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Case Study - 25 Years as a Principal - Vin Feeney

Posted on 2 May 2018
Case Study - 25 Years as a Principal - Vin Feeney
25 year's reflection......

In my first public presentation as a Principal in Ararat I spoke to the AGM and talked about the importance of loving the school you worked in. Of finding joy in your work and having a clearly defined sense of purpose.

Wanting to be there and knowing why you were.

Each of my 3 school experiences, however, has called on different parts of me. Has developed different parts of me. Has taken me to the heights of different mountains, to the edge in different ways and shown me such an array of human moments.

But through it all I have enjoyed the intellectual challenge of finding new ways to be future oriented, student centered and achievement focused in a faith community.

No old skins for new wines in this role.

So, what sort of schools, people and challenges?

Marian College in Ararat was a gem. 300 students gave me the capacity to know each, most of their parents and their story in such detail. A small rural city, it lost 25% of its population in the year or so just before my arrival. And continued to shrink. I recall going in to the chapel late one year when the Year 7 intake failed to reach the numbers we needed and reminding the Holy Spirit that if I hadn't been sent to close the school someone up there had better start helping.

Vin with Student Leaders at his current school - St Francis Xavier, Beaconsfield

The capital grants from the Block Authority which enabled construction of learning spaces we had previously lacked and the refurbishment of the rest of the admittedly small set of buildings didn't hurt and alongside the learning program innovations we introduced by the time my 5 years were up we had stabilised the numbers and thereby minimised the impact of the continuing population drift.

My next role was as the first lay Principal of St Joseph's College in Ferntree Gully. Again just before I arrived the population was at a dire level. With great staff and key senior partners in my leadership team we set about the transformation of the school, its culture, its facilities. The latter was the last project to commence simply because we had barely enough money for maintenance let alone improvements or expansion.

Rather than build it and they will come being about physical attributes, slowly the mix of positive culture, clear emphasis on the success of each student and an investment in building the sort of relationships which encouraged young boys to become good men, our situation changed.

Importantly, there was a palpable energy about each school which made going to work a real pleasure and energised me daily.

My current school- St Francis Xavier, Beaconsfiled - is so different.

The task of leading over 3000 students and 400 staff across 3 campuses calls me to be a very different leader this time around. In some ways the perfect role at this stage of my career. Less about working in the organisation, more about working on it. Less about doing, more about mentoring. Less about quantity, more about quality. Putting into practice what I have learned about distributed leadership, coaching and strategic planning means I am able to have influence despite no longer being the sub-40 tearaway from my early days.

And I am loving it.

When you start a new role as school leader it is easy to get distracted by wondering why certain things were or weren't done by your predecessor. But you need to remember that someone always follows you. Humility and respect are important, especially to those you have joined in the new project.

Equally important is to find your own voice as leader. To carve out your own path. To seek new solutions to either old challenges or new ones. To do everything for the right reasons.

Four strong images or memories follow me daily in my work:

1. The comment many years ago by a Deputy Principal encouraging me to leave the high scores to, and he named them, what were high SES schools. Be content with your middle band results.

  • As a result I have never stopped fighting for my students from humbler postcodes to achieve highly. Remembering the words of St Iranaeus that the glory of God is a person fully formed.

2. Sr Maria Guinan CSB was a wise mentor to me. Every school should have rules, she would remind me, and every rule should have an exception.

  • In the middle of the daily tension between being an organisation and a community, remember to think small. Remember that to be a Catholic school is not just about programs, symbols or moments of faith expression. It is also about just processes and relationships modeled on the love of Jesus. About Don Bosco's concept of the quiet word in the ear. Or his entreaty that students should not only be loved, but know they are loved.

3. When I was a young school boy my father was the school cleaner.

  • Respect every single member of staff and know that without their particular contribution the school would be less able to do its work.

4. That the Catholic school is profoundly part of civil society's desire in this country for its young people to be healthily challenged, nurtured and therefore formed positively so as to be able to be good people in and for the world.

  • I, like Don Bosco all those years ago, want students to leave school as good Christians and honest citizens.
Knowing Phillip Riley's work, it would be disingenuous to say that 25 years of leadership challenge and toil has not taken some toll. But I am sure it's only a flesh wound.

So, I am not done yet. I still have passion and drive for the work which I love and find joy in on a daily basis.

But, it is not work I do alone.

When we are dreaming alone it is only a dream. When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality.
Hélder Câmara

I am so grateful for the many brilliant staff I have had the privilege to partner with over the journey, always remembering that this project of school improvement for the benefit of young people on behalf of society and the Church, is never completed.

And I could never have sustained my various commitments without the loving support of my wife, Julie, and I thank her immensely for her generosity over those 25 years.

Vincent J Feeney
April 2018


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