Teach, Learn, Live Podcast: Ashley McPherson

Image of Ashley McPherson and Tim Bullard for the Teach, Learn, Live podcast

Tim Bullard: [00:00:02]

Welcome to the Teach Learn live podcast, I’m your host, Tim Bullard, Secretary of the Department of Education in Tasmania.

Tim Bullard: [00:00:10]

Through this podcast, we’re going to shed some light on how we are connecting students and young people to succeed every day in our classrooms. We’ve got teachers working hard to inspire our learners. And I see great school leaders making a real difference in many people’s lives. Join me as we get to know more great teachers, curious learners and inspiring families and communities who teach, learn and live in Tasmania.

Tim Bullard: [00:00:43]

Today, my guest is Ashley McPherson, Principal of Bruny Island District School. Ashley started his career in 2008 as a teacher at Herdsman Cove Primary School in Tasmania’s south. And he’s held multiple teaching roles, as well as being a Literacy Coach and Assistant Principal and Acting Principal at Margate Primary School. In 2019 Ashley took up the opportunity to work in an out-of-school role as the Principal Education Officer at the department’s own Professional Learning Institute. And in 2020, Ashley was appointed as Acting Principal at the Bruny Island District School on Bruny Island. So welcome, Ashley.

Ashley McPherson: [00:01:19]

Thanks, Tim. Thanks for having me.

Tim Bullard: [00:01:21]

Ashley, can you just start by telling us a bit about your education journey and how did you end up being principal at Bruny Island School?

Ashley McPherson: [00:01:29]

Yeah, great. So I started at Clarence High School in year 10. I applied for the head prefect role, so I was always keen for leadership, I guess even from an early kind of age.

Tim Bullard: [00:01:42]

Did you get a badge?

Ashley McPherson: [00:01:43]

I did. And the blazer and the blazer is what kept me warm during winter. So and then it was in college when I started year 11 that I realised teaching was the career I wanted to work towards after doing some swimming coaching prior to that. And then I moved to Launceston for university to do The Bachelor of Education. And I was really lucky once I graduated, picked up a relief contract to start with. And then I was asked to go to Herdsman Cove for my first placement and stayed there for six years in various teaching roles and then moved on to Margate, where I started to move into the leadership area a bit more and then moving into the role I have now at Bruny Island.

Tim Bullard: [00:02:28]

So take me back to year 11. And you said that that’s when you thought that teaching was a career for you. What was the motivation for that?

Ashley McPherson: [00:02:36]

I think it started with the swimming coaching that I was doing outside of education and just having the opportunity to watch as an instructor, as a leader. Supporting children to learn skills and seeing them develop and sharing in that moment of them feeling really proud of themselves. And that inspired me to think, wow, I could actually turn this into a career.

Ashley McPherson: [00:02:58]

And I’ve always kind of thought of myself as a bit of a teacher, even as a young child. I would make my younger sister sit down and practise handwriting during the school holiday.

Tim Bullard: [00:03:09]

And did that go well?

Ashley McPherson: [00:03:11]

Her handwriting still is not great. So so it’s been something that I think was I was born to do.

Tim Bullard: [00:03:17]

If I met you at a barbecue, how are you going to describe who you are?

Ashley McPherson: [00:03:21]

I always my default answer is ‘I’m a teacher’. And then it always gets a bit tricky because the next follow up question is always, ah, what grade do you teach? And then I have to explain. Oh, well, actually I have a principal position and so I work across the whole school. But I guess that shows that for me the main thing that I see myself doing is being a teacher, and that’s really important. Even now, everything else that I’ve done is a fantastic job title and it explains my sphere of influence. But at heart, I’m still a teacher. And to me that’s really important. And I think in a leadership position coming from that place of the teacher and the student at the centre helps then when you’re making those difficult decisions that we need to make in our roles, I think to as leaders in the Education Department, we are all advocates of teaching and learning in the broadest possible sense.

Tim Bullard: [00:04:20]

We are an organisation where each and every one of us is learning every day how to improve outcomes for learners. And so it’s absolutely pertinent that you describe yourself as a teacher and as a leader because that describes really well what you are and really what you should be doing in our system.

Ashley McPherson: [00:04:37]

And I also I was privileged last year to spend six months working out of schools in at the Professional Learning Institute. And that gave me a really rich insight into our system and the way we work. And what I learned from that experience was that everyone in our department from marketing, from the child and wellbeing unit to the senior leadership, everyone is here working for the children in our schools. And I think without that experience, it’s not well known across the school system just how much everyone across our whole system really cares about the children in our schools. And I feel really lucky to have had that experience.

Tim Bullard: [00:05:21]

A number of people have made that observation. Our mantra, if you like these learners first, every learner every day. And I think in a school context, it’s assumed that that relates to the staff of the school. But we have people in finance, in H.R. and comms and marketing and strategy, and policy. They are all coming to work every day for learners.

Tim Bullard: [00:05:40]

And that’s what they would say if you ask them.

Ashley McPherson: [00:05:42]

Absolutely, yes.

Tim Bullard: [00:05:44]

Now you’ve moved relatively quickly in your career into a leadership role and in fact, you’re one of our rising stars. What are the things that when you became a principal, you weren’t prepared for?

Ashley McPherson: [00:05:55]

I think one of the things I’ve learned from moving into the principal role is just how critical the position is. I’ve learned it’s the role where you’re the conduit between what happens in the community and then what happens, department and government wise. And I don’t think I was prepared for just how much the role requires communication, really strong listening to what’s happening within the community, responding in the way that you need to. I think there’s a perception that a lot of the role is in an office and it’s not. I spend a lot of my day in the school around the community, and to be honest, that’s the part I love. It took me by surprise, but I really enjoy the hands-on aspect of the role.

Tim Bullard: [00:06:39]

And what about the challenges of the job as you’re learning as you go?

Ashley McPherson: [00:06:43]

Hmm. There are a number of challenges, but one of the things I’ve learned from that is that it is OK to ask for help. And the best thing about my leadership journey has been the connections I’ve made. And at no point have I felt unsupported. At no point have I felt as if I was alone in those challenges on a day to day basis. There are things that happen that are unplanned and unexpected. But I know there is someone at the end of the phone if I need to call, and remaining calm in those moments and leading the situation and asking for help. And that for me has been a huge learning moving into the principal role. I think when I first started, I wanted to look like I was in control. I wanted to look like I was doing a good job. And what I’ve learned is courage is not just keeping up a strong face. Courage is about actually asking someone and saying, you know what, I’m not sure, but I can find out and knowing then it’s OK to call.

Tim Bullard: [00:07:44] I think that’s a really amazing reflection. And if I reflect on my own journey through leadership, it is growing to understand that that’s probably the most powerful thing that helps you advance. You’ve been working as a teacher and now as a principal in our department. What do you think’s helped you on that journey? You’ve talked about others, but what other things have helped you or in fact hindered you to take on the leadership role in the agency?

Ashley McPherson: [00:08:13]

I have been incredibly supportive throughout my career as a beginning teacher. I had an incredible Assistant Principal that was mentoring me and supporting me. I have had many opportunities to try leadership from just having like a teacher on duty type role when the principal’s been away to acting assistant positions and acting AP positions and every step of the way, I’ve been encouraged and supported and and I think it was just a natural kind of progression to get to where I am now. And as anything hindered your ability to take on a leadership role. One of the things I think that has possibly hindered the feeling of being a leader at this point has been the perception that some people have had around my age and therefore my experience that I could bring to a leadership role. And it’s been really interesting to see the perception of some people. And there’s been a number of comments made about, oh, you’re the principal. And there was a moment where I remember being on an excursion only recently and someone said to me, So where’s the teacher?

Tim Bullard: [00:09:26]

Well, I’d take that as a compliment.

Ashley McPherson: [00:09:28]

And even just coming here today, Tim, the person downstairs that greeted me mentioned, oh, I just expected you to be older. And so as flattering as that is, it may perhaps also hinder people’s perception of me through the role that I do and our conversations. And so at times, I guess I feel the need to justify and I’m now getting to a point where I feel more comfortable in myself that I don’t need to. But I do remember when I first started saying things like, well, actually I’ve got ten years experience behind me and I’ve had acting roles and I’ve done this and I’ve done that to justify where I’ve got to.

Tim Bullard: [00:10:08]

And I know that one of your mantras is listening to learn. Can you tell me why that’s important to you?

Ashley McPherson: [00:10:15]

Absolutely. So I do really enjoy professional reading and I read a lot. And in preparation for moving to the principal role at Bruny, I spent a lot of time over summer doing some professional reading and this statement really stood out to me ‘listening to learn and not to react’. And I think often when we’re listening to people, we listen to them, waiting for our chance to respond. And moving into the leadership role, I wanted to take this opportunity to really listen and learn and understand what people are trying to communicate with me. And in the principal role that is so important. Being in the moment, actively listening to people’s needs, their interests, so then I can respond effectively. And so I’ve tried really hard in all my interactions to listen, to learn. And I tell myself that during our coaching conversations with teachers, when I’m interacting with parents, when I’m interacting with the students, not jumping ahead to just responding.

Tim Bullard: [00:11:19]

So nice summer of reading and getting up to speed and then going to Bruny Island. What was your first day as principal on Bruny Island like?

Ashley McPherson: [00:11:28]

Amazing. I think my first day as Principal will stay with me forever. I had this beautiful moment where I was outside on duty in the courtyard on the very first day. And because it was quite a quick change of Principal, the students hadn’t met me yet. And so I was standing on the courtyard and I remember seeing a little boy come towards me and he said, ‘Who are you’ as children do.

Ashley McPherson: [00:11:55]

And I said to him, Oh, I’m Mr. McPherson, your new principal. And he said, ‘Oh, well, welcome to Bruny. You will love it here’.

Ashley McPherson: [00:12:03]

And that statement was repeated again and again as the kids entered the school grounds. All the children were so welcoming and in inviting me to their space and then it was repeated by their parents. Every parent was interested to come and say hello and tell me a little bit about their child. But all of them were interested in me as well. Asking, am I living on the island? Am I excited for the role? And welcoming me to their place.

Tim Bullard: [00:12:31]

We know as system leaders that it is the interaction between teachers and children and young people where there is the absolute biggest impact in learning. But as a leader and as leaders, what can we be doing to ensure that the decisions that we make are having the most positive impact on that interaction?

Ashley McPherson: [00:12:51]

For me as principal, the key to my relevance in the decisions I’m making is being an instructional leader. And so spending the time in the classrooms is part of my role that I really enjoy. Working in a small school, I get to be a teacher for part of the week and work in the classroom. And if I’m not being the teacher, I’m also supporting other teachers do their work. And so having that relevant experience on the ground has been really beneficial to deciding the direction of the school and where to put our efforts. And I think as a system staying true to that, to the what’s happening on the ground and what challenges people are facing. And continuing to work the way we are is a really positive way forward in the way that we work. We have many layers in our system. And one thing I’ve learned is that the layers are working. The school improvement team do an incredible job supporting principals in their work. And I know the messages are going up and down through our layers.

Tim Bullard: [00:13:58]

Absolutely. And I think such an interesting observation about needing to get that alignment throughout the whole system, which is exactly what we are really, really focused on. And principals and school leadership teams are just so integral in doing that effectively, aren’t they?

Ashley McPherson: [00:14:14]

Yes, yes, absolutely.

Tim Bullard: [00:14:15]

If all I’m out there listening to this thinking, oh, well, maybe school leadership position is for me, what advice would you give someone who’s thinking maybe about the next step in their career?

Ashley McPherson: [00:14:27]

Go for it. I have taken advantage of the opportunities that have been presented to me. It started with enrolling in the Leadership Starts From Within program through the Professional Learning Institute, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with Steph Hickey through that program. It was at that point, leadership was explained to me in a way that really helped me see my trajectory through my career. Steph helped me see that we don’t just go on one linear path through our career. There are ups and downs. There are moments where we are in leadership positions. There are moments when we change, but we’re always working towards improving ourselves. And it was through Leadership Starts From Within that I started to realise leadership is more than a title. Leadership is really about who you are and the way that you work, the way you present yourself. I think if you’re interested in doing a leadership role, really tuned in to what’s happening within your leadership team, start to observe the practices that are happening, the conversations, the decisions start to tune into what happens. Look at the opportunities to develop your skills through the Professional Learning Institute, but also looking at mentoring opportunities too. Once I had my acting first acting principal role at Margate Primary, I then enrolled in the Principal Preparation Program, which I was encouraged to do. And it was from that that I got to observe other principals in other schools. And that was an incredible experience to really see how different principals go about their work and the way that they lead their communities was inspiring. And I’ve taken little bits from those experiences to create the way that I would like to lead my community.

Tim Bullard: [00:16:23]

I think that’s such a meaningful response. I was recently asked, which leaders through your career have you modelled yourself on? What elements of their practice have you taken? And I had never really reflected on the impact that individuals had had on me. They were obviously important in my life, but I hadn’t unpacked what I had gained from working with them. And that idea of looking at leaders and leadership practice that’s around you, and starting to build your own bank of strategies and approaches is such a tangible way that you can commence and continue on your journey.

Ashley McPherson: [00:17:00]

Yes, absolutely. Yeah. And I think we talk to the students about being word conscious when we’re thinking about learning how to spell. It’s similar for us if we become conscious of what’s happening in a leadership role and start to ask some questions around that. I think that’s one way to start that conversation and that journey towards a leadership role.

Tim Bullard: [00:17:21]

Bruny Island, obviously an island, off an island, off an island as someone once described it to me.

Ashley McPherson: [00:17:27]

Yes.

Tim Bullard: [00:17:28]

We would consider that it’s a regional and remote school community. What are the great things about working in such a community? Obviously, it’s a very friendly place.

Ashley McPherson: [00:17:38]

Yes, absolutely. I think the first things that come to mind are obviously the Bruny Island fudge.

Tim Bullard: [00:17:43]

And the cheese.

Ashley McPherson: [00:17:45]

And the cheese. Absolutely. But more than that, it is a beautiful community. I feel privileged to work in such a beautiful place. Yesterday, I was the timekeeper for our cross country trials and I was standing on the oval with my stopwatch in my pointy leather shoes. And I looked around and I thought, I am so lucky. You know, the animals are in the paddocks and it was calm and quiet. The sky was bright blue and the kids were having fun and it was just such an enjoyable place to be.

Tim Bullard: [00:18:19]

Do you want to tell me a little bit more about living and working on Bruny Island?

Ashley McPherson: [00:18:22]

It has been an experience and I have absolutely loved it, both professionally and personally. But I do feel like sometimes the Bruny Islanders are trying to just challenge me a little bit.

Ashley McPherson: [00:18:34]

So there was a situation a few weeks ago where we are agisting animals on our school paddocks. We have a number of paddocks around the school and a local farmer has left his miniature cows with us to look after. Didn’t know that was part of my principal brief. And as adorable as these miniature cows are, they were starting to destroy our fences. And there was one morning where I was walking from my school house to the school, which is about a 50-metre concrete path, which I’m very lucky to have. But I heard the groundsman yelling, ‘come back here, get back in the paddock’. And all of a sudden I could see three cows, miniature cows running through our school playground. And as you do when you’re the principal of a small school, you get involved. And I was walking around or running around our school grounds, in my suit and pointy leather shoes, chasing some cows to try and put them back in the paddock. And I had this moment where I just wanted to pull my phone out and capture this moment because I didn’t think anyone would believe me.

Ashley McPherson: [00:19:42]

And we did get the cows back in the paddock, luckily, but it hasn’t stopped there. We also had a rogue chicken that escaped the coop. And as much as I love talking to the chickens across the fence, I didn’t really want one to be at my office door. But it happened and the chicken was there after it escaped and I required some assistance to put it back.

Tim Bullard: [00:20:04]

So it sounds to me like you have quite a few behaviour challenges, but it’s not really related to the students.

Ashley McPherson: [00:20:11]

I do have to call the parents sometimes for the animals. Yes.

Tim Bullard: [00:20:16]

Since you’ve been there, you’ve obviously worked with your team around school priorities and a direction. What are the priorities for Bruny Island School at the moment?

Ashley McPherson: [00:20:26]

We’ve got to school improvement priorities. The first one is reading and we have done a lot of professional learning and work around developing a whole school approach for reading. And the second priority is community connectedness. And that has been a really enjoyable priority to work through, the goal here is to look at ways that our school can bring our community together and work with other agencies around the island that support the community feeling connected. Although Bruny Island seems quite small, it is over 300 kilometres square and we are quite dispersed across the island. And COVID-19 did present a challenge with us staying connected and feeling like we were part of a community. And so it’s been really exciting to see the success of our approach to keeping us connected. And we’re now looking at opportunities to invite the wider community to be a part of the school. We’re just about to launch a community garden. And so we have our school garden space that we’re looking at opening up to the community and looking at a partnership where we can work with our elderly community to learn from them and enrich the experience for our children.

Tim Bullard: [00:21:45]

Again, great priorities. And we know from the national school improvement domain nine, that community partnerships are such a fundamental part of working together to improve learning outcomes for children and young people. So that’s great to hear. And I’m really looking forward to actually coming to visit Bruny Island, I think, in August. And I hope to see more of that in action.

Tim Bullard: [00:22:07]

So if you could change one thing about public education today, what would it be?

Ashley McPherson: [00:22:11]

Public education has provided a level playing field for our children to access opportunities, and I’m really passionate about that. I think the education system and I’m through the public education system myself, has given me the foundation to then create the career that I now have that I’m really proud of. And so I know your question is around what we would change. But at the moment I feel like we are doing an incredible job for the Tasmanian community. And I’m really proud to say that I work as part of the Department of Education, part of the public education system, and we’re doing an incredible job for our families and our students.

Tim Bullard: [00:22:57]

It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thank you for your time today.

Ashley McPherson: [00:23:00]

Thank you, Tim.

[00:23:10]

I hope that you’ve enjoyed today’s podcast. To hear more about those people who teach, learn and live in Tasmania. Join us at www.education.tas.gov.au/podcast or wherever you listen to your podcasts, why not subscribe so that you can keep up to date with what we’re doing? Or if you have a story about an inspiring teacher or student. Email us at teachlearnlive@education.tas.gov.au.