It takes a village to lead a school

The head of Korowal School in the Blue Mountains, Barbara Fitzgerald, shares with journalist Monica Crouch how she steered her school through two major crises this year.

Korowal School, a K-12 school at Hazelbrook in the Blue Mountains, faced not one but two extraordinary challenges in 2020: bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We started the year with a community on tenterhooks,” the Principal, Barbara Fitzgerald, said. “In the Blue Mountains, we spent summer in dense smoke, preparing to evacuate as the fires approached our towns, where hazard reduction lines broke and reading the wind direction became the new normal.”

Fitzgerald, who began her education career as a primary school teacher in Sydney before relocating to Melbourne where she studied acting at Victorian College of the Arts, joined Korowal in 1994 to teach HSC subjects and junior drama.

Over the years her teaching load increased; she was High School Coordinator for six years before becoming Principal in 2013. She has been an IEU member for 20 years.

Along comes COVID

While the fires mercifully left Korowal standing, the school community returned after the Christmas holidays feeling far from relaxed and ready for the new year. And before they could recover from this highly stressful summer, the COVID-19 pandemic descended.

“By the end of February, we needed to draw on all of our energy and reserves again as planning for remote schooling was upon us,” Fitzgerald said. “We had to create new systems throughout teaching and admin. By mid-March we were delivering home learning packages to primary school families, and high school was running Google Meets for classes online.”

It was an intense and challenging time for a leader, yet a recurrent theme in Fitzgerald’s response to these twin crises is “we”: she consistently recognises how the entire school community – teachers, support staff, students, families – came together.

“We were required to remain flexible, adapt to ever-changing circumstances, and adapt or totally rewrite programs for this new way of schooling,” Fitzgerald said.

“We needed to take into account what parents at home could cope with, as they too worked from home. Teachers made contact with individual families if our high school students appeared to be having difficulty working without supervision.”

Unpredictable conditions required a complete review of our priorities in both content and pedagogy, but not in our values.

Strength through support

Throughout it all, the school community strove for togetherness. “We consciously introduced ways of keeping connected through posting students’ works and experiences, sending through great ideas people were adopting and posting wellbeing tips,” Fitzgerald said.

Even so, the load was heavy. “Knowing the staff and community were depending upon me to stay strong and lead the team, interpret developments and create direction, was a huge responsibility,” she said.

“Remaining calm to draw teams together and plan, with very little time for reflection or revision, was intense. On many occasions the plan for the following week would be thrown out by a media announcement at 5pm on Friday that directives had changed, so we would have to go back to the drawing board. It was exhausting.”

Clear vision

Yet during all this upheaval, some things didn’t change. “Unpredictable conditions required a complete review of our priorities in both content and pedagogy, but not in our values,” Fitzgerald said. “Holding our values through this time became a priority.”

These values are worth enunciating. “We are developing people who are compassionate; people who understand that their life decisions and contributions can help to create a sustainable world,” she said.

Fitzgerald sees the teacher’s task as guiding and enabling critical thinking and to hold students accountable for their words and actions.

“To discover freedom in our lives, we need to understand the relationship between freedom and responsibility – they go hand in hand,” Fitzgerald said. “If our students internalise this then we are doing a fine job of educating them for a life of change and possibility.”