Principal profile: Andrew Duncan

Innovative thinking and consultative leadership help this principal connect and consult
A passion for innovative thinking in education and a consultative leadership style have helped this award-winning principal transform lives.
Andrew Duncan has held principal roles at Queensland primary schools for the past 14 years, and in 2016 received a John Laing Professional Development Award from Principals Australia Institute for his commitment to embedded, sustained learning for the teaching profession. He speaks to Education Review about the insights he’s gleaned from a career that so far has seen him lead schools ranging from country to city, tiny to large, and across the spectrum of socio-economic bands.

Back to school

Twenty-two years ago, Duncan began his teaching career at Kin Kora State School, the very school he attended as a child.

“My mother was the business services manager, so it was great to still have my lunches made for me,” Duncan jokes.

After nearly four years there, including three as the school’s physical education specialist, he took on his first school leadership role, becoming acting principal at Ubobo State School.

“This was when I really learnt about teaching,” Duncan recalls. Ubobo, then a Band 4 school, had 28 students across all seven grades. “Luckily, my lovely wife was an early-years teacher, and she worked tirelessly with me to improve my teaching of reading and writing.”

He taught at another small school next, Mount Tarampa in the Lockyer Valley.

Duncan experienced a change of pace after being seconded in 2002 to assist with the pilot of the Queensland Professional Standards for Teachers.

“I learnt that those people in town work extremely hard for schools,” Duncan says, “but working in a cubicle wasn’t my cup of tea.”

The following year he returned to school leadership roles, becoming principal at Esk State School, Northgate State School, and Aspley State School over the next eight years. In January 2016, Duncan moved one kilometre up the road to Aspley East State School, a Band 10 school of 840 students in Brisbane’s northern suburbs, where he is currently principal.

Breaking down barriers

Duncan’s leap into leadership at Ubobo was motivated by a desire for change.

“I saw the principalship as an opportunity to really make a difference,” he recalls. “I get frustrated with the word ‘no’, so initially I saw it as a chance to break down red tape and really make an impact.”

He’s refined his view over time. “Now, looking after a large school in Brisbane, I believe I have learned that it is more about helping others to make things happen and create opportunities for children. That’s been hard for me, and something I still struggle with because I’d usually prefer to be doing the exciting work, rather than just guiding its progress.”

Helicopter view

The principal’s unique “helicopter view”, as Duncan calls it, is a perspective to which he’s become accustomed.

“It’s about helping teachers link what they know is the right thing to do with a way of doing it consistently across the school.”

He could see that a consistent reading comprehension strategy was needed at one of the large schools he led. “Teachers in one of my schools were trying hard to improve the comprehension skills of students, but from my helicopter, I could also see that students didn’t just have to learn increasingly complex skills, but also had to learn a new language every time they went to a new classroom.”

Duncan led the school in developing a common language to teach reading comprehension, where teachers could still use a variety of resources, but the skills needed to improve comprehension in one year level were the same in the next.

“That consistency of practice and language, I believe, helped that school move from good to great in reading comprehension, and all our data demonstrated that,” he says.

Duncan is passionate about preparing students for their next stage of learning, and supporting teachers in executing this.

“I have run a technology initiative in every school I have led,” he explains, including self-funding a laptop-for-teachers program in 2003, having every teacher in the school receive the ICT certificate in 2006, and now BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and 21st Century Learning Classrooms.

“As a younger principal, on reflection, I think it was more about the technology than about the learning. With the wisdom of age and making a few errors along the way, it is now absolutely about how we can utilise this technology and design our classrooms to engage better learning and enhance individualised learning opportunities.”

Helping others to lead

Duncan describes his leadership style as “consultative”, keeping himself connected to those doing the groundwork with students. It’s a style he’s developed by having been both a teaching principal and a non-teaching administrator.

“In a school with 100 employees, I can’t do it all or be there leading everything. I no longer do exactly what my staff do every day. I rely heavily on developing opportunities for others to lead, and encouraging others to have their say.”

This applies to parents and friends of the school too. “We hold community coffee [events], where they can come and talk openly to administration about initiatives, and I consult with that group about future directions and programs. We have so many avenues for everyone to participate that the only excuse for not engaging is because you don’t want to.”

Outside the fishbowl

Professional development has long been a priority for Duncan, for both himself and his staff.
“I have been lucky to have been involved in two regionally funded coaching programs with some very talented principals, and sincerely thank those coaches for their support and guidance,” Duncan says.

“I’ve also had some wonderful supervisors over the years who have challenged me in a very supportive way. It is imperative that principals have people to guide and challenge them outside of their fishbowl, but time does not always allow for that. I have found that you have to give yourself permission to seek that support, and take the time to be encouraged both from within and outside of the school.”

As president of the Brisbane North branch of the Queensland Association of State School Principals (QASSP), Duncan values his connections with other local principals, and is also a member of the Independent Public Schools Alliance, providing networking and professional learning opportunities for IPS principals.

Fact finding further afield

Being an ex-PE teacher, Duncan defines himself as a kinaesthetic learner. “While it is good to hear from the experts from time to time, I find it much more valuable to see programs in action and be involved in what a school is doing,” he explains. “I am the king of study tours, and I don’t say that lightly!”

The stamps in Duncan’s passport attest to this, as he seeks out the latest ideas and practices in education. Last year he co-organised the IPS Alliance’s trip to Perth for more than 100 colleagues, and attended Education Queensland International’s study tour of China; and this Easter toured schools in Canada’s British Columbia with QASSP.

“I have brought back something new from every trip. That may be something as simple as a successful implementation plan, to a full BYOD program, or maybe just some tricks to ensure the longevity of a program,” he says.

“The greatest opportunities for the education sector are already happening in schools because some excellent leader with a fantastic team is quietly experimenting in that space. Our challenge is to find them, as we are not generally an extroverted profession saying ‘come and look at me!’”

Paul Geyer, chief executive of Principals Australia Institute, was pleased to recognise Duncan’s efforts and achievements with a 2016 John Laing Award for Professional Development.

“Through his relentless work in QASSP and the IPS Alliance, Duncan has led the development of principals throughout Queensland,” Geyer says.

“The combination of his innovative thinking, adventurous spirit and consultative leadership style makes him the epitome of a modern principal who understands the value and importance of professional learning for all.”

Going above and beyond

Like all principals, Duncan grapples with some of the challenges of the top job in a school.
“I think the greatest challenge for school leaders is understanding and managing where the boundaries of our responsibility start and finish,” he says.

“Our roles as teachers and leaders go way beyond the boundaries of 9am to 3pm, and beyond the confines of the school fences. Our challenge is to find the balance and support networks for ourselves and our staff, as much as for our students and communities.”

The immense responsibilities come with profound rewards, Duncan acknowledges.

“I can remember the first ‘aha’ moment I had in my principalship. In my first small school, I had the opportunity to help a very talented young community member, in her early 20s, gain confidence and move towards her certificate qualification to become a teacher aide.”

Duncan could see her talent, and her ability to build strong relationships with children, and help them learn.

“I provided her with the opportunity to do both paid and volunteer teacher aide work in my school. It wasn’t until I left the community that I realised the impact of my work with her. I received a beautiful card thanking me for having faith in her. Thanks to a little trust and confidence, I had reinvigorated her thirst for learning and provided the impetus for change in her life.”

Duncan says he still has that card today.

“It is a constant reminder of the impact that I can have on helping others to transform their lives. It’s something I do not take for granted.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 edition of Education Review.