Interview with an Expert: Tony Townsend Discusses his Career in Global Educational Leadership

Dear GlobalEd Readers,

Over the years this website has featured various professors of educational leadership from around the world who have played key roles in building and professionalizing the field of school leadership. Kroc School of Peace Studies graduate student Cassandra Barrett interviewed Dr. Tony Townsend who recently retired.  GlobalEd Leadership wanted to make sure you had a chance to learn about Tony’s contributions to the field of education.

Who is Dr. Tony Townsend?

Dr. Townsend speaking at the 58th ICET World Assembly in Oshawa Canada

Tony Townsend has been a professor of educational leadership in Australia, the United States, and Scotland and a visiting professor in South Africa, Czech Republic, Malaysia and countries throughout the world. He has more than 35 years of experience interacting with people from around the world in the school effectiveness and school improvement field. Tony has published 13 textbooks and more than 90 articles related to educational leadership. Tony was kind enough to share his experience, expertise, and global perspective with us at Global Ed Leadership. In this blog, Tony explains the importance of a global perspective in educational leadership and discusses his contributions to the field. Tony also reflects on the most rewarding and challenging aspects of his career, and he leaves us with his Ten Commandments for the education field.

Tony’s Dedication to Global Educational Leadership

Tony defines leadership as supporting others to become the best versions of themselves. According to Tony, “Global educational leadership becomes an obligation for me to share what I know with interested people in different countries in ways that will support them to improve education systems and educational leadership practices.” Global perspectives go hand in hand with humility. Tony has learned firsthand that no one person, country, or system has all the answers; it is important to collaborate with and learn from others: “we need to be humble enough to admit that we don’t have all the answers and that some of the answers we do have might be answered better by someone else.”

Tony has served a multitude of professional organizations dedicated to improving educational leadership, stating that, “I took the attitude that if you really believed in something, then you should do something to support the development of that area.Much of his career has been dedicated to three intersecting areas in schools: teacher education, community engagement, and leadership to support effectiveness and improvement. Tony has played a role in the development of each of these areas in Australia and beyond, some of which are highlighted below.

  • Teacher Education: Tony was secretary of the board for the South Pacific Association for Teacher Education (SPATE, 1978-81) and organized a conference for it in 1982. Then he was President of the International Council on Education for Teaching (ICET, 2004-2006), and organized conferences for it in Melbourne in 2003 and Glasgow in 2011.
  • Community Engagement: Tony served on the National Council for the Australian Association for Community Education (1983-88) and was President in 1986. He was then Regional Director for the South Pacific Region of the International Community Education Association (ICEA) from 1987-1996 and organized a regional conference in Melbourne in 1994 and supported community educators from Pacific countries to attend ICAE conferences in New Zealand in 1990 and Trinidad in 1991.
  • School Effectiveness: Tony was a member of the Board of the International Council for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) from 1993-2004 and served as President from 1999-2001. He organized and managed ICSEI conferences in Melbourne (1994), Fort Lauderdale (2003), and Glasgow (2016).

Tony’s Reflections on his Career

Throughout Tony’s career he has collaborated with teachers, students, school leaders, and experts from different countries and cultures. Tony has encouraged others to look beyond themselves by providing experiences that would allow them to see the world in a new perspective. In our interview he discussed some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of his career. His responses are informative, thought-provoking and inspirational. Below are excerpts from our interview with the questions in bold and his responses in italics.

*Interview responses have been edited only as needed for clarity and conciseness*

What has been the most challenging aspect of your career?

I think the most challenging part of my career, as it probably is for many other academics, is translating what we have found in the research into practical outcomes that will make a difference to students. In many cases, we know what works, but it founders on the twin rocks of political and economic realities. What can work, when there are a few schools/school leaders involved in a pilot study, one that is well resourced and supported, usually falls apart when politicians think about the cost of trying to duplicate such a program across a whole system. Then of course, you might find a change in government, or even a change in leadership at key decision-making levels along the way, and this brings about the need to change what is currently being done, even if it works, for something “new”, so that the new incumbent can say that s/he is doing something different. Quite often the “new” thing is one that had been tried previously but had not been used for a few years…Just like we go from wide ties to thin ties back to wide ties, or from long dresses to short dresses to mini dresses back to long dresses, education suffers from this swinging pendulum, grandfather clock, version of change. Teachers, who are mostly very smart people, see the pendulum coming down from the left and know when to duck, knowing that they can then continue doing what they have always done until sometime in the future when the pendulum will swing back again from the right and they just need to duck again. The result? Real change is minimal.

 What is your favorite aspect of your career?

Undoubtedly, it is the people that I have met and the places I have visited. I have traveled to more than 65 countries and can say that I have never felt threatened in any of them. In the year after 9/11 I visited 7 Muslim countries and was always treated warmly and respectfully. I still keep in contact with many of the people that I have met over the years as part of my work and some of them I would consider to be some of my best friends. I think the best part of all of this has been that even though I might have been invited somewhere to share what I know I invariably feel that I have learned more than I shared. I know more about the world and the people in it, and myself, because of these wonderful experiences. One story: I was invited to South Africa as a visiting professor and one Saturday morning I was doing a teacher workshop. When printing out handouts for the session, I was told that probably half the people that said they would come would actually show up, so fewer copies were printed. In fact, almost twice as many people showed up than said they would, so we only had about a quarter of the handouts. Then on the morning of the session, the power went out in the suburb where the university was based and we had been scheduled in a lecture theater without windows…so no power and no light. There was also no security staff around to open another room for us. My carefully prepared power point slides were useless. We decided to go outside under the trees in a grassy amphitheater, where I gave my talk to 150 teachers, holding up my slides under my chin (not that anyone could see them) and having people share the worksheets as best they could. Halfway through the 3-hour session, the power came back on and people chose to go back inside where we could at least see the rest of the slides. What did I learn? I had experienced what many of the people in the audience faced all the time…exactly the same conditions day after day back in their classrooms, some without power, some without even running water, most without formal training, and all without sufficient resources for their students. I came away that day with a better appreciation of the work of teachers.

Tony with his former colleagues at Florida Atlantic University

Tony’s Ten Commandments

When discussing tactics that teachers and students could use to implement his research, Tony recognized that it’s more effective to provide thought-provoking lessons rather than principles of practice because strategies change over time. He shared his wisdom in the form of the ten inspirational commandments listed below followed by a single key takeaway.

  1. The first thing a good leader does is listen to the people s/he is supposed to be leading. If we think of teachers as leaders in their classroom then this applies to teachers too.
  2. Leadership is highly interactive. If there are no followers, why do we call you a leader?
  3. Questions are the things that get us thinking. When I am being told what to do, the first thing I think about is “how can I avoid doing it?”
  4. Give due consideration to what the core responsibility of schools is (that mandated by the state), but allow time, space and resources to enable the community to add what it wants for its own children as well.
  5. Every decision made about education, from structures, to curriculum, to what to do with the buses, should be made with one question in mind: How will this decision affect the daily learning opportunities of the children we serve? If we can’t answer that question then we have to ask whether the decision should be made at all.
  6. The best opportunity for world peace will come when we increase opportunities for people to travel outside their own country and to enable them to live and work with others. If we can’t do this because of resources, we need to think of ways in which we might support similar opportunities virtually.
  7. There is nothing a person cannot learn if we are prepared to spend the time and energy needed to support them to learn it.
  8. Education is way too complex for there to be any simple solution to any of its problems.
  9. Comparing school performance (in anything) is more likely to lead to competition than cooperation.
  10. The knowledge we need to fix our problems can be found, but it might not be in our own backyard.

Tony’s Key Takeaway:

One last thing…I believe very strongly that all people should be a learner (finding out new things about yourself, others, and the world we live in), a teacher (sharing what we have learned with other people), and a leader (helping other people to get better at leading their own learning). If we put this into a school context, then the principal becomes the leader of others in the school, the teacher becomes the leader of students in their classroom. Ultimately, the aim of these activities is for the student to become the leader of their own learning, which will be a never-ending experience.

Tony, in January 2023, with friends, Dale Mann and David Reynolds, who together with Bert Creemers, created the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI)

How Can You Learn More About Dr. Tony Townsend?

Tony Townsend is an expert in the educational leadership field, and this blog only covered a fraction of his accomplishments. If you would like to learn more about Tony, you can check out this previous Global Ed Leadership piece. You can also contact him directly at He is happy to answer any questions and discuss how he can contribute to future projects. We are so grateful for everything Tony has contributed to the field and for the time Tony took to speak with us here at Global Ed Leadership.

P.S. Enjoy your retirement Tony and thank you for all of our contributions to our field!

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