Chris Nastrom-Smith, Deputy Principal, Loreto College Coorparoo

Chris Nastrom-Smith is currently Deputy Principal – Curriculum at Loreto College, Coorparoo. He is responsible for the educational leadership of staff and students through the whole of school curriculum delivery to meet the College’s strategic agenda and achieve alignment with its vision and mission. As part of Chris’s role, he leads a team of curriculum leaders responsible for the delivery of a relevant and engaging curriculum in pursuit of strong academic outcomes and a holistic educational experience. His past research has explored how curriculum development, learning spaces and teacher pedagogy can be customised to enhance student wellbeing as they transition into secondary school.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with K12 Digest, Chris shared his professional trajectory, what sets Loreto College Coorparoo apart from other schools, his leadership rock, insights on the role of AI in the K12 education system, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Chris, what have you found most challenging as an educational leader?

Perhaps the most challenging, but also the most rewarding aspect of leadership, is navigating the personal and relational aspect that comes with school communities. After all, schools deal with a parent and our community’s greatest asset – our children!

Each school, with its vision, mission and values set exists as a complex ‘ecosystem’ where every member of the community regularly interacts. At times these interactions are positive, as there is a ‘shared’ purpose occurring, at other times, there can exist tension as the high levels of personalized care and educational experiences being sought impact others within that same school environment. As a school leader, the challenge is to engage and empower everyone to contribute positively to the school culture and create a vision so that members of the school community understand the choices and direction being taken.

There may not always be complete agreement, but where there is clarity in purpose and a shared vision, there is a greater chance that there will be an acknowledgement that the right decision has been made.

What sets Loreto College Coorparoo apart from other schools?

Loreto College Coorparoo has a powerful story that is intrinsically linked to its founder, Mary Ward. As an all-girls’ school challenged to empower and educate young women, to be able to authentically lean into the Mary Ward story as the purpose for who we are and how we act is a significant point of difference for the College.

Loreto College is part of an international network of over 150 Mary Ward schools worldwide, offering a unique and innovative education that empowers girls to make a profound difference in the world. Mary Ward founded the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1609, recognising the transformative power of education and the care and development of faith.

The Mary Ward tradition of excellence in women’s education dates back to 1609, when Mary Ward founded a religious order and opened her first school for girls in St Omer. She believed in the capacity of women, through education, to make a profound difference for good in the world. Her legacy inspires us today to be “seekers of truth and doers of justice.”

Today, we honour Mary Ward through our vison at Loreto College to offer an education that liberates, empowers, and motivates students to use their individual gifts with confidence, creativity, and generosity in loving and responsible service. I honestly believe that Mary Ward was an innovator and disruptor centuries ahead of her time. Our students benefit from using her story to drive innovation and challenge societal norms.

The other unique aspect to a Loreto education is the national and international network of schools that exists. Our students and staff can connect with other Loreto communities with ease and can leverage the power of those network connections both now and into the future.

What’s a recent leadership lesson you’ve learned for the first time or been reminded of?

I recently attended the 2024 Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) National Conference in Sydney and was reminded of the power of leadership networks. The solution to many challenges that permeate many school contexts already exist within other schools. There is a real sense comfort from being able to reach out to a trusted colleague when faced with a challenging situation and to either access some resources or simply have a coaching conversation to test thinking and potential actions is a blessing. I encourage all emerging leaders to seek the support of a network of trusted colleagues.

What’s one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far?

The book that had the most profound impact on my leadership initially was ‘The 15 Disciples: The Essential Checklist for Productive Leaders’ by Stephen Scott. Further editions of Scott’s book have occurred, and this work has evolved into Ethics Trump Power (Stephen Scott, 2021). This book and my reading of it, coincided with the most rewarding 18 months of professional development as part of Independent Schools Queensland’s Aspiring Principals Program. Scott’s work provides a series of checklists and leaderships lessons so that a leader can provide his team with what they seek, whether that is in the form of consistency, clarity, decisiveness, coaching or ethical decision-making.

The other book worth mentioning is Michael Bungay Stanier’s ‘The Coaching Habit: Say less, ask more and change the way you lead forever’ (2016).

As a seasoned school leader, how do you build trust with employees, customers, and other stakeholders?

At its core, education is primarily relational, and I have a strong belief that every individual in a school community has a responsibility to lead continuous improvement. Ultimately, leadership is more about others’ than self and an effective leader is often remembered best for how they build others’ up and their influence on culture and climate.

To sustain this leadership approach at Loreto, I have sought to build the collective efficacy of staff by fostering expert teams and promoting effective pedagogy. Our leadership team’s goal is to ensure our staff, particularly our middle leaders and program leaders, feel empowered to leverage their role as a conduit between the teaching staff and Senior Leaders.

It has been through this work that I have come to understand the critical role of middle leaders in operationalising the school’s vision and shaping its culture. By promoting a culture of individual leadership responsibility, middle leaders and staff can effectively drive a future-focused and innovative curriculum that aligns with the College’s vison and value proposition. Targeted staff development promotes trust and positive relationships, prevents disengagement, builds resilience and enhances the capacity of all staff to lead. This positive engagement and connection to a shared vision also has the potential to promote staff psychological wellbeing.

I believe one of my strengths has been an ability to leave a long-lasting impression on many families that has endured long after graduation and I have been acutely aware of the importance of developing relationships and maintaining trust with students and caregivers throughout my career.

As a senior and middle leader in a range of curricular and co-curricular positions, throughout my career I have been fortunate to have walked alongside students as they have attended their first day of Prep, transitioned into secondary school, received their first unsatisfactory result, flourished in their co-curricular pursuits, and graduated from Year 12. One of the keys to maintaining trusting relationships has been to never underestimate the important role that teachers play in the development of a child and the partnership that is formalised at each key juncture of the school journey. Being able to know the student both inside and outside of the classroom, particularly when things are not going so well, is a key aspect of this ‘trust’ building that is part of a productive relationship with students and caregivers.

Who is your role model in life and why?

Rather than a role model, I would rather share with the readers who my rock is, as ultimately it is about being yourself as a leader rather than aspiring to lead like someone else. My leadership rock is definitely my family.

Leadership is hard, as often you are carrying the emotions of others as you support each member of the school community in different ways. Over the years, I have been supported every day by a loving family – my wife Lee, son Cooper and daughter Emalia, as their influence shapes my educational philosophy and are the reason I strive to be better every day.

Initially, my educational philosophy was driven by the aspiration to become the kind of teacher I admired at school. However, as my career has evolved, my vision has expanded to challenge the conventional concept of ‘school as it is’. Becoming a father and seeing my own children experience school solidified my commitment to challenging the status quo. My passion and purpose now stem from a desire to be an educational leader who pushes the boundaries of traditional education, ultimately reimagining it so that it better prepares our graduates for an unknown and ever-changing future.

What are your thoughts on the role of AI in the K12 education system?

The reality is that we are educating a generation of students where artificial intelligence will be part of their everyday lives. Our challenge as school leaders is to assist students and staff in developing approaches that use AI tools ethically and in a way that leverages their potential benefit. It certainly is an exciting time to be wrestling with the potential possibilities of this technology.

The challenge for school leaders is to decode the plethora of information that is emerging online and on social media around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how it aligns with the current model of schooling and each school context.  I recently had the privilege to listen to Associate Professor Lucinda McKnight share her insights into Artificial Intelligence (AI) and she is a voice of caution, offering a balanced perspective of the potential opportunities and threats to the education sector and our students and staff. This caution is perhaps quite salient advice at the moment, as the technology emerges rapidly, and we are being bombarded online by the ways in which Artificial Intelligence (AI) can make our lives easier. The question perhaps best asked cautiously is “At what cost?”.

On the flip side, I see the benefits of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the study tools (such as Atomi) that our seniors use to study for their senior assessment and how they are provided with personalised revision via the power of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) embedded in the technology.

From a governance and operational perspective, the continuing emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) poses significant change, challenge and potential benefit to school communities. The rapid evolution of artificial intelligence is challenging school leaders and staff to review pedagogical approaches, reframe assessment and to update policies, procedures and practices.

Over the years, you have been a recipient of numerous awards and accolades such as one of the most visionary leaders transforming education, the best educators in Australia in 2023 & 2022 among others. Our readers would love to know the secret behind your success.

The secret again lies in the power of relationships. In this instance, it was as a result of the synergy I felt with my colleague, Lissa Gyte, when we both started as Deputy Principal at Loreto. We immediately clicked as two educational leaders that knew that it was about building others up, including each other. Over the past 5 years we have deliberately sought to highlight the work of others within the Loreto College Coorparoo community and to nominate them for awards that recognise their achievements in positively influencing the College climate and culture.

There is great work that goes on in every school and in every staffroom across Australia, our key has been ensuring all that work has been moving in the same direction towards the same goal and the outcome has been recognition for our staff and for our programs in a number of award categories. Lissa has been instrumental in nominating colleagues for awards and taking the time to craft applications and selection criteria responses that highlight the impact and influence of those nominated.

As a college, because we have been clear on our mission and vision, we have gained some real momentum and achieved some wonderful change over the last 5 years. That change has been as the direct result of the collective efforts of our staff all working towards the same goal. The momentum created has in turn generated national and international recognition, which is turn has generated award recognition.

The other secret, which is no secret at all really, but is to ensure you are sharing your ideas and outcomes on a broader scale and having an impact on the broader educational sector. Educators are always curious about how schools are tackling challenges. Being able to present at national and international conferences is a fantastic way to share ideas around how to tackle these challenges in different school contexts and is a wonderful opportunity to positively contribute to the educational sector.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I will be continuing to shape the educational experiences of staff, students and caregivers at Loreto College Coorparoo, or I will be leading a school community of my own. I aspire to one day step into the role of Principal. I am extremely confident that I have a lot to offer right now as the Principal of a school community, but know that it is about the right school and the right time.

I certainly view the learning and growth that each of us inevitably experiences each year as a value add and I look forward to growing in partnership with my current leadership team and school community. Right now, I am enjoying the opportunity that I have to lead as Deputy Principal of the Loreto College Coorparoo community.

If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Say yes to every opportunity that is offered to you, particularly those opportunities that take you out of your current role and comfort zone and stretch your current capabilities. It costs nothing to say yes, and the lessons that are learned along the way are invaluable when seeking promotional opportunities, as you will be able to authentically speak to your experiences where you have been challenged and problem-solved to seek solutions.

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