Principal Profile – On the Couch with Chris Gleeson

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5 April 2017

Chris Gleeson graduated HSC in 1976 and tossed between two career directions – teaching and the police force. While Victoria Police might have been poorer without him, the young minds that have been shaped in his 38 years in the job have been all the richer. Hanging up the chalk after 24 years of principalship – 4 at Mother of God, Ivanhoe East, and almost 20 at St Therese’s School, Essendon, Chris had a few things to say when we sat down to talk to him about his impending retirement. 

What do you love most and what will you miss most about being a Catholic principal? 

I love the job, I consider it to be such a privilege. I can’t think of another profession where you get to be embedded in the lives of people in the same way you do in Catholic leadership.

The community has grieved over several deaths – the passing of parents and also of a child – they were watershed moments because we walked the path together. I recall getting a phone call when one of the mums died, I was the first call the husband made, and he was wondering whether to wake the children up and take them to the hospital. To be invited to give advice in those moments, it doesn’t get any richer than that, holding the hands of people who are struggling. And then the other side is being part of people’s lives when they are elated. To be embedded in deep and meaningful relationships with families is an absolute privilege. It’s central to what our school is about.

If I am to miss anything, it will be the closeness of the relationships you build, not only with the children and families but also with the staff. When I started at St Therese’s, we had 400 children and 20 staff, and we’ve grown to 550 students and 50 staff. That’s a lot of people to get to know and to share with and listen to. I will miss the children, and having fun. Schools have changed to a significant degree and on many levels – one of the things I’d like to see as we move forward is that we don’t take the fun out of schools. The key job for schools is to prepare these children to participate in both life in the church and life more broadly, and I’d hope education goes the way of including fun. 

Advice for new principals 

You will learn a lot before you go into the job depending on who you’ve worked with as deputy, you learn a whole lot more after that point, you need to be open to the fact that learning is ongoing. Be prepared to listen and learn. You don’t always need everyone to agree with you. I don’t know the recipe for success, but the recipe for failure is to try to please everyone. If you come to school with an open heart, with the right intentions and right spirit, if people think they’ve been given the opportunity to be heard, they will by and large come on board with you.

I never considered myself to be holy enough to be a principal, so in many respects I’ve gotten away with it, but I think one of the keys is that you have to bring yourself to the job, and in my case I’ve brought my family to the job as well, and that has made life a lot easier. My children and my wife are both interested, and they’ve supported me over my time here, turning up to school events. It’s not a 9–5 job, and it has made life a lot easier having them onboard.

What do you hope you are leaving behind (as a legacy)? 

You hope to leave the place in a better condition than what you arrived, but the truth is you have to move forward. I would like to be remembered as someone who took the job seriously, loved the job, and who didn’t underestimate the importance of people in this role.

My favourite two letter word is ‘us’. Without ‘you’ there is no ‘us’, and I’ve been on about that for a long time, and ‘you’ means the students, it means the families, it means the staff and it means everyone in the community. Without each of those ‘yous’ there can be no ‘us’.