Annual Celebration of Principalship 2016

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1 December 2016

Retiring after 32 years as principal, Trish Taylor, Principal of St Joseph's School in Collingwood, was asked to give the Leaving Principal’s Address at the 2016 Archdiocesan Celebration of Principalship on Wednesday 30 November.   

I consider it a great honour to be asked to speak to you this evening. I have decided to retire after 32 years of principalship in inner-city Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, in North Richmond and more recently in Collingwood.

Since making my decision to retire I have reflected a great deal on life as a principal – the highs and the lows, the events and people that have changed me and made me the person and the leader that I am. I started life as a principal when I was a naïve 27 year old. If I had a crystal ball way back then I wonder if I would have made the same career choice – given what I know now.  In saying that, however, I absolutely love being a principal, and I feel that for the most part that I do my job pretty well. With that said there are times when I sit down at the end of the day and wonder if I am really achieving anything. 

I go into every single day with a plan, but 90% of the time the plan goes out the window by 10.00 am. Being a principal can be extremely rewarding, but it can also be chaotic, challenging, and unpredictable. A school principal wears many hats and has a staggering list of responsibilities that would astound most people. It’s ironic, as the demands of principalship have evolved away from the classroom to more and more administrative tasks. The principal has become less connected with student learning, and yet more responsible for it. 

One thing is for certain, I could not say that as a principal I have led a boring life. The days are full, and often rich, with encounters that include individuals of all ages.

I believe that a principal holds a very privileged place in the lives of families and communities. Parents trust us with their most precious gift – their children. The work that we do, although we do not necessarily know it at the time, can have a very big impact on what happens in the lives of children and families.

It is primarily about giving hope. I have seen this over and over again over a long period of time. Our school in Collingwood has a long history, over 153 years of providing care and education to financially disadvantaged, marginalised and newly arrived migrant and refugee communities. 

In Collingwood we have seen the very best and the very worst in human nature and experience.

Some years ago I had an experience that changed the way that I viewed my role as a faith leader in a Catholic school. The effects of a growing drug culture has had a great impact on many of our families and on our community. In one particular instance this led to the tragic suicide of one of our dads who leapt from the seventeenth floor window of their flat.

As a Catholic community, we gathered with the family to celebrate Mass and afterwards, as this was an Indigenous family, brought in an Aboriginal elder to conduct a Smoking Ceremony and we planted a bush in our Indigenous garden. At the time I thought it was a nice thing to do but didn’t realise the impact that it had until some weeks later.

I was doing yard duty and I noticed one of this man’s children standing in the indigenous garden seemingly talking to himself. I approached him and asked him who he was talking to. He said, ‘I’m talking to my dad, I feel his spirit here.’ In that same week I noticed his sister standing in the rain shielding the bush with her raincoat –she told me that she didn’t want her daddy to get wet. 

I see my role as a faith leader as being one of enabling God’s Spirit to be active in our community. We create the environment and context and God will do the rest!

Faith and hope are intertwined. That’s what Catholic Identity is for me. 

I have had a poster on the wall in my office for all of my 32 years as a principal. It simply says Lord, help me to remember that nothing’s going to happen today that you and I can’t handle together. I have drawn great strength and inspiration from that over the years, particularly in tough times.

I am very grateful for opportunities that I have had to engage in personal faith enrichment through study at Leuven and Boston and more recently through following the Footsteps of St Paul through Greece and Turkey with our Principals’ Network. You can’t keep giving all the time without receiving some spiritual nourishment and I hope such experiences continue to exist for our colleagues.

During my time in Collingwood I have marvelled at the wonderful resilience and resourcefulness of our refugee families who have found joy and solace in resettling in Australia after experiencing the horror and turmoil of war. But many of these families are suffering from the effects of severe trauma and this impacts greatly on the children who can present at school with significant behavioural and learning difficulties. I have seen children who are unable to smile and unable to trust. 

Let me tell you about Susan* (not her real name). Susan was born in Eritrea. She came to Australia with her mother and younger brother on a Women-at-Risk Visa. Susan was the victim of horrific sexual assault as a younger child. Recently, Susan asked me why I was leaving St Joseph’s. I told her that I was leaving because I was getting old and I needed a rest. 

She said ‘I don’t want you to leave,’ to which I replied, ‘Susan it will be OK, you are getting a lovely new principal.’ Susan quickly responded, ‘But I don’t trust her.’ I said, ‘Susan do you trust me?’ to which she replied ‘Oh yes.’ So I said to her, ‘Susan trust me when I tell you that the new principal is really, really nice.’  

‘OK,’ she said as she ran off to play. 

I went back inside with a tear in my eye reflecting on the beautiful gift of trust that Susan had given to me. Trust is harder for her to give than anything else.

The greatest gift we can give to our children is hope. The greatest gift that they can give to us is their trust.  

As a principal, there is probably no greater reward. Hope comes through education. Trust comes through relationship. I’ve come to learn that there isn’t a great deal that we can do to change life circumstances for our children and families but we must have a belief that something dramatically different is possible – a belief in what is possible is what must drive our educational endeavours. 

Believing that everything will connect somewhere down the road gives you the heart to keep going. As principals we work hard to surround our students with a community that cares about them and helps them to succeed and gives them hope. We know that children learn better when they feel a sense of belonging and connectedness to a community. 

For the past 14 years my day has started every morning with Breakfast Club – working with a fabulous group of volunteers from KPMG and interacting with our gorgeous children. It has kept me grounded and personally connected with the children despite the busyness and demands of each day.

Celebrating is really important. We can’t become so consumed in what we need to improve and fail to take the time to celebrate, and to reflect on what we are proud of because it is an important part of the journey! There have been many highlights during my time as a principal in Collingwood. Our school was the recipient of both a National Literacy Award and a National Quality Schools Award. I was personally awarded a Fellowship to the Australian Council of Educational Leaders. I have had the privilege of working with extremely dedicated staff teams, learning with and from them and sharing in their life’s celebrations and struggles. Together we have achieved a great many things. 

Let me share with you seven things that I have learned:

  1. A principal’s role description (if there is such a thing) consists of a never-ending list of things that no induction program can ever prepare you for.
  2. Nothing is simple! People have a knack of over-complicating things.
  3. Have the courage to follow your own values and intuition. This will keep you true to yourself.
  4. Don’t worry about the small things, put your energy into the things that really matter.
  5. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know! You just keep peeling back the layers.
  6. You don’t always have to have the answer, you just need to be willing to be part of the solution.
  7. Sometimes in life and in principalship we face obstacles but I have learned that when it seems I can’t go on, someone is always there to help me finish the race.

I am thankful for the loving support of my husband and sons and acknowledge the great support I have received from my colleagues in the North Central Zone and others that I am proud to call my friends. Thank you to Stephen and all of the staff at Catholic Education Melbourne who have supported me and our school over many years. To Archbishop Hart, whom I have known for many years since our Nth Richmond days., Thank you for having such great trust in us as we carry the hope of future generations in Catholic Education. Thank you for bringing us together every year to celebrate and recognise the work that we do. 

I would just like to finish with a quote from Steve Jobs: ‘The only way to do great work is to do what you love.’ I have loved working as a principal in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a future that is full of hope and trust.