2016 John Laing award recipient Pitsa Binnion shares her inspiration and vision for successful school leadership.
Pitsa Binnion always wanted to be a teacher but never thought about being a principal. She was inspired by her Year 11 geography teacher, Jenny McInnes, at Murrumbeena High School in Victoria.
“Jenny was a passionate, warm and kind person: a great role model,” Binnion says.
Binnion’s own career began in 1983 as a geography teacher at Boronia High School. This was followed closely by a stint at other Victorian high schools. By 1997, Binnion became head and lead teacher of the senior school at McKinnon Secondary College, her first major role in school leadership. After a short time as an assistant principal, Binnion took over the leadership of McKinnon in 2008, where she still works today.
“This is my 10th year as principal and 20th year serving the McKinnon community. I have been blessed to have had great mentors who encouraged me over the years to pursue leadership opportunities and I have never looked back. The many experiences I have encountered have served me well for my current role,” Binnion says.
Leadership and focus on school improvement
Binnion’s colleagues particularly highlight her ability to inspire leadership actions and aspirations in them. She devotes considerable energy to supporting others and is very influential in Victorian educational circles. Because of this, Binnion is frequently requested to act as a peer observer, critical friend and challenge partner when other schools engage her in their review. This clearly shows that other principals in the Victorian education system hold her in high esteem and admire her focused visionary leadership.
Binnion has developed a rich learning environment at McKinnon Secondary College. The school has experienced huge enrolment growth in recent years and is now one of the biggest secondary schools in the state, with families moving into the residential zone to guarantee enrolment. Binnion ensures teachers and middle-level leaders in her school can develop their capabilities to the highest level. She makes certain that a focus on the core work of teaching and learning and maximising student outcomes is undertaken.
Staff at Binnion’s school experience wonderful opportunities for professional development and are challenged to build personal capacity and improve their skills. She provides her school leaders the opportunity to be involved in professional development activities beyond the school, and she regularly brings a team of leaders to statewide professional learning events to expose her charges to big-picture thinking and to develop their wider aspirations.
“One of the first things I did as principal was to develop the school vision and values and set a clear direction. I brought the community together to formulate and articulate that vision and values statement and that has enabled clarity about our core business,” Binnion explains.
“I have insisted on a program where kids are known, known well, and their learning program was discussed with each individual – we began the journey of catering for individual differences. The culture today is one I am very proud of with very high expectations of all members of the community.
“We became an accredited school through the Council of International Schools in 2015.
“Putting the school through this process that involves all staff, students and their parents has indeed created a very clear framework for continuous improvement.”
Binnion’s strength and leadership style lie in people management. While leaders who place their focus on humanity are often widely acknowledged, those who also possess a strategic and continuous improvement focus tend to stand out.
“You need a balanced approach and clear direction,” Binnion says. “With much warmth and through building positive relationships, I try and deliver the best I can for the community I serve: staff, students, parents and the Department of Education.”
Professional development and achievements
“We have put in place a professional development plan that incorporates peer observation, and this has changed our school for the better,” Binnion says.
“Staff are collegial, share best practice, and learn and share ideas about their teaching. My extensive supportive networks beyond school have connected me to terrific research and learning about teaching and improving student outcomes.
“Change is at the core of our organisation and our work. Continuous improvement is about change and it is crucial if we are to maximise the educational outcomes for the students in our care.
“I do my best to keep up to date, to avail myself to the latest research about best practice, and to support my staff to do their very best. It is a very demanding job but also a most rewarding one. It is a job that fundamentally affects lives.”
The principal understands that people want to feel valued, that they need the opportunity to participate and contribute to the school’s growth development and improvement. Binnion is clear about this: all voices need to be considered. She feels lucky to have exceptional educators in her leadership team and on her staff. Selecting the best people helps to realise exceptional student outcomes. The McKinnon staff are very professional, dedicated and passionate about providing the best educational opportunities for their students.
In 2016, Binnion received the John Laing Award for Professional Development from Principals Australia Institute (PAI). Paul Geyer, chief executive of Principal Australia Institute (PAI) which runs the John Laing Awards nationally, praises the work of principals such as Binnion.
“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,” he says.
Binnion received this award in acknowledgement of her leadership and ongoing focus on developing herself and contributing to her school’s student programs and ongoing staff development.
“Her dedication to the profession is evident in receiving this award,” Geyer continues.
“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.”
Binnion has made an extraordinary contribution to school leadership in Victoria. It’s an impressive reflection of the wider contribution she has made to the profession during her career.
Some of her achievements include: the mentoring of new principals and undertaking ‘growth coaching’ professional learning; holding an executive role on the Southern Principals Sage/Bayside group; organising professional learning and collegial support, helping to drive improvement in their schools; taking on the presidency of the Southern Region of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals (VASSP); being a member of the Department of Education’s Expert Principals Advisory Group; and advising the department about implementation of policies. On top of all this, Binnion is also a member of the Bastow Strategic Advisory Council.
Challenges of leadership
Constantly thinking about how to manage an organisation like a school certainly plays on Binnion’s mind. It is complex; there are many conflicting views, different personnel, social pressures and very demanding expectations from parents and students.
“McKinnon is now a school of 180 staff and 2100 students; a very, very busy place,” she says. “The greatest challenge, I think, is managing the people issues well so that exceptional outcomes can be achieved for our students.
“The greatest opportunities for the education sector and ultimately for school principals and leaders is to help raise and educate globally responsible citizens, to achieve the best educational outcomes for each individual and help them to have a strong sense of belonging. This is what leadership in education is all about,” Binnion says.
“Research shows that the best predictor of people’s long-term health, wealth and happiness and also the economic and social prosperity of our country, is the number of years spent at school and the building of strong relationships on their education journey.”
This year, McKinnon will embark on the construction of a new three-storey VCE Centre to cater for the incredible demand for places at the school. With significant funding from the Victorian government, this project will change the face of the school and add to the credibility and trust in Binnion’s leadership in the sector.
“As every year begins, my aspiration is to undertake my responsibilities with dedication, professionalism and pride and to support my team so that we deliver the best educational outcomes for all the students in our care,” she says.
“I have absolutely loved my career, and I have helped create a wonderful school culture where kids shine. So I would say my greatest achievement is an incredible culture of excellence and success at McKinnon Secondary College.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 edition of Education Review.