Country school keeping up with city cousins

Helen’s presentation day

I like how you get to know the children and their families so well in primary schools. You get the whole picture.

Students at Helen’s school

With only 63 students and a handful of staff, St Joseph’s Primary School Merriwa is a small school making a big impact.

The Maitland-Newcastle Diocese recently awarded its Principal Helen Whale the Monsignor Coolahan prize for Leadership.

Helen said the prize was testament to the whole school community.

The citation said St Joseph’s “is a warm and friendly school. Helen encourages and supports a positive climate within the school community, building strong relationships with all levels of the school, the parish and local community”.

Helen was recommended for the award after a group of 30 principals visited the school.

The citation said “they were greeted by an atmosphere of welcome, where students, staff, families and the surrounding community felt clearly valued and supported”.

“I think the principals appreciated the warm atmosphere and that real learning was happening. We are endeavouring to keep up with our city cousins in terms of implementing curriculum, being innovative and bringing continuous improvements to the children,” Helen said.

The citation said Helen is committed to “authentic learning and challenges her staff to provide quality teaching and learning which will enable students to become self aware, intellectually curious, critical and creative thinkers, respectful of others, engaged citizens and committed to both spiritual growth and lifelong learning”.

Helen said the school tries to overcome any rural or regional disadvantage by engaging parents with the school’s activities.

“We try to involve them in every way we can. We want them to see they are valued in the role they play in their children’s education.”

Parents are invited to PD at the school, and the P&F sessions include Q&A for parents on curriculum.

Developing the staff is also a key feature of Helen’s leadership.

“We spend a lot of our budget on PD for teachers. Our teachers are constantly going away for professional development and coming back to share what they’ve learned with the whole school

“We look at other schools to try and see what they’re doing and implement things that we think fit.

“If we don’t have quality teachers we won’t move forward. It’s really empowering for staff. Other schools are coming to see what we’re doing.”

Attending PD or visiting other schools is no easy task, as St Joseph’s is 200kms from the Diocese’s head office and 50km to the nearest Catholic primary. There is only one teacher for each stage so collaboration and collegiality is a challenge.

Helen, who’s been in the IEU for more than 20 years, said IEU membership and attending Union PD could help with the tyranny of distance. She has attended the IEU Environment Conference.

Helen actually started her career as a high school teacher in Tasmania, and then moved to Dubbo in the 80s.

She found herself in primary education because of her remote location.

“I moved to an isolated farm and I couldn’t get to the Catholic high school. Someone suggested I try primary and I thought ‘that doesn’t sound like my cup of tea’. But I loved it.

“I like how you get to know the children and their families so well in primary schools. You get the whole picture.”

Thirty years later Helen is still living that philosophy of a warm and inclusive school, as shown by her award.

Sue Osborne