Terry, you have been the Principal of St Columba Anglican School since 2008. Can you tell us a bit about St Columba Anglican School and how it differs from other schools?
St Columba is an independent Anglican school. That means that most of the important decisions about a SCAS education are made for our students by our Council, teachers and staff. We are able to be flexible in regard to changes in the educational landscape and agile enough to adopt and adapt good ideas and opportunities to improve education.
This school was founded on the idea that a school in Port Macquarie could offer the very best in education. We owe a great debt to the wisdom and foresight of Rev. Dr John Barrett, the School Council and staff who have embraced this vision. As a result of this founding philosophy, we are unapologetically aspirational in that we believe that students in our region deserve the very best educational opportunities, and we will not accept that just because we are not in the metropolitan area we have to be “second best”.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to be living in Port Macquarie?
My family has lived on the North Coast for nearly 150 years, and while I have worked in Sydney and on the Central Coast, the lure of the city (except for vacations) has faded. I have worked in successful independent schools in Lismore and Coffs Harbour, but when the opportunity came to work at SCAS and live in Port, the chance to work at a school with such potential and in such a great environment was too hard to resist.
What inspired you to pursue a career in education?
Like most teachers, the idea of a career in education was sparked by some of the great and not so great teachers I had as a student. I wanted to be like those who inspired me and save others from people who should never have been allowed in front of a class. Looking back, I can also see the attraction to the profession growing through the movies that attracted me. To Sir with Love, then others like Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me and Army Intelligence reinforced the idea that teaching could be more than a job or even a career, but a real vocation that would enrich my life and, hopefully, the lives of those who I taught.
You have a reputation for being a progressive thinker and taking a very visionary approach to driving the education program at St Columba Anglican School. What are some of the bigger picture issues that need to be considered to ensure a school’s success?
I think attitude is incredibly important. When you really believe in the importance of what you do and what you stand for, it makes it very hard to settle for less than aiming to be the best. Once you feel that, you constantly look to learn from the very best in the world and adapt great ideas and processes to the needs of our learning community.
By using intelligent testing and educational data we can “tune” our education to the needs and aspirations of each student and ensure that they are engaged and offered the learning they need. “One size fits all” education and being “straight-jacketed” by bureaucracy kills the passion of the teachers and limits the opportunities offered to the students.
What are some of the key changes you have witnessed within the education system during your career, and how have these impacted the education system as it stands today?
While there will always be a need for learning key processes and being able to master reading and numeracy, the world no longer values rote learning of facts the way it used to. The growth of information technology as an educational tool and the anytime-anywhere access it gives to information has changed education forever.
There is a saying now that if accessing information is the basis of learning, then “the smartest person in the room is the person with the fastest and most powerful smartphone”. That means the move towards teaching students how to learn, how to assess and verify the huge amounts of information (and opinion) available to them and then work with others to achieve a goal is going to be the key to educational and career success now and in the future.
What is the most rewarding part about your role with St Columba Anglican School?
Being part of a school that is committed to excellence and being surrounded by dedicated, intelligent, enthusiastic and innovative educators makes every day exciting. There are no two days the same in my role and whether you are planning, responding, collaborating or doing bus duty, you know you are a part of something special and you will never be bored, because SCAS will always find ways of doing things better.
What are some of the challenges that you face in your role?
“Embrace me, surround me as the rush comes…” (Motorcycle). These song lyrics resonate with me in my role. Making decisions is a big part of my role in the school. Leading an independent school, there is no bureaucracy or “head office” to rely on when decisions, often critical ones, need to be made. Thankfully, I have an experienced School Council, a talented leadership team and a network of people I can trust when I need advice, guidance or a “wake-up call”. Getting it right is important, because every decision has a potential impact on staff, students and our community, but this has to be balanced with the willingness to adopt new ideas to improve performance. SCAS needs to maintain the role of “intelligent early adopter” – never gambling on unproven fads, but always ready to listen to good ideas.
And finally, if you could invite any three business people to lunch, who would they be and why would you invite them?
Firstly, I would have to include my wife, Susanna, because of her intelligence, insight and understanding that under the Principal’s suit and tie there still lurks a seventeen year old whose enthusiasm sometimes needs to restrained.
In terms of the business people I would invite:
I would include the “ghost” of Steve Jobs, to find out if all the hype that surrounds his career has a basis in fact, and get an insight into how he turned failure into success and then changed the fabric of our world.
I would invite ex-Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, as even his political opponents agree that his big picture vision changed the way business is done in Australia, and that he changed our relationship with the wider world. Also, his wit and ego would make an interesting combination with Steve Jobs.
I would invite David Gonski, not just because his name has been “superglued” to the concept of educational reform in Australia, but because his thoughtfulness, his career as a businessman, mentor and philanthropist and his knowledge of corporate governance would make him an excellent guest. He has always seemed to me to be less ego-driven than the other guests, so hopefully he might get a word in between the other two.
Thanks for your time, Terry.