Frank Ali did not begin his career as a teacher, though he completed his studies to become one in the 1970s. Instead, he entered the hospitality industry and managed a large hotel with 80 employees in Adelaide. This background in working with a diverse staff and leading a commercial enterprise gave him a profound insight into working with teams in the school setting.
As a child, Ali found school easy, and he loved it. As he got older, he wanted to help children with difficulties to enjoy their education. So the teaching profession beckoned. Ali began his new career in the early 1980s at the all-boys Blackfriars Priory School. He soon became the acting principal of the school and, in 1987, the principal of the primary school.
In 1999, Ali became the principal of the junior school of Mercedes College, and in 2008 transferred to St John’s Grammar, in Belair, as the head of the junior school, where he still works today.
“Leadership in a hotel is much like that of a school,” Ali says. “There are numerous personalities and behaviours that a principal or manager needs to contend with, both requiring an enormous amount of people skills and patience.”
It’s this broad experience that gave Ali the skills needed to be successful in a school leadership role for much of his career.
Focus on professional development
In 2016, Ali received the John Laing Award for Professional Development from the Principals Australia Institute (PAI). He has been a longstanding Independent Primary School Heads of Australia (IPSHA) member for 29 years and has made a significant contribution to the professional development of colleagues, aspiring leaders and middle-level leaders. This has included the organisation of conferences, leadership of special-interest hub groups, mentoring new members, and active involvement in aspiring leaders programs.
Ali has been actively involved in the organisation of professional development through conferences and retreat weekends, and has been a regular member of organising committees for the Victorian, South Australian and Tasmanian Retreat for over 25 years. It’s this dedication to the profession and ongoing commitment to outcomes that has seen Ali provide an environment for innovation to flourish.
Paul Geyer, chief executive of PAI, acknowledges the work of principals such as Ali. “Through implementing specific programs and initiatives in schools, principals contribute to improving engagement in learning and educational outcomes, and create the conditions for an inclusive and positive community for students, teachers and families.”
Ali received his John Laing Award in acknowledgement of his leadership and ongoing focus on developing both himself and contributing to his school’s student programs and ongoing staff development.
“His dedication to the profession is evident in receiving this award,” said Geyer. Principals and school leaders set the tone at a school for the ongoing commitment to student outcomes. If school leaders focus on continuous improvement and learning for themselves, the concepts they acquire become easier to apply across a school and ultimately provides students with a better educational experience and results.”
Supporting students with learning difficulties
“Implementing from above is not as significant as the team implementing initiatives,” Ali says. “In my first school I introduced Philosophy for Children, an Aristotelian logic-based program that was quite unique to Adelaide. It taught children reasoning skills and higher order thinking skills.
“Children with learning needs such as dyslexia excelled at it too because it didn’t rely on purely written work. Dialogue and discussion were the cornerstone of the program.
“In all of the schools I have worked in, I have encouraged and helped develop thinking-skills programs. Learning support for children at both ends of the scale has been important too.
“While setting up systems to support children with learning difficulties, I did help set up an electives program in the early 1990s where local schools pooled their resources and an afternoon a week was dedicated to specialised programs such as philosophy, science (in labs), higher order maths problem-solving, music composing and other interests children came up with.”
It’s this approach to innovation and thinking outside the norm that demonstrates Ali’s success as a school leader.
“It’s clear that the greatest opportunities for the education sector and ultimately for school principals is the opportunity to ensure children are involved in real and meaningful learning.
“Standardised tests, ATAR scores and rote learning are not necessarily the most important means to achieving a ‘clever country’.”
Embracing technology and using it to engage children is what Ali sees as key to helping improve student outcomes. “Technology in education is exciting even though, at times, challenging for principals,” he says. “It provides a whole other perspective and is a key enabler in the future of education. Children are more tech-savvy now and this has driven schools to really embrace and utilise it to further improve the student experience.”
Leadership in action
Describing his leadership style, Ali portrays and embodies what modern leadership is about: a calm but strong leader, passionate, hard-working, compassionate, understanding, innovative and transformational.
“I think finding humour in your life and your work helps keep you sane too,” Ali says. “Being time-poor is every principal’s concern. I have found that finding time out of ‘school hours’ (whatever that means!) to socialise with colleagues and have informal chats about our issues helps me greatly in my day-to-day role.
“Of course, meeting times, conference times, ongoing professional development, while improving my knowledge, also provides opportunities for collegial support and some fun along the way.
“One of the greatest challenges of being a principal is that sometimes it feels like you are an administrator rather than an educator, so balancing all the requirements expected of us, keeping children engaged and excited about their learning is probably the easiest thing, but educating parents and managing their expectations can be challenging.”
Parents are more involved in education and schools than ever before; connected via technology, parent groups and broader out-of-school activities. So as principal, it is important for Ali to communicate more frequently and more often. Technology has certainly helped him keep up with the demands of parent engagement, something that brings the student experience to another level, Ali says.
Ali also considers his own team of dedicated teachers in his leadership decisions.
“The team must own and believe in the vision for the school and our students, and I try to do this by providing them with the support to achieve lofty goals rather than simple ones,” he says.
The broader teaching team within a school is what allows a principal to get on with their leadership role. The teachers and staff need to be aligned in their thinking to really have an impact on the student outcomes and experience. It is this view and focus that allows Ali to lead in his school and apply the many programs and innovations that will help students achieve their potential.
Ali reflects on his success and longevity in the profession as his greatest achievement. “You only need one child, teacher or parent to say that you made a difference to them which is pretty special – it does happen sometimes – and it is this that makes me proud of my profession to see the impact an educator can have on the community,” he says.
Ali’s aspiration for St John’s Grammar is to see student agency developed and adopted, thereby giving children a true voice in their learning.
This article was first published in Education Review.