Leading for the long term

The moment when something finally clicks for a student is what first ignited Dr Jake Madden’s passion for education. It still keeps him energised nearly 30 years into a career that has taken him to the top of his profession. 

Dr Madden has worked in Catholic schools for many years and began his leadership journey with a principalship at a tiny rural Catholic primary school. ACU has supported him every step of the way from graduate diploma to master’s to doctorate. Each qualification he has completed at ACU has been instrumental in his career.

He was awarded a Fellowship with the Australian Council of Educational Leaders in recognition for his contribution in this area and for fostering teacher professional learning. In December 2019, the Global Forum for Education and Learning named him among the top 100 leaders in education and, in 2020, he received the outstanding contribution to education award from GESS, Dubai.

Currently, Dr Madden is Editor of the Journal of Applied Research and Innovation and he sits on the editorial board for the International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change. He is also the inaugural Dean of the Australian College of Researchers. All while leading St Edward’s Primary School in Tamworth.

We spoke with him about his journey.

Why did you want to be a teacher?

“I did two weeks of work experience with the kindergarten class at the local primary school. There I began to wonder why some students kept getting the same questions wrong and I wanted to understand why and try and do something about it. I observed the teacher, asked questions, and I was surprised at how easily you could help a student. In just two weeks I saw students go from not being able to recognise letters and sounds to being able to read sentences.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘aha’ moments students had and their excitement when they were able to read out loud to me. With this experience under my belt, I knew that I would become a teacher.”

How has what you learned at ACU influenced your career path?

“I have learned a great deal about the importance of leadership skills throughout my studies at ACU. As a leader, it is critical to be able to motivate and engage team members, as well as create open communication channels between all levels within the school. This has helped me enormously as I now possess the skills needed to effectively lead a team and inspire them to achieve common goals.

“My leadership studies at ACU have also taught me the importance of being able to think strategically, which has been invaluable in helping me to make decisions that will positively impact the schools I lead in the long term.”

What are the highlights and challenges when leading a school?

“My role as principal is to provide educational leadership in our school and to work with the staff to ensure all students receive a high-quality education. One of my main responsibilities is to develop and implement the school’s curriculum. I am also responsible for managing the resources of the school and ensuring that we provide a safe and supportive learning environment for our students.

“The challenges of my role include dealing with the ever-changing landscape of education, managing tight budgets, and dealing with the challenges that come with being responsible for many students. I believe, however, that these challenges are also what make my role as principal so rewarding.

“The highlights are working with great teams of teachers and staff who are passionate about education and helping our students to succeed. But the implementation of a flexible, personalised learning environment while principal of St Augustine’s Primary School in Coffs Harbour was probably my seminal leadership moment. It was from there that I began writing about my experiences and thinking about teachers as researchers as a way to improve schools.”

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

“I believe in my philosophy of stewardship and leaving each school I’ve led in a better place than when I found it, whether that be increasing enrolments, building infrastructure or building leadership capacity. I am proud of each school I’ve led.”

Tell us about your work fostering teacher professional learning.

“For me, effective teacher professional learning is an interactive, enquiry-driven process that is integrated into classroom practice. It is directed by the demands of the students and meets the learning needs of the teachers. It is also guided by the school’s overall educational strategy, tailored for each individual teacher, and the catalyst for conversations on teacher performance.”

What is your philosophy about educational leadership?

“The key traits that form the pillars of my educational leadership philosophy may appear simple, but they are the steel of my foundation.

“Focus on the vision, always be honest, delegate and prioritise, communicate constantly, aim to inspire, encourage personal as well as professional growth, set clear goals and expectations, give direct feedback on performance, take time to smell the roses, and always default to kindness and compassion.

“We are in the business of teaching, and the best thing we can teach is kindness and compassion for each other. You never know when a kind word or a compassionate gesture will make a huge difference in someone’s life. If we teach our students anything, we must teach them how to be kind and how to show compassion. There is no greater wisdom.”

You are clearly motivated to go above and beyond for your students and colleagues. Where does that come from?

“I happily get up each day looking forward to going to school to work with my students and colleagues because I want them all to succeed. I have always been passionate about helping teachers be better tomorrow than they are today, and being a school principal gives me the opportunity to do just that. Also, when I see the progress my community makes over time, it is incredibly rewarding. The feeling that we are in a better place because of what we are doing is what keeps me going.

“Every child, no matter their location, circumstances or disposition, deserves the best possible learning opportunities.”

You have won many awards and recognition for your work. What means the most?

“Awards are great. Being acknowledged by independent organisations is also gratifying as is being invited to write for reputable magazines.

“However, when a Year 1 student drew a picture of me with the caption ‘Best Principal Ever’ and gave me a sticker she made on her own during lunchtime, that was a great moment.”

What do you think teaching in the future will look like?

“Teachers will become facilitators of learning, and children will have greater control over their own learning path. Before, all kids did the same work regardless of ability or talent, which resulted in disengagement, misconduct and poor outcomes.

“Teachers of the next generation will have to accept that students will require and desire to learn in a flexible, custom-designed manner. For some, this may imply a more technology-centric classroom. Students will want their learning to be tailored to their interests, time constraints and academic needs.”

What advice would you give to yourself as a young teacher?

“If I could go back and talk to myself as a newly appointed principal, I would tell myself to be patient, take my time getting to know the school and the community, and not try to do everything at once. I would remind myself that it is OK to ask for help when needed and to lean on my experienced colleagues for guidance. I would also encourage myself to focus on building relationships with my teachers and students, as this is the most important part of being a principal.

“And finally, I would remind myself that it is OK to make mistakes along the way, since learning from those mistakes is one of the most valuable things you can do as an educator. Overall, I would encourage myself to have confidence in my abilities and to be open to learning and growing as a leader.”

If you’re interested in progressing your teaching career, find out more about postgraduate education at ACU.

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