Peter Houlihan, Principal of De La Salle College, speaks to Education Matters about the nature of its student – teacher relationships and how the personalised knowledge of the students is central.
What is the School’s philosophy and how does it guide you and your staff?
The College philosophy stems from a tradition of almost 340 years with St John Baptist de La Salle having founded our model of education in 1680s France. This still informs our responsibility to each and every student in a Lasallian school. De La Salle College continues to develop its living heritage, ingrained in our history and we continuously adapt to be responsive to today’s realities. Our obligation to the young men entrusted to our care is to provide a holistic education for life in contemporary society, an education which is engaging, rigorous and inspiring.
This Lasallian philosophy and our Five Core Principles – Respect, Quality Education, Faith, Inclusiveness and Justice – inform my leadership and the everyday operations of all in our community. The inherent dignity of each child is recognised; he feels valued, safe, encouraged and there’s always someone who believes in him. Inspired by Christian maxims and Gospel values, De La Salle creates opportunities to live this practically for service, leadership and the betterment of others.
Building on the founder’s insistence on the provision of a human and Christian education, De La Salle College’s mission extends well beyond the formal academic work. As a Catholic school in the 21st century we must ensure our students’ faith experience keeps up with the complexity of their lives – keep it contemporary, challenging, engaging and relevant.
A key feature of our staff’s induction and ongoing professional learning is an understanding and appreciation of the guiding principles of a Lasallian education. This informs all our everyday operations and policies, our relationships among staff, students and parents, our decision-making and our forward planning.
Staff work “together and in association”, that is, as a community. We value the importance of working together and being together and this flows over to a structured support of our students’ academic, wellbeing, spiritual and social needs.
How does the School differ from other schools?
The nature of our student – teacher relationships in a Lasallian school is pivotal and provides a point of difference. St John Baptist de La Salle invariably viewed learning as a relational process. Personalised knowledge of the students is central to the Lasallian teacher’s pedagogy – there is no true educational impact which is not based on knowing the students well. Discernment of character requires our teachers to look below the surface when getting to know our students, demonstrate empathy and engage in genuine dialogue.
Our teachers are aware of and committed to their obligations as a role model and demonstrate commitment, competence and passion to the students before delivering content. The Lasallian student’s classroom is characterised by warmth, humour, interaction and rigour.
Our three campuses provide a small-school feel within one big school. The Year 5 – 8 Tiverton Campus is an ideal introduction, allowing students to find their feet. The Year 9 Holy Eucharist Campus provides a unique and innovative experience before moving to preferred pathways and options on the Year 10- 12 Kinnoull Campus.
Contemporary and relevant wellbeing structures, guidelines and processes create a society of solidarity and fraternity – brothers and sisters to one another. We continue to build on this rich tradition at Malvern. We educate for a life filled with promise – providing challenge, extension and support, where each pupil is encouraged to identify, develop and use his skills. Through this partnership we cultivate viable pathways for all.
What year was the school established?
De La Salle College was established in 1912.
What is the history of the school?
The College was established by three Irish De La Salle Brothers in Malvern 110 years ago, initially operating out of the parish hall at St Joseph’s, with an enrolment of 54 boys. The size and public profile of De La Salle grew dramatically in 1929 with the move from the first school building in Stanhope Street West to the new Tower Building, erected on the site of our present Tiverton Campus and still used today as a refurbished base for our Year 8s.
The Kinnoull property in Northbrook Avenue, essentially just across the road, was purchased in 1953 and became the junior campus. Each decade in the past seventy years has seen further expansion, development and growth with new buildings and refurbishments.
Our move into the closed Holy Eucharist Primary School in Malvern East in 2019 consolidated the three-campus structure, providing space for the learning, wellbeing and recreation of well over 1000 students.
We are very proud of the manner in which the College has evolved to become truly a school for all, regardless of ambition, preferred pathways or ability. Our open-entry, mixed ability enrolment policy demands we genuinely understand and appreciate young men and all that teaching boys involves. Whether you want to graduate in a position to study medicine, would prefer to be a tradesman or you have experienced some learning difficulties, De La Salle provides a contemporary, innovative and supportive learning environment where you can belong and flourish.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
I believe presence is central to effective support and leadership for staff. I make a point of ensuring I am a regular fixture in the staffroom, in the yard, in professional learning and in classes. I work on building positive relationships and rapport with all members of staff, at all levels and in all roles.
Communication is also critical, keeping staff well-informed around what is happening in the school and why, giving them a voice in strategic planning and opportunities for feedback and consultation.
Staff want to know what our vision for the College is, short and long term. They need clear and fair expectations, so all know where they stand and what they can do to support the direction of the school.
Empathy and understanding are also critical. It is important to maintain the connection between my leadership, management and administration roles and what’s happening in the everyday working life of the rest of the staff.
How do you encourage wellbeing among your staff and students?
It is critical to maintain a positive mindset. I try to adopt and present an optimistic outlook, which always helps, but there are reliable strategies to adopt to support our wellbeing. Connection is crucial; we must make time for relationships with friends, family and colleagues. Committing to regular exercise, a healthy diet and sensible sleep patterns are also staples.
More complex but equally helpful is to take responsibility for your own wellbeing. Reflect on what’s going well or working well for you – then do more of it! Similarly, identify and avoid negative influences. I try to tell staff and students to be kind to themselves, talk openly about wellbeing and mental health and above all, seek support when you feel the need.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of your students?
I try to spend time with students in the yard each day, chat to them on the regular walks between each campus, visiting classes, catch up with the younger ones on their birthday, drop into the library / study hall most days, rehearsals, concerts and sporting events. I coach a football team each year, which is invaluable in getting to know a lot more students and connect with them away from that more formal principal-student relationship. Getting to know students via any avenue available assists in gaining their support and understanding for what we want the College to stand for.
What are some of the challenges faced by teachers in the secondary sector?
Beyond the well documented demands of remote learning, the main issue is the gradual, but relentless increase in demands and workload for teachers. The education industry and community in general seem to add to the expectations around what teachers and schools should be responsible for each year. Youth mental health is the most critical challenge; supporting students through their difficulties, providing support and advice to maintain motivation and engagement can be a genuine trial. Teachers want to do the best job possible – adapt, innovate and improve and be learners themselves, but finding time for all these priorities requires extraordinary time management and organisation skills.
What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?
One thing a Principal is never short of is memorable moments – very hard to isolate one. However, the morning we welcomed the Year 12s back onsite after last year’s very long period of lockdown and remote learning was certainly a highlight. The sheer delight in seeing each other – and the staff – was wonderful. Their infectious enthusiasm as they embraced all that was so familiar, yet had been missing for months was just a joy to behold. We all love happy students and I’ve rarely seen young men so glad to be at school!
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
NAPLAN has its uses as another data-set and measurement / comparison against Australia-wide standards. We prefer to use NAPLAN as just one of the tools employed to measure internal growth and progression around literacy and numeracy. De La Salle uses a variety of other assessment tools to identify students’ achievement and more importantly, progression.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
Education is always evolving, always changing, with so much to keep up with. Today’s leaders in education need to be very much aware of the impact and potential of this ever-changing landscape and what opportunities present for students and staff. The demands of effective educational leadership never diminish, so a willingness to delegate, build the capacity of those around you and establish mutually beneficial partnerships are all crucial. We need to keep things in perspective and never lose sight of the position of the students as central to all we do in schools. Trust, transparency, effective communication and the courage of your convictions remain central to the successful leader.