Dr Vivianne Nikou became the principal of Alphington Grammar School in 2013. In this exclusive interview with Education Matters, she reflects on more than 25 years of experience in school leadership roles, her passion for providing global education rooted in classical and humanistic values, and the sense of pride she feels watching students become well-rounded citizens that aspire to excellence.
WHAT IS THE SCHOOL’S PHILOSOPHY AND HOW DOES IT GUIDE YOU AND YOUR STAFF?
At Alphington Grammar School, our mission is to formulate well-rounded and world ready individuals. As a non-denominational, values-based school, our six core values
of excellence underpin everything we do in our pursuit of our personal best. Our six values are: Respect, Responsibility, Integrity, Creativity, Diversity, and Endeavour.
In pursuit of these values, Alphington Grammar has grown into a vibrant and progressive school community which encourages positive, engaging connections between all members. I strongly believe that at the core of everything we do are the relationships we build with each other, connecting both the head and the heart. The strong sense of community that permeates through our staff, students and families underpins the success experienced throughout the educational journey.
HOW DOES THE SCHOOL DIFFER FROM OTHER SCHOOLS?
One differentiating factor that sets us apart from other schools is that, due to our history, Hellenic values serve as the foundation of our school identity. These values are based on humanistic and classical ideals associated with ancient Greece and include; reason, the pursuit of knowledge and the arts, moderation, civic responsibility, and bodily development. These are the pillars that inform our key values and our focus on the balance between the head, the heart, and the will. In this way, the Olympic spirit is continuously lived through our curriculum and co-curricular offerings.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF THE SCHOOL?
Alphington Grammar was established by the Greek community in 1989 with the aim of being a non-denominational school that embraces all cultures and faiths, but that is still underpinned by Hellenic values. It was always intended to be an academic school, and from the beginning, attracted many aspirational families who themselves may have not had an independent school education.
Many of the staff that worked at the school when it first opened and played an essential role in its establishment transferred here from government schools. In the beginning, the school did not have much in terms of resources or money. Rather, what we did have was the good will of our community and staff that had a deep commitment to growing a unique school that embraced a new multiculturalism.
Over time, our school has evolved as a community. While it originally attracted mainly Greek families, over the generations it has shifted to become a globally focussed melting pot of all different cultures and ethnicities. The school now attracts all different kinds of families, who may or may not be Greek, but who all have an appreciation for Hellenic values and all that they represent.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS THE SCHOOL EVOLVED SINCE IT WAS ESTABLISHED?
Despite its humble beginnings, our school has evolved tremendously since its establishment. It has overcome financial challenges, developed its own unique identity, and gained recognition in the independent school sector. Early principals had the challenge of balancing the operational needs of the school and providing the infrastructure and curriculum offerings expected of an independent school. Over time, we have managed to find that balance, and parents seeking an independent school education with pathways to tertiary schooling now consider Alphington Grammar School a legitimate option. We are now considered a serious contender within the space, supported by our curriculum, teaching and learning, infrastructure, and consistent results.
In the last decade our numbers have increased from approximately 400, across our primary and secondary schools, to over 600, while having lost over 100 international students during the COVID years. Our school has blossomed and grown, and we believe our focus on community and connection is best reflected by the beginnings of the first generation of alumni returning to the school with their own children.
Our school has embraced change. Stronger financial checks and balances, as well as support from our community and government, has seen us able to spend over $20 million in recent years, which is quite significant for a school of our size. This investment has granted us the opportunity to further develop our infrastructure, including constructing a multipurpose hall and gym, STEM wing, state-of-the-art library and research centre, upper primary and Year 7 wing, a purpose-build staff room and assembly space, and multiple music and performing arts venues.
HOW DO YOU PROVIDE SUPPORT AND LEADERSHIP TO YOUR STAFF?
At the beginning of my career at Alphington Grammar, a key aspect of my approach was to appreciate each staff member’s journey and help them buy into the vision for the future. For some staff, the path that has since unfolded has been an easier transition than others.
At every opportunity it was about reminding ourselves of what our values are and what we stand for. The end goal of any program or initiative has always been to lead to better student outcomes and an improved student experience. This has been at the heart of anything and everything we do.
Overall, I aim to lead with compassion and strength. Some staff require additional support, and others need the space to make their own decisions. One thing we must all agree on is that at the end of the day, it is about wellbeing and student experience.
HOW DO YOU ENCOURAGE WELLBEING AMONG YOUR STAFF AND STUDENTS?
The social and emotional wellbeing of students and staff is key to everything that we do. Whether it be the connections between teachers and their students, the programs we integrate into the curriculum or the experiences we provide in and out of the school, everything is centred around developing our students into well rounded individuals. One of my core beliefs is connecting with both the head and the heart of our students. This necessitates having a certain level of balance and prioritising the mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing of each member of our community.
Every individual has different needs and experiences life in unique ways, and at times, we will all need a helping hand. That is why it is so important that within our school, everyone feels comfortable and feels as though they have someone to turn to.
To this end, our school employs two school psychologists and one trainee, a school nurse, and fully integrated wellbeing and pastoral care systems. We have dedicated pastoral care meetings for staff to discuss things that may be happening in their classes, or patterns and trends they are noticing. Things such as body image, gender identity, social media, and a host of other topics are challenges, not only for our young people, their parents, and our staff, but for many others in our community– and we provide a forum to tackle them together.
In a time where parents, staff, and children lead such busy lives, we have made an effort to contain our programs within the school day. This includes academic pursuits, music tuition, sports programs, and camps. By doing so, we aim to allow members of our community to be able to dedicate time to leisure activities that bring peace of mind and serve as an outlet for our anxieties. Particularly after the COVID years, we have all learned the importance of our mental health and social and emotional wellbeing. Our response to the mental health decline many felt after the past few years must not be a one off. We remain deeply committed to ensuring that all our students’ mental, emotional, and social wellbeing are catered for as a foundation for their academic performance.
WHAT ROLE DO YOU PLAY IN THE DAY-TO- DAY ACTIVITIES OF YOUR STUDENTS?
A school of our size requires that the role of the principal be very hands on. I am lucky to be able to get to know many of our students quite well. I am involved in all pastoral meetings which allows me to learn about our students as individuals and become familiar with what their struggles may be. We have sophisticated systems for logging pastoral matters, and thus we are all involved in offering support and knowing our students.
I also do duty and study periods along with everyone else. Because students see me around the campus, they feel comfortable enough to approach me, and I often have personal discussions while at the gate or in the yard. Our students have a great sense of social justice, and if they see something they believe is not right, they will respectfully approach others and let them know.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES FACED BY TEACHERS IN THE SECONDARY SECTOR AND HOW ARE YOU WORKING TO ADDRESS THEM?
While we all acknowledge the changing nature of teaching and the challenges of a very demanding career, one of the biggest challenges we are facing right now, in the wake of the COVID lockdowns, is the impact on students’ emotional wellbeing that has resulted in increased levels of anxiety and feelings of not being in control of their environment, their schoolwork, and their relationships, and an increase in self-harm cases. That is something we are focussing on within our support services and staff training. We want each student to know that they have someone within the school community to turn to if they need them.
Another significant challenge is burnout amongst our teaching staff, as they do their best to keep up with the changing demands of their profession. Over the last few years, we have asked more of our teachers than ever before, and they have had to consistently learn, adapt, and overcome to put the needs of our students first. We know so much more now about how students learn, and this is a positive as it means we can offer tailored support; but it also results in teachers focusing so much on each individual child that
it can become emotionally draining. We need to make sure to support our staff as much as we do our students, to ensure they are not becoming too enmeshed within the issues of their students. A teacher can only give their best to their students if they are also taking care of themselves.
There are also other challenges; there is always something else. Handling parents who may struggle with boundaries, social media and its impact on adolescents, children who have not learned how to self-regulate or sooth, and how to handle these issues when they occur outside of the school. The nature of our industry is constantly changing, morphing, and throwing us new obstacles.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT EITHER AS A TEACHER OR SPECIFICALLY IN THE ROLE OF PRINCIPAL?
I think the highlights are always when a student comes to you that is struggling with school or home life and the school can provide the scaffolding they need. To see these students excel, find their niche, graduate and go on to follow their passions must be the most rewarding aspect of this profession. That is why we do this. It is not about cutting ribbons or opening buildings; those things are all lovely to have, but above it all it is about the human connection and feeling as if you have made a difference in a student’s life.
It is particularly impactful when these students return to the school after graduation wanting to volunteer their time or support the school to show their gratitude. That is a true sign that we have done something right. We have many alumni who volunteer for the school for a number of years after their graduation. This year, two of our alumni volunteers will be going on our experiential learning program, Gateways, to help support our staff and students.
WHAT TRAITS MAKE FOR AN EFFECTIVE AND SUCCESSFUL LEADER IN EDUCATION TODAY?
You have to have compassion and empathy, and above all, you need to stand for something; otherwise, you stand for nothing at all. People might not like the decisions you make, but if you communicate the message in simple and effective language, they will understand the ‘why’ behind your decision. When you make your priorities clear, that everything you do is important for our school, students, and the student experience, you will never lose your purpose or direction.
To learn more, visit: https://alphington.vic.edu.au/