It’s not about the principal, it’s about the principle

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29 November 2023

Ray PisaniRay Pisani, outgoing Principal of Marian College, Sunshine West, delivered an address on behalf of all leaving principals at the 2023 Annual Archdiocesan Celebration of Principalship:

One of my favourite books is Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and, of course, its captivating opening line:

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …’

It somewhat sums up the world of today, and the importance of reflecting on who we are and what we do. In taking the time to reflect, can I ask you to think back to when you were a student, who was the teacher who left the biggest imprint on you? What were the major attributes of this teacher and what did they leave you to take on? What about a principal that left their mark? What was it about them that gave you the example to follow?

There is a wonderful episode of The Twilight Zone entitled ‘The changing of the guard’, which tells the story of a teacher who had taught for 50 years and wants to keep going. However, the school board had other ideas and looked to him to retire. He was devastated at the thought. At one point, he was in his study, looking through some old yearbooks and the students that had come his way. As he reflected, he said:

‘They all come and go like ghosts. Faces, names, smiles. The funny things they said or the sad things, or the poignant ones. I gave them nothing. I gave them nothing at all. Poetry that left their minds the minute they themselves left. Aged slogans that were out of date when I taught them. Quotations dear to me that were meaningless to them. I was a failure. An abject, miserable failure. I walked from class to class, an old relic, teaching by rote to unhearing ears, unwilling heads. I was an abject, dismal failure. I moved nobody. I motivated nobody. I left no imprint on anybody. Now, where do you suppose I ever got the idea that I was accomplishing anything?’

Now, don’t forget this is The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling’s final narration was:

‘Professor Ellis Fowler, teacher, who discovered rather belatedly something of his own value. A very small scholastic lesson from the campus of the Twilight Zone.’

In watching this episode, it came to me that no one told Professor Fowler of his own worth while he was on the job. And so, just in case, I am not prepared to let it happen to you. I want to acknowledge that your role as a principal in a Catholic school is significant. Education, spiritual development and overall wellbeing of the students, staff and the broader community have been all within your responsibility of guiding others in their faith journey while ensuring academic excellence.

While you may reflect on those who have had an impact on your journey, you too have been a person of influence. Your leadership, guidance and decisions significantly shape the experiences and outcomes of both students and staff. We all know that challenges are an inherent part of any leadership role. I acknowledge how you have embraced and navigated these challenges, made difficult decisions and led by example to ensure your school’s success.

And success comes in many forms. You have been at the forefront of developing, building and nurturing relationships, and creating a sense of belonging and shared values among students, parents, families and staff. It is indeed a privilege for us to foster a supportive and caring environment for all our communities, where all their needs are given attention. You have been and, I am sure, will continue to be strong advocates for student wellbeing, and will prioritise their emotional, mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing. I have witnessed the implementation of positive initiatives that promote mental health and overall student wellness within the school environment. This is one area where we can learn from each other.

The principles of collegiality in all its forms are most important. As principals, we understand that encouraging a culture of collaboration among all staff members fosters a sense of unity and common purpose. We value this unity because it promotes open communication, the sharing of ideas and mutual support. By valuing collegiality, you have created an atmosphere where everyone works together towards the school’s mission, vision and educational goals. In turn, by creating a supportive environment that cares for the personal needs of all, we are fostering a community where individuals feel valued.

In exactly the same way, the collegiality among principals is crucial to our own wellbeing. I have been fortunate to serve as principal within a supportive structure of, firstly, the Brigidine Congregation and, now, Kildare Ministries. Apart from offering valuable networking opportunities, I have benefited greatly in both personal and professional growth. Connecting with members of this community has provided me with valuable insights, resources and collaborations that have enhanced my growth as an educational leader, as well as contributing to the developments at Marian. I have already told these people personally how I stand in awe of their capabilities, creativity and goodness. Similarly, the principals association and my primary school colleagues have continually been a source of support and advice. This culture of collaboration among us all – whether it be as principals, school staff and families – leads to open communication and sharing of ideas.

This is a two-way street, of course. It’s essential to seek support and encouragement, whether from fellow colleagues, mentors or within the broader Catholic education network. Surround yourself with individuals who understand the challenges and rewards of your role, and who can provide guidance and backing when needed.

When understanding the challenges and rewards, we ask the question: ‘Why do we do this work?’ We know that we have the opportunity to actively contribute to the faith and moral formation of students. We impart ethical and religious values, guiding our young towards a deeper understanding of our faith. We create opportunities for spiritual growth and exploration, and offer programs that foster this moral and spiritual development alongside academic excellence. That is, we provide a holistic education that combines faith-based teachings with a strong learning and teaching program. We ground ourselves, and our worth to our communities, by our alignment with the mission and values of the Catholic school. Your commitment to upholding these principles and leading in accordance with them is a significant aspect of your self-worth as a Catholic school principal. I see and hear every day a clear vision for education and each school’s future. I see you involving the community in this vision and inspiring everyone to work towards shared goals providing effective leadership that guides all schools towards a brighter future.

Shared goals have to mean that we nurture an inclusive environment that respects and celebrates diversity, ensuring that all members of the school community feel welcomed and valued, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs. At Marian, as a college that has over 50 different nationalities represented, we have to strive to encourage understanding, respect and appreciation for different cultures, beliefs and perspectives within the school community.

That is where we need to ensure that we are at peace with our values and how they impact our communities. A few weeks back, I was interviewing students for the position of school captain at Marian, which we call ‘lampbearers’. They carry the ‘lamp of learning’ at the college. At the end of each of the interviews, I asked the students if they had any questions. One student asked: ‘How do you go about making decisions?’ That is a good question. I replied using a mantra which came to me a few years back. It came about when I was reading some applications for a teaching position at the college and a few of the applications started their cover letter with ‘Dear Principle’, using ‘le’ rather than ‘al’. After I got over the spelling issue, I did reflect on the interconnection between the two nouns. In the end, I came up with: ‘It’s not about the principal, it’s about the principle.’ And now, when making decisions, I use that quite often, especially when I work with student leaders where I emphasise that their core values and beliefs are more important than any position they hold. At Marian, as part of Kildare Ministries, our core values of compassion, justice, wonder, courage, hospitality and hope are our guides in providing for the needs of our community.

I started with asking you to think about those people who had an impact on you. I’ll finish with dedicating this address to those people who had the faith in you and encouraged you to make a difference in the lives of others through the vocation of your work. For me, it was my father and mother who, apart from the love of their 10 children, had two other main loves. The first one was their faith and their Church, and the Jesus message that they wanted me to share with others because they knew that would provide strength and guidance. The second was education because real education provides that spiritual connection between the head and the heart that compels us not only to be good, but also to do good. So I acknowledge those who have encouraged you and I affirm that their faith in you has been duly witnessed through your service to Catholic education. I am privileged to have been a principal at Marian, a principal walking alongside you all, and I wish you all the prayers and blessings for the future.