A Case for Change: Reflections of a Seasoned School Leader – Tony Bryant, Australia
Anyone who has been teaching as long as Tony Bryant – more than 46 years — has experienced seismic shifts in every aspect of education. From technology and the rise of the digital natives, to a new kind of pedagogy that emphasizes skills over rote learning. For many educators who started their careers in the 20th century, adapting to all of this change can be a struggle. Bryant, on the other hand, not only embraces change, he’s passionate about helping others do the same.
“Good use of technology can speed up the learning process, and make learning connected to the real world,” Bryant says. “[We must] allow children to use the skills of communication, collaboration, thinking, researching and problem solving which we know are essential skills for the future and what they will need for their working life.”
To teach those skills, Bryant has transformed Silverton Primary School, a multi-cultural school in a lower socio-economic suburb of Melbourne, into a center for innovation. Students pursue their own passions through inquiry-directed learning, presenting their findings in a slew of creative ways – from puppet shows to documentaries. They play XBOX games at lunch. And they work together to share school news with parents and the community from the school’s radio and television stations.
Why add broadcast facilities to a primary school? According to Bryant, it goes back to the early days of technology transformation. “It was important in our school to create a need for the use of technology, and that need came from a desire to publish and show others what the students were doing. This approach changed how we saw the use of technology.”
Bryant’s work has earned a good bit of recognition for Silverton, which was named a Microsoft World Tour School in 2013 and a 2014-2015 Microsoft Showcase School. He’s also earned accolades as a leader, and in 2011, Bryant received the Victoria Education Excellence Outstanding School Leadership Award.
But Bryant isn’t one to rest on his laurels. As this seasoned educator approaches his 50th year in teaching, he shows no signs of slowing down. He continues to innovate at Silverton, staying ahead of new education technology opportunities — and he generously shares his perspective on persevering through change on the Microsoft Educator Network. Here’s today’s Daily Edventure with Tony Bryant.
What inspired you to become an educator?
Living in a small country town outside the capital city of Victoria, Melbourne, I went to the local high school. All of my close mates decided they wanted to be teachers. I am not sure what influenced me to be a teacher as we had no teachers in my family. I guess I was influenced closely by my friends in those days. The Ballarat Teachers College was next door to my high school, so we saw on a daily basis the students, and the facilities they enjoyed. I also had three younger sisters who, being a lot younger than me, went to the local primary schools. I often visited their schools, so I think that may have influenced me as well.
Once I began Teachers College in Ballarat and undertook my first teaching round placement, I quickly realized that this was what I really wanted to do. By the end of the three years of training I was very itchy to begin my teaching career with my own grade of children.
That love of teaching after nearly 46 years has never wavered, and in fact I think I have become more passionate about what I do as the years go on.
What was a defining moment in your career when you felt proudest to be an educator? How did you feel at the time?
After teaching for a number of years in traditional primary schools, I then gained promotion to a senior teaching position in a school with a principal who was really encouraging of teachers who did things “outside the square.” She encouraged us to try different things, and back in 1985 she was probably ahead of her time in trusting teachers to experiment. Although I wouldn’t regard her as a great educator, her strengths lay in the fact she allowed others to try different approaches. It was during this time that I really began to question traditional teaching and school organization.
Following my period at this school I gained promotion as Assistant Principal to Silverton Primary School in 1989. Here I was able to refine my leadership skills, and when in 1992 I took over as acting Principal and then as substantive Principal from 1993 until the present, I was able to put my vision of education into practice. It was during this time that I felt proudest to be an educator. Not because of what I was doing, but because of what my staff were doing.
Taking over a low socio-economic school and highly multi-cultural school with traditional values regarding teaching and learning in a traditional environment, we were able to change to a progressive, highly personalized and collaborative teaching and learning environment that drew a great deal of strength and engagement from the use of technology to redefine what teaching and learning is all about.
During this period of change, the school gained a great deal of recognition worldwide through the Microsoft Partners in Learning program as well as locally and nationally by winning many awards for curriculum innovation, leadership awards, and recognition as one of the top five percent of schools nationally based on national testing programs (although we were in the bottom 10 percent socio-economically). This has all been achieved in a non-traditional teaching and learning environment. It makes me proud when I see talented staff gaining recognition through promotion to more senior positions with the educational system, as well as gaining a number of awards. It is also heartening to see these young teachers beginning their careers growing and becoming risk takers in their own right and developing as solid educators.
However the real rewards come from the many students who return to our school each year thanking us for giving them the opportunities to succeed in life and for, in many cases, turning their lives around.
Why do you feel passionate about innovation and technology in the classroom?
I am very passionate about the use of technology within the educational process. Not technology as an outcome, but as a tool to enhance their learning. If we want our children to be well prepared for the future given that reading, writing, math and science are a given, then the areas we must focus on are those other soft creative skills that can often be overlooked, and it is by good use of technology can we advance those skills.
At Silverton a big issue was to engage the children in their learning because for many of our families, school was not a good experience when they went. It was important for us to change this perception for their children, therefore it was important to change the cycle. We introduced a number of devices, but the creation of our own community FM radio station and television studio changed the way children saw how technology could be used. Suddenly what they were doing in the learning centers became authentic, especially when we publishing their work for others to see. The quality of work suddenly improved as the children were then showing the community what they were doing or not doing.
Today, of course, with the rapid improvement in devices and software packages, the changes are exponential. However the original philosophy to make learning authentic, public and collaborative still rings true.
Whether it’s a day-to-day challenge or larger problem, what’s the biggest obstacle you or your country or region has had to overcome, or will have to overcome, to ensure a quality education for students?
Like all countries, education still remains a major political chalice and most of the discussion stems around funding. What is too little and what is too much? How much can communities afford? In low socio-economic areas, it is obvious from research that more funding needs to be injected into the education systems. This issue is an ever going concern and will probably still be an issue into the future.
I believe a bigger and more important issue we are all facing at the moment is the quality of the teachers coming into the system from the universities. This concern comes from the disconnect between the university system and the education sector, and until this is resolved a great deal of the teacher education — particularly around practices — will fall back on the individual schools to address.
In Victoria we have been self-managing since 1994, and as such are able to select our own teachers and manage our own schools without too much direct system interference. This suits us as we are able to select those graduates who are willing to learn and don’t come into schools with teaching and learning practices that reflect those that they were educated under.
A further issue schools will need to address is that of valuing the work of teachers. I believe the communities respect for teachers, and regard they are held in by communities, has waned over the years. Unlike countries such as Finland and Singapore where the teaching profession is highly valued, I believe this is not consistent across the world and is an issue that needs to be addressed.
In terms of education innovation, what are you most excited about for the future? What is your biggest hope for today’s students?
As for innovation for education in the future, I am encouraged by what I see around the world. Schools and systems breaking away from old paradigms and embracing new ways of learning. Learning that incorporates good use of technology and making learning more authentic. Allowing children to have a real voice in their education, making learning personalized is important and is being embraced across the world.
I am encouraged by seeing real pockets of innovation and those schools opening up their doors to influence others. Then seeing schools change and recognizing that we need to keep up with the times. You can’t be a 21st century school with your doors closed. Schools recognize that changing the environment is important, but that on its own is not enough. Changing the practices within the schools is even more important. However the learning spaces are the physical expression of schools’ learning philosophy, and unless these spaces change it is difficult to change the teaching practices.
The future looks bright for our young ones as we are more aware of what they need to have to be successful 21st century citizens. I am encouraged by what schools and education systems are trying to do and hope this is not scuttled by political agendas. We should all let teachers get on with what they are good at – teaching.
About Tony Bryant, Principal, Microsoft Showcase School Leader
Silverton Primary School
- Birthplace: Ballarat, Victoria, Australia
- Educational background: Ballarat High School, Ballarat Teachers College, Monash University
- Awards: Victorian Primary Principal of the Year (2011), Honorary Fellowship ACEL 2013 (FACEL), Honorary Fellowship Australian College of Educators 2014 (FACE)
- Website I check every day: Microsoft Educator Network, The Age Newspaper, MSN News
- Favorite childhood memory: Walking home from school around the lake and every so often falling into the water then going home very wet.
- Favorite book: World Class Learners by Yong Zhao
- Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: I really like the Office Suite of products, especially Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. I also use AutoCollage frequently at work to display children’s photos.
- What is the best advice you have ever received? As a leader, the best advice I received was from a colleague who said to me: “To be a great leader look behind you every so often to make sure your team is still following you.” This is advice I have used extensively, especially in periods of rapid change.