Honours for Canberra principal

For a lifetime’s dedication to schools and associations that advance the cause of education, Michael Lee, Principal of St Mary MacKillop College in the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese, was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in the Australia Day Honours List.

Michael started his career in Kildare College in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria in 1982 and remembers smoking a cigarette while doing parent/teacher interviews.

“I had no teacher training of any kind. A Brigidine nun hired me with a BA in History and Politics from ANU, and I was teaching Year 10 Typing, Religious Education and some Social Studies. I still can’t type,” he said.

His first principalship was Mount Carmel School, Yass in 1999. He has also worked for the Board of Studies at Wagga Wagga and as principal at Hennessy Catholic College, Young.

Michael said his lifetime involvement in professional associations was probably a big part of why he was nominated for an OAM.

Schools are safer and more effective places than they were.

He works with the English Teachers Association of NSW, the AIS, principals associations and not least the IEU.

“I wanted to be a better teacher in the classroom. I am a fan of professional learning about improving teacher practice. It was always about advocating for teachers and principals to have a shared conversation and to improve their skills. In the bush it can be more challenging.

“I’ve always found the union to be about much more than advocating for higher salaries. It’s a place of shared interests based on experiences of classroom conditions and schools. It has provided me with many valuable insights as a school leader.”

Michael represented his diocese at the IEU’s Principals’ Branch for several years.

“I got to meet different types of principals from different types of schools. You got so many insights into what’s going on in some dioceses and some sectors.”

Michael said of teaching “there’s been a couple of enormous changes. One has been the accent on teaching measured against the standard, which has obliged the profession to see itself in a much wider context. This has been good.

“You can more easily know what a teacher is and does and how their effectiveness can be supported,” he said.

“The other change has been the accent on work, health and safety and child protection. Since the Royal Commission [into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse], we now have very clear guidelines.

“I think both have been extremely positive. Schools are safer and more effective places than they were.”

Michael said principalship is can be stressful. “In a country town the minute you leave your front door you’re working. I found that really taxing in terms of the workload and the public face.”

“There’s administration that gets in the way of running a good school. That’s pretty much a universal complaint.”

Michael said the award was “unexpected and humbling”.

“Every principal did an outstanding job leading their community through COVID. It was just such a complex, terrifying, into the unknown, situation - like being in a CS Lewis novel!

“We came through it because of good judgement, lots of support and community confidence and I think those things are readily found in good school leadership.

“My mother made the point about how many family events I have not been at because of work. The OAM is an honour for her and my family.”