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Meet the editor of... Journal of Educational Administration

An interview with: Ross Thomas

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Image: Ross ThomasRoss Thomas took the helm of the Journal of Educational Administration (JEA) in 1979, but his association with the journal goes back even further than that. In 1968, he joined the Faculty of Education, which had been recently established by Professor Bill Walker, at the University of New England (UNE) in Australia. In addition to his academic post, Professor Walker was also the Founding Editor of JEA and Ross became "involved" with it on his very first day.

Ross is a particularly successful Editor having been named Leading Editor twice and Editor of the Year in 1998 in the Emerald Literati Network Awards for Excellence, which began in 1992. One wonders how many more Awards for Excellence he might have won to date (June 2009) had they been in place when he first took on the editorship of the journal.

Ross had plenty of practice before he took up the theory of education. He spent ten years teaching at what was then called the Queensland School for the Deaf and Blind in Brisbane, eventually becoming Teacher in Charge of the Oral Deaf Department. "These were particularly happy years – in retrospect, some of the happiest of my working life", he recalls.

Evenings were an opportunity to study and Ross gained an economics degree then an honours degree in education. The latter enabled him to take a Masters-by-research which was completed after he was appointed to the Education Faculty at the University of Queensland in 1966. Two years later he joined UNE and completed his PhD under Bill Walker in 1973. Having been introduced to educational administration during his honours degree he wrote his MEd thesis in that area and developed the MEd research theme of innovation in primary schools for his PhD.

"Bill Walker, whose presence originally attracted me to UNE, exercised the most profound influence on my academic career", Ross says. When Bill Walker left to run Mount Eliza Business School, Ross stayed at UNE, anxious to continue the work his mentor had begun. He spent a total of 33 years there, stepping out on sabbatical or consultancy from time to time, to such places as the UK, USA and Canada but also Singapore, Brunei, Bhutan and the Solomon Islands. Several of these visits were to Pennsylvania State University to work with Professor Donald Willower, who was to become another mentor.

Further inspiration came from Ray Adams at the University of Queensland, whose PhD had involved the observation of teacher-student interaction. Ross' own research interests have concentrated on "school principalship" and he has undertaken a number of similar observations of school principals in action. These have included studying the tasks principals actually undertake, their reactions to stressful situations (some principals were even wired up to check their physiological reactions), their decision-making practices, their induction on first appointment and also their representation in the media.

Ross' own publications have covered the principalship, but also change and innovation, leadership and aspects of organization theory. "When papers to national and international conferences are added to books, chapters and journal articles," he concludes, "I have averaged five major presentations or publications per annum throughout my academic career."

This time has seen many changes in the field. He would argue that one of the most significant has been the movement away from "educational administration" to "educational leadership". "This is not common to all countries, of course, but it does represent a reaction, in the first place, against the perceived pejorative use of 'administration' and 'administrator' by teachers. It also reflects a realization that 'leadership' rather than 'leader' is more important in achieving student success in schools. As such, leadership can be, and usually is, an interactive phenomenon and it can be manifest at all levels within schools."

He has noticed this development reflected in papers submitted to and published by the JEA. "Likewise, the relevance of organization theory to schools is being more closely examined. The JEA has encouraged this in at least two dedicated, thematic issues."

The journal itself has changed since it became part of the Emerald portfolio in 1989. For example, it has moved from three to six issues per volume and its Editorial Advisory Board has expanded to reflect more comprehensively the international outlook of the journal. Currently 34 scholars from a dozen countries serve on the Board. As the study of educational administration extends throughout the world Ross is hopeful of appointing future Board members from some of these developing nations.

These countries are made easier to identify through the regular statistics Ross is given on how the journal is being used over the Internet. "These data, including the number of 'hits' on the journal, the articles most frequently being read and, especially, the source of these electronic visits is of inestimable value to me as Editor", he says. Early identification of the development of educational leadership programmes in Turkish universities is one such example.

A particularly significant change for the journal occurred in 2007 (Vol. 45) when its ties with UNE were severed and it was relocated at the University of Wollongong. This action was taken in view of the unfortunate demise of the study of educational administration at the former institution and, more importantly, because of the enthusiastic support committed via the Australian Centre for Educational Leadership at the latter university

Despite its apparent age, the journal is noted for innovation and good practice. The whole editorial team is active in policy-making, reviewing submitted manuscripts, and determining the annual outstanding paper award. Because the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association is the largest gathering of its kind in the world with scholars from many countries in attendance, Ross uses this occasion for a meeting of the journal's Editorial Advisory Board. At its most recent meeting (April 2009 in San Diego CA) 12 members from six countries attended and contributed to an analysis of the journal's activities and to a review of policy relevant to forthcoming issues. The review of submitted manuscripts is conducted via a triple-blind process where, as far as possible, each of the three readers comes from a different country. Acceptance rate for submitted manuscripts is 12 per cent (as for Vol. 47, 2008); turnaround time is approximately eight weeks. Each volume of the journal contains four general issues and two special or thematic numbers produced by esteemed guest editors. Ross and members of the Editorial Advisory Board are active on the conference circuit and take these opportunities to identify papers that could be considered for publication and encourage their authors accordingly.

After 30 years, what advice would he have for a new journal editor? "There is much that can only be learned from experience," he says, "and that is a time-consuming requirement. But two words do come to mind – efficiency and effectiveness." The former means taking the sometimes tedious administrative tasks seriously. The latter, on which the reputation of the journal largely depends, is dependent on the goodwill, support and academic reputation of the Editorial Advisory Board. Frequent communication with Board members is essential."

If that sounds rather too much like hard work, he offers:

"Being Editor of the JEA has been a significant component of my academic career. It has enabled me to keep abreast of developments in the field and, it must be acknowledged, even rejected papers can contribute accordingly. Personal friendships have also grown from communication with authors and significant prestige can be afforded to an editor of such a journal. It has been immensely rewarding."

Publisher's note:

This interview was revised in June 2009.

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