In the final days of the summer holidays, more than 500 leaders from Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta (CEDP) schools gathered virtually to prepare for the 2021 school year.
The annual System Leaders’ Day, with a theme of ‘Curiosity to Clarity to Challenge’, began with a moving Acknowledgement of Country in a video featuring students from across Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains.
Diocese of Parramatta Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen gave an inspiring address reflecting on the challenges of 2020, and celebrating the selflessness of healthcare workers and the commitment of teachers during this difficult period.
“You are to be commended for the way you led your school communities through a very unsettled time. Your generosity, creativity and care for all are the hallmarks of Christian leadership,” Bishop Vincent said.
“I believe that as educators, we have the opportunity to form a new generation that values the common good more than individual success. We also need an education that forms young people into men and women of deep empathy, solidarity and communion as opposed to individualism and self-interest.”
Executive Director Greg Whitby addressed the school leaders about being change agents in a time of disruption, taking what we learned from last year and the impacts of the global pandemic to inform our thinking about what to do next.
“The way we are making decisions as leaders has been changing too,” Greg said. “The meaningful and shared challenge of the last 12 months has reminded us why shared, collaborative leadership is more important than ever.”
The keynote address was presented by Dr Anita Heiss, editor of the powerful anthology ‘Growing up Aboriginal in Australia’ which will be used by schools and leaders to underpin their work throughout 2021. Anita’s timely and practical presentation will inform CEDP’s work towards a Reconciliation Action Plan and preparations to host the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Conference in 2022.
One of Australia’s most prolific authors, Anita is a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales, but was born in Gadigal country and has spent much of her life on Dharawal Land near La Perouse.
Anita provided deep insight into the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and encouraged school communities to demonstrate and recognise the past.
She shared an impressive number of resources for learning and teaching and demonstrated how limited many Australians’ knowledge of our own history is with a confronting IQ test aimed at highlighting cultural bias in the classroom.
“As teachers we are all lifelong learners and it is important for us to continue to learn and understand Aboriginal culture and we can start with how we demonstrate, contribute and participate with our Indigenous history at our schools.”
Anita said inclusivity requires acknowledging the diversity of who we are and recognising the significance of incorporating Aboriginal symbolism and language into our everyday lives. This included sharing her perspective on the national discussion about the timing of Australia Day.
“In the last two decades, many have talked about the difference of seeing their flag flying at a school and not just during NAIDOC week,” Anita said. “Flying the flag demonstrates that we all recognise, every day, that we live, work and learn on the land of Aboriginal people.”
Developing positive habits around rigorous learning and teaching was the focus of an intriguing presentation from acclaimed author and presenter Dr Michael McDowell, superintendent of the Ross School District of California, who also presented at last year’s System Leaders’ Day.
This year, Michael called on leaders to invite challenge, enquiry and the outside world into the classroom, explaining that conversation is key to emotional engagement with students.
“Last year’s bushfires, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the recent storming of the Capitol building - so many events bring a lot of questions to students,” Michael said.
Leaders responded enthusiastically to the presentation, recognising the importance of being models of change to ensure learning is effective, engaging and impactful.
“It’s easy to see the importance of reimagining the processes we use as leaders so that we’re modelling what we want to see in the classroom,” said Holy Family Primary Luddenham Principal Anthony McElhone. “From leaders to teachers and teachers to students.”
"We really like the idea of bringing current events into the classroom without taking away from the successful practices," added the leadership team at Christ The King Primary North Rocks.
"There's real merit in the idea of not simply starting a class with a teacher saying 'this is what we’re learning about' but engaging in more conversation with students," said Shaun Buckley, Assistant Principal at Holy Cross Primary Glenwood.
"When students ask a question, one of the hardest things is to step back and suggest they discuss instead of simply answering," said Nicole DeCourcy, Leader of Learning at Gilroy Catholic College.
As the formal program came to a conclusion, giving school leadership teams the opportunity to continue their planning for the afternoon, Executive Director Greg Whitby reminded everyone participating that equity is at the heart of the challenge ahead. Director Learning Maura Manning urged school leaders to rise to the occasion, affirming “it is within our power to take on these challenges”.