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Case Study - 20+ Years as a Principal - Michael Lee

Posted on 28 July 2018
Case Study - 20+ Years as a Principal - Michael Lee

Advice to a new principal for what it's worth

By Michael Lee who has been principal of:

  • Mt Carmel School, Yass,
  • Hennessy Catholic College, Young,
  • St Mary MacKillop College, Canberra.

My career as a school principal began in 1999 and in a few months I will be making a pitch to a principal appointment panel for five more years. Apart from four years at the Australian National University as an undergraduate, my life has been in or about schools student, teacher, head of department, principal.

University employment as a bar manager, door-to-door salesman, debt collector, cleaner, and taxi driver opened windows into other careers but I've had few regrets about a career in education. I was, however, an excellent salesman and I did love the cabs!

I have commenced each of my three principalships at schools experiencing a time of crisis or community confidence marred by growing debt, falling numbers, and internal dissent. Each of the schools were in far better shape than was widely believed. The path towards turning a school around is not a complicated one but it can be arduous and it is never trod alone.

Except for rare cases, you have been trusted to lead the school to a better place than it was at your appointment. Given the age of many of our schools, yours could represent a community's contribution to Catholic education over many generations. For those leading new or greenfield schools, there is a general inheritance of an idea, vision, and purpose to which your school will belong.

Whatever else it is and becomes, yours will be a Catholic school serving its community, either a suburb or town or wider network of families drawn to what your school offers. My experience has taught me that an authentic Catholic school offers an atmosphere or culture based on the life of Jesus Christ, Gospels that are His story, and the teachings of the Church He gave us. Your school's charism, story, and ethos will flavour this.

Given who Christ spent time with, the values of faith, hope, and love which bedrock the Gospel and the universality of our Church, it seems to me that any inclination towards selectivity, elitism, or discrimination is to limit the opportunity for those excluded to know Jesus. I believe your job is to agitate for equity of access and to lead your community of colleagues, students, families and alumni in this direction.

You are leading a school, not a pastoral parish council, monastery, employment centre, a centre of wellbeing, or indeed a retirement village! The quality of the classroom experience is central to the work of your school. The relationships of trust, engagement, and academic care you and your staff build with the students and their families are keys to a climate of educational opportunities and success for your community. How quickly we can be sidetracked!

In these challenging times for many of our schools, we will prosper if we embrace diversity. Out strong Catholic culture will not be diluted by welcoming difference into our schools. Our schools must reflect the best of the wider community, not bits and pieces of it. Worrying about percentages of Catholics in our enrolment is poor energy. Families of faith traditions other than ours need to be integrated into our school communities with respect and dignity and have open to their children all the opportunities our schools can provide.

In terms of personal qualities needed for the job, the selection panel should be aware of what is required in the next principal. I suggest the following are generic for any school: visibility, availability, authenticity, and trust. Your community will forgive a lot if their children like going to school and talk in a fond, trusting way about you.

Bus stops, car parks, corridors, and school events are so important in giving people access to you. A talk with a colleague can as easily take place in the yard as it can in the office and regular visits to staff rooms, sickbay, and libraries always help. In my first two schools, I published my mobile phone number every week in the newsletter. Follow this example with extreme caution! When Essendon lost a game, I received many, many texts. When they were victorious, almost none!

I can be followed on Instagram, but avoid Twitter I'm not convinced it is a serious organ of record or communication. The 45th US President's reliance on Twitter confirms my judgment. Sit on every panel to appoint a staff member and do as many enrolment interviews as you can. A powerful message is sent to people about what you value.

As we look at the history of Catholic schools in Australia, and your school will belong in part to this, few would disagree that they have been remarkably successful in moving generations of Australians from material and social disadvantage into the professions, the trades, the public service, onto High Court benches, and captains of industry. Along the way, it seems to me that Catholic education has become populated by a lot of people who I would describe as socially conservative. We have become too adverse to risk, materially comfortable, and have not always brought energy and advocacy for people who are unlike ourselves.

There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but I wonder if this is what we are for. While many pray for the poor, fewer educate them; too many of us are pro birth rather than pro life; and some of us talk more about overseas missions than mandatory offshore detention.

Rightly or wrongly, this is where many of us find ourselves. There is an argument that some of the above impedes our journey to be closer to Jesus, His Gospels, and His Church. Our students point the way through their powerful commitment and enthusiasm for works of social justice. Indeed, in many ways, they are our inspiration as well as our purpose.

My first school was Mt Carmel School, Yass a K-10 central school with Catholic education going back to the 1830s. Our 150-year-old splendid bluestone buildings emerged to house boarders, nuns, day students, and teachers. Early in February each year, I walked kindergarten onto the rickety verandah of the disused boarding house and got each of them to put their arms around the wide old wall exposed through the open door. "Feel how strong and safe the wall is," I encouraged them. "Feel its age. This was built by your great, great grandparents, sometimes with their own hands, often after a day's work or after Mass on Sundays. The stone was quarried over there by the church. It was built for their children and their children's children. They knew that they would never know you or your children or the world that you would grow up in, but they built this school for you because they knew it would be important to you. We live in their gift." God knows what kindergarten thought of it, but they'll remember the age and width of the stone.

Australia has evolved over 200 years and Catholic schools have played a mighty part in that evolution. It is a great story and you and your school are part of that story. What is required of each of us as principal is to leave our school in a better place than where we found it. If we do, we have done all that was required of us. Your school will be in your debt and you in its.

 



Tags: CaSPA Case Study
Dennis Sleigh 79 days ago
As expected, there are a few hard truths presented here in a gentle but persuasive manner. Thank you, Michael, for sharing your experiences - I think many of us who have trod similar paths in Catholic schools would endorse all of them. Your concerns about the growing conservatism of our schools worries me - because I know it is true in many of them.

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