Associate Professor David Giles (pictured), newly-appointed Dean of the School of Education at Flinders University, likes to tell an anecdote to illustrate how “as teachers, we don’t see the full extent of our influence”.
“One former student of mine, 23 years earlier, sent me an email. ‘Is that you Mr Giles, do you remember me, my name is Hennie?’,” Associate Professor Giles said.
“I replied: ‘You’re not just Hennie. You’re Hennie Smith*, you’re left-handed, you played in the netball team, your father was in the army and you lived in Main Street’,” he said.
The exchange led to an invitation to a dinner at which Associate Professor Giles was greeted by more than 40 people who’d been invited by Hennie to meet “the teacher”.
“For me, Hennie came and went from my class, but in the life of Hennie, I was an influence and I’m still an influence.
“That’s a story that’s not captured in an academic transcript or a grade.
“For me, it shows that relationships never end – they accumulate.”
It’s a motto that underscores Associate Professor Giles’s career, from his earliest days as a primary school teacher in New Zealand, through to his work there at a range of universities including Bethlehem Institute of Education, and as the subject of his doctoral thesis on the importance of the teacher/student relationships, along with his more recent writing on relational leadership.
It is a subject he has been sharing at Flinders since his original appointment in February 2011 as Associate Professor in Leadership and Management and, six months later, Deputy Dean of the School of Education.
“We are stuck in a mode that’s made us ‘busy’ and ‘busy-ness’ seems to be the phenomenon of the day. As a consequence we’ve lost perspective. We tend to accentuate efficiency and effectiveness and overlook relationships and overlook the sense of life that a person has in their professional practice,” he said.
“For me, if you take a strength-based approach to leadership and schooling, and if you couple that with investigations that explore and appreciate the sense of life in our practice, you end up at different place – where people are motivated out of a moral imperative rather than out of ‘busy-ness’ and an eclectic philosophy.”
Outsiders are noticing this approach: Associate Professor Giles and his colleagues have just completed a book on relational leadership that is soon to be published by Cengage Learning; he will be a keynote speaker at the South Australian Education Leadership Conference from 8-10 August; and the University’s existing relationship with Nankai University in Tianjin, China, will be further extended to include a Master of Education Leadership and Management.
“My message is that we take relationships for granted at our peril. When we start to raise the topic of relationships and leadership, the conversation changes from performance to our humanity.
“I would like this relational, strength-based approach to leadership to be the special character of Flinders University and to position us, therefore, as being unique in Australasian education.”
* Smith is not Hennie’s real surname