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7 Questions with Steve Walton

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Jonno White

7 Questions with Steve Walton

Name: Steve Walton

Current title: Principal

Current organisation: Cedars Christian College

Steve Walton BSc, Grad Dip Ed, MEd, MACE, JP.
It was during Steve Walton’s first teaching post in the Central West of NSW that he came to understand the true value of community.
Something as simple as a weekend game of touch footy would bring together everyone in the local area.
‘In a small country town everyone chipped in. We’d all celebrate together and if something went wrong there was a spirit of genuine care,’ says Steve.
Steve has worked hard to foster the sense of community since he joined the team at Cedars as Head of Science in 2006, before becoming Deputy Principal in 2009 and Principal in 2013.
And although leadership responsibilities may have taken him away from the classroom, Steve hasn’t drifted far from his first loves of Geography and Science, and he sees it as his priority to lead an innovative and forward thinking learning community.
‘I get great fulfilment and satisfaction from being an educator first. I see opportunities for learning in every aspect of life.’
A recent tour of exceptional schools in Europe further opened his eyes to the possibilities of learning.
‘I am always exploring new ways to encourage our students to love learning, God and others.’
He is particularly interested in developing leaders.
‘Leadership is a discipline on its own. If you can learn to do it well, you have the potential to change your world and influence people within it. I certainly believe that most students can learn it.’
Steve has established professional links with the University of Wollongong. After all, he completed all of his tertiary education there. He achieved a Bachelor of Science before working in the environmental and forestry fields, before returning to complete a Graduate Diploma of Education and a Masters in Educational Leadership. He has also been appointed to serve as a Member of the Christian Schools Australia State and National Councils.
In his down time, Steve is a keen fisherman and family man.
‘To relax I enjoy cooking, fishing and being with my wife Renee, son Cooper and daughter Sarah, and wherever possible, like to combine the three.’

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader in the education sector?

There are so many demands in terms of compliance and regulations in the education sector. I know they are there for good reason, however as a leader it can be easy to be consumed by the work associated with this and lose track of the students and the staff and being a leader of learning.

2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

My day starts at 5:30am. I am up before the rest of the family and I am out for a walk. This is personal time where I exercise, listen to the bible or a podcast, reflect and pray. As a Christian learning a faith based school it is important that I have the right spirit and this always helps that.
My Mondays at work start with a 15 minute stand up meeting with all of my exec staff in the different sections of the school. This gets us all on the same page at the beginning of the week and we can troubleshoot together if things have popped up over the weekend. I attend the morning assemblies with Junior School, and also Middle and Senior College. I make announcements and mix with the students. By the time I get back to my desk at 10:30am I have seen all of my staff and all of the students and have set the week up for success. Being visible and proximal to staff and students is so important in learning a school so I prioritise my week to begin like this.
The middle of the work day involves meetings with key teams, answering emails, responding to parents and the many, many, things that pop up in the life of the school. I do my best to find time to walk the school and go into classrooms engaging with students in what they are learning.
At 3:00pm I am out in the pick up lane. It is a great opportunity to be visible for the whole school yet again. I farewell the students, wave to parents, solve issues through a car window conversation before they blow up into something big. Then I am back to my desk for paperwork or an executive meeting or board meeting.
Although there is a deliberate plan to my day/week, no day is the same as the next in the life of a school. It is never dull or boring that’s for sure.

3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

I am a real people person and that means that I get invested in the olives of those around me. I can empathise with staff but that is sometimes to the point of losing sight of what is best for the organisation. Most recently I have learned the art of remaining focussed and objective on the task at hand to deliver the best outcome for the school. Focussing on what is in front of us as staff or colleagues rather than the emotions of a situation ultimately leads to the best result.

4. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I love the book “The Advantage'' by Patrick Lencioni. This book was such a clear cut way to cut out the noise or the business or work and ensure that we are focussed on the right things. Another of his books ‘Death by Meetings’ was a great help in ensuring that we didn't fill our days up with boring meetings with people sitting there just waiting for them to end. Nope when we meet it is with purpose and is focussed on achieving our goals, rather than the monotonous meetings that can so easily take our time and such life out of people.

5. How do you find and keep great leaders in the education sector?

Great leaders or potential leaders are usually easy to find. They are the ones who are proactively engaged in the life of the school. They volunteer, they get behind the leader’s vision and they make things happen while bringing people along with them. The people who meet with me and say “I’m ready for leadership. If you just give me some time then I’ll show you what I can do” are not leaders at all. They are about title and identity over support and responsibility. And they are not for me.
Keeping great leaders once you have got them is all about distributed leadership and responsibility. If leaders feel they are responsible for their area rather than having to constantly seek your permission then you will get the most out of them. I try to offer a high level of support to go along with a high level of expectation.

6. What's most important as a leader in the education sector for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?

Actually caring for your staff and students is the most important thing. You can't fake that.
When the school was smaller it was easy for me to personally tend to all of the staff and know all of the students. I was available for them and was able to personally care for them and listen to their concerns.
Now the school has grown that model is just not sustainable. We have had to systemise our care and wellbeing programs and structures. We have clear pathways for anyone in our community to seek support, we have specialist staff like psychologists and chaplains along with a dedicated wellbeing team led by a Director of Wellbeing. My role is to make sure our systems are working but that we don’t lose the heart of what we are trying to achieve.
I have come to realise that if you really value anything and want that as part of your culture you need to intentionally build it into your processes and systems, not just rely on the skills or heart of a few people to keep the culture strong.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader in the education sector so far?

I started a scholarship program for refugee families. One of those families came from war torn Congo. The younger children were born in refugee camps and the story of how they came to arrive in Australia was hard for someone with a privileged life to even fathom.
I remember that as a Justice of the Peace I help then sign off on their citizenship papers. A great honour. Not long after that one of their sons graduated and signed up to join the Australian Army. When you graduate from your training in the Army they give you a framed photograph in uniform to give your mother. That day she brought that photo down to the school to show me. She was obviously proud of her son but the reason she came down was to say that it was our school that accepted them so well. That we care for and educate their children and that we should share in the joy of his graduation.
I am still humbled to this day that a young person can leave the war zone, but come to love his new country so much that he signs up to defend it.
I know all of the curriculum we teach is important but it is the hidden curriculum in a school that makes someone feel welcome, makes them feel safe, gives them support and guidance and helps them to find success.
I am still in touch with this student many years later and am grateful for the many ways he and his family impacted the school.