children in their learning and we want classrooms to be you know really wonderful places for learning then we have to make sure that everybody feels safe and that we know our children, that we unpack the data that we know where they're at, we know their situation, we make modifications, but we make sure that they can access the learning.
So, it is about ultimately, I think about expectations, about clarity of vision, it's about celebrating success as well you know. Really making sure that when good things are done by children, they actually fly the flag. So that then it becomes apparent that that's what we're on about you know.
MARCIA DEVLIN: That's what’s valued.
PITSA BINNION: It builds that sense of you know achievement in young people and it's about calm, respectful relationships again. There has to be consequences. So, you can't turn a blind eye to anything. You actually have to follow through and that's the difficulty, you know that's the exhaustion.
It really is around making sure that you have a clear vision of what you're doing, you've got clear processes in place and expectations. That you celebrate the good and that there are clear consequences for the bad, but you help bring people along and parents are pivotal in that.
So, if you are building a positive school culture, it's about celebrating all that the kids have done. Don't just focus on contacting parents when things are negative you know, send them a message to say 'This is what this young person did today. I was so happy to observe this behaviour'. And you've got to make time for those little incidentals.
Be at everything. Be at events. Make sure that you invest time in you know going to the theatre productions, the music productions, the sporting events and really making sure that you engage with children out in the yard and help them see that you've noticed. You notice them achieving, you notice them at assemblies. It's those little things, incidental conversations that really build a positive culture and then they perpetuate it themselves.
You know they realise what it is, you know I fly the flag for McKinnon and I always talk about flying the flag for McKinnon, I want them to be proud to belong to our school. Any school. I want them to be proud to participate and engage in incredible learning. Teachers put a lot of time and effort into it and it's really important that they are respectful of that. And that goes to their well-being. They you know, well-being is not just you know being aware of their issues and then opting out of learning. It's enacting and enabling them to actually access learning so that they can - that's the best ticket they're gonna get. The best ticket in life is an education. That will make the difference for them.
So, I think work with teams of people in your school who are influencers as well. You know who are the people who influence others because you're not always going to have, you know I've got 250 staff. Not everybody's on the same page but you've always got the core group of people that can influence the others. And keeping across that is really important. I think with building a school culture that's successful.
I sort of talked a little bit, I've sort of reflected on student learning. And I sort of talked about effective pedagogy and making sure that professional learning is the best it can be. Having peer observations and helping people see what good practice looks like. Let's not ever assume that everybody gets it because you don't get it. You actually have to see it and you have to open the classroom door so people have feel comfortable to walk in and out of each other's classrooms and see what great practice looks like. And consistency you know across everything. I think with that you know I think that's how you build a really positive wonderful learning environment and positive school culture.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Fantastic Pitsa and I apologise, the men outside are back from lunch and they've started throwing things around and I can certainly I hear it
PITSA BINNION: I can't hear it so that's okay.
MARCIA DEVLIN: The viewers might be able to hear it so sorry about that but things need to get built apparently. So that's wonderful.
So you mentioned professional learning there which of course as the CEO of the Academy is music to my ears and I wanted to ask you to say a little bit more about that, what part do you think professional development, professional learning plays in helping leaders develop all that they need to lead effectively? Can you tell us a little bit about what you think there?
PITSA BINNION: Oh absolutely. I think that it's absolutely crucial. And it helps you evolve as a leader and develop. But it also builds your competence. You know, you don't know what you don't know. And you evolve. Everything you know you're not on your own, is a really important message to give and your never in a position where you can't learn. You know you can immerse yourself in incredible learning and opportunities and engage with people that really will give you the ability to skill up on certain things.
So I think sometimes people think they're too busy for professional learning but I just think it's absolutely important, as a leader, that you actually prioritise it. So I welcome the opportunity to learn and to engage with people and I've loved it all my life. Not only through the Academy, Bastow before that but also in VASSP and the Association and I thought that learning, that collegiality, that relationships you build in those networks are really important. But you have to be able to prioritise your learning and immerse yourself in it. It makes you in fact a better leader.
If you are just at school, keeping your head above water day in, day out and not doing anything different, not learning about different ways of doing things then you are not going to grow as a leader.
I think you need to look for opportunities for both you and your team and listen to others. Engage in the research. I think that we don't value that enough. You know it actually helps you make decisions as a leader. If you become really aware of what the latest research is showing, so in order to do that you actually have to immerse yourself and give yourself the opportunity to engage in professional learning. It's inspiring, it keeps you going, it's actually fuel for your soul. You always need to grow and know that just the way you do things is not necessarily the only way to do things and you learn from your colleagues. So yeah, I think it's something that really we need to continue to encourage and engage people in.
And I think that, you know what you said before Marcia about the you know, we're on a trajectory you know, you don't have all the competencies and they're not all perfect when you first start. You don't even have them when you're finishing. I'm telling you, you know you have strengths and you have weaknesses and you build a team around your weaknesses but you always learn as a team. It's wonderful to listen to people, to engage in those invaluable conversations and then to bring the learning back to your school and say well what, how can we do differently you know and go and visit people and yeah I think it's really important.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Yes, so I so agree with you. I've had a couple of experiences just this week where I'm too busy to do professional learning myself, of course because I'm running the Academy which is all about professional learning. And I had a couple of incidental learnings where I read something and went 'oh my goodness', that's actually changed how I think about this and then I just had an accidental conversation this morning with a peer colleague who I bumped into in an empty meeting room and that was such a powerful professional learning moment right.
So, you know listening to others, she said to me at the end 'thank you so much', we spoke for less than five minutes. I said 'No, thank you so much' and we were thanking each other profusely just from having this moment about how leadership and about how you lead in the context that we're in, what some of the challenges are and how to message them.
But the thing I really like about what you said is about prioritisation and you're really talking about you know you have to step away every now and then and go and invest some time and effort in yourself and in your growth, I think was the word you used. In order that you can keep improving otherwise you're sort of going backwards if you stand still, right?
PITSA BINNION: Absolutely and it is about continuous improvement. I mean that's the game. The game is about unpacking the data, knowing where you're at, what are the next steps we have to develop to improve. Are there things we can learn? Let's have a look at what's out there and bring it in. Or let's give people time to do the reading, unpack it and I mean how, what an incredible opportunity we've had because of COVID really, that we're able to do what we're doing today.
We don't have to drive anywhere and waste a whole day. We're actually able to engage in these incredible conversations online, within an hour and then we're still where we need to be and continue what we have to do.
I think that there is no excuse for not learning and I you know I really love professional reading. I love giving myself that time and during the holidays I immerse myself in incredible new research or whatever and that helps me to actually as a leader to have clarity about what we're going to do and then engage the team and so on and so forth. But I think that that's really an invaluable lesson for our new leaders you know.
Professional learning is not just by the side. It's actually got to be critical, it's a crucial part of your evolution as a leader.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Wonderful, thank you and I'll send you the 50 bucks in the mail later. I promise this was not set up.
MARCIA DEVLIN: So Pitsa, you strike me, I'm a psychologist that's my background, that you are a very very positive, optimistic inspiring leader and I think I'm guessing you look after your own well-being very well in order to continue to do that, you know and you have done for your whole career and that's one of the many reasons that you won the Colin Simpson award recently.
How important do you think it is for a leader to focus on their own well-being? And any words of advice?
PITSA BINNION: Well, you're wrong. I have failed in this. I have failed in this area I have to tell you. I have not really been very good with my well-being. I am a really positive person and I love what I do and that's the key for me. I've loved my career. I've loved it because it's made a difference to a lot of kids, and you know your community supports you.
But I think that my advice to people now is a bit different from the way I travelled through. The investment in your own well-being is absolutely critical. You will burn out and you cannot deliver without investing in that. We now know, the evidence is clear, you will actually get sick unless you take the necessary steps.
Now you find what it is. See I said before, professional reading is something that I've immersed myself in. That's you know, that was how I had timeout. That was my timeout. I also went you know to Bali or Thailand or overseas and just sat by the beach and did nothing for a couple of weeks and that was also my timeout.
When I had young children, I went to Noosa and we just sat and I needed that timeout. But you know there is so much, how blessed are we that we have a department now, that has a principal well-being unit. Like let's take on these opportunities. Let's see a psych, let's make sure we debrief because we're dealing with critical situations all the time and you need to actually debrief. That's clear.
You need to make sure that you see a physio and make sure you're physical well-being. You go to the gym, get a personal trainer do what it is that you can do that actually supports you to be able to do your job well. I think that unless you're fit and healthy, you can't be as effective and had I been more au fait and probably better at managing myself then I wouldn't have had the critical back problems that I've had or headaches and so on. I would have been able to manage myself better.
So, I say stress control and management is really important and it's done by actually allowing yourself the time to focus on your personal well-being. It's so important for you, your community but really important for your family. It's really, I cannot say, you know in order for you to be able to function at your best and work with others, look after yourself, take the time to breathe. All those things are so important. Yeah.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Thank you, couldn't have said it better myself. Thank you. And we're nearly out of time Pitsa, any final words of advice for aspiring or current school leaders?
PITSA BINNION: I said that it's the best profession in the world. I just think that I've had so much joy and satisfaction from it. It's really brought me an incredible sense of achievement you know. Every day I've not missed a beat. All my career I've loved teaching, I loved leadership in the early years and then I loved being a principal. I was not aspirant; it was just something that came about and other people encouraged me. But it's all about the good, the bad and the ugly. And it's about relationships. Fundamentally schools are about relationships.
So, treat people with respect, be available, work hard for the kids in your care and enjoy the opportunity to make a difference to those in your world.
Every child I've sort of have a little you know little mantra that says nobody sends their children to school and says to staff and the principals you know this one doesn't really matter; you know you can do a mediocre job with this one. Every child really is very, very important and every child needs our attention and our focus.
You're never on your own as I said earlier. Enjoy the opportunity. I think that it's a great profession and it's difficult but it's so rewarding.
So, I wish everybody all the very best of luck and thank you Marcia for what you do at the Academy in making sure that you're developing a wonderful generation of new leaders. I think it's inspiring to be a part of.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Thank you very much Pitsa Binnion and I just wanted to end with where you started. I just thought that was just a wonderful thing, that it's a people business. And the most important thing, the first thing you mentioned compassion, kindness and empathy. I just couldn't agree more. There is all the other aspects as you said but it's about treating the people the right way and then everything else follows. So thank you for your time. I'm going to end up there.
PITSA BINNION: All the best.
MARCIA DEVLIN: Thank you very much. Same to you and your retirement.
PITSA BINNION: Thank you Marcia. Take care bye.View full transcript here.