Donella Beare, Principal of St Stephen’s School in Perth, speaks to Education Matters about how a personalised approach to teaching and learning is helping students find their niche and setting them on the path to achieving their goals.
What is the philosophy of St Stephen’s School and how does it guide you and your staff?
St Stephen’s School takes a holistic approach to education. This is considered from a range of perspectives but is something that is embraced by all of our staff, teaching and non-teaching.
Firstly, it means we look at the whole child – we take the time to get to know them and focus on the best approach to their learning and wellbeing. All students learn differently and we offer learning that is, as much as possible, catered to each individual student. We also encourage students to find, and tap into, their passions and talents through their learning so they are challenged, interested and motivated in their education.
Secondly, we understand that success means different things to different people. Not every student is built for an ATAR pathway so we pride ourselves on the various pathways available at St Stephen’s, whether that be academic, vocational, work or apprenticeship-based, and we celebrate each equally. While St Stephen’s continues to be celebrated for our academic results, we are also one of the leading school providers of Vocational Education & Training in WA, offering a range of disciplines from mechanical to business and nursing and have strong partnerships with companies and institutions that further assist our students’ education. From a primary standpoint, we make sure primary students experience lots of different activities and learning opportunities in order to find their niche and help them towards possible future pathways.
Thirdly, we truly believe that school is a journey from Pre-Kindergarten to Year 12. We have several programs that see primary and secondary students working together, taking part in activities or simply hanging out to create mentor relationships. This starts in primary where the younger students are guided and over time see the value in these mentoring relationships, eventually becoming mentors themselves as they transition into secondary.
Finally, the holistic approach to education sees learning and care go hand-in-hand at St Stephen’s School. We strongly believe in the social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of our students and offer a solid pastoral care program through our Care Team, which comprises nurses, psychologists, Deans and Deputy Heads of Care at each of our campuses.
How does St Stephen’s School differ from other schools?
We like to think our commitment to a holistic approach to education makes us a school of choice.
Some examples of this include our renowned Service Learning program, which helps those less fortunate on a local, national and international scale. Service Learning is incorporated into the curriculum at St Stephen’s School so all students get the chance to give back to the community during their time at school. The program starts with our Year 6 students who are always enthusiastic to help out, whether it be with our Food Cart, in partnership with UnitingCare West, that collects unsold food from cafés to give to those in need, or taking part in our philanthropic program with WA Charity Direct that sees students research, discuss and decide on which local charities or people are awarded donations.
Our Service Tours, through our Global arm of the school, see students building houses in Cambodia, working at an orphanage in South Africa and hosting cultural and English activities at a school for underprivileged kids in Indonesia among other things. These international tours are available to secondary students. The primary offering through the Global program sees select Year 6s visit two Indigenous schools in WA’s Kimberley region where they undertake general maintenance, run sports events and discos, and explore the country with local Indigenous children. Our students learn so much through these experiences about how important Indigenous culture is, and giving students opportunities like these help them to grow and shape them into mature and confident individuals.
In what ways has the school evolved since you became principal in 2017?
We have gone through a few years of significant change. I have worked with the senior leadership team on restructuring the whole school to better reflect the changing educational landscape and to continue to drive a sustainable future-focused business model.
One project I have seen evolve has been an intentional PK-12 approach to education. The school operated very much as primary and secondary schools when I started as Principal but now, thanks to the hard work of many people, working collaboratively across primary and secondary and across our two campuses is much more unified. This provides opportunities for students and staff that weren’t previously available and enriches the education experience for all.
The school purchased a 100-acre rural property just over an hour south-east of Perth in 2014. It has been used sporadically for some school camps, however over the last 12 months our teams, working with local groups and Indigenous elders from the district, have helped transform ‘The Kaadadjan Centre’ (which translates to The Knowledge Centre in Noongar language) into a more active space. Detailed plans of how we can integrate the property into the curriculum and open it for community use are being developed and we are very excited to fundraise for this development over the course of this year so it becomes a central part of who we are at St Stephen’s.
Finally, the work the school has done to bring to fruition an international student program including immersion and study tours, has been very satisfying.
How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?
I think that I always aim to be relational and realistic. Staff know they can come to me anytime for a chat or to discuss ideas and if they have any problems my door is always open. By providing a supportive, transparent and flexible working environment, a sense of loyalty and pride is created.
I really highlight the idea of team and we are all working towards the same goal and aim, to provide exceptional education.
As an educational institution, we also provide professional development opportunities to ensure that staff feel they are being upskilled and supported. Two of these include our Leadership Conference that brings together leaders from across the school and Staff Expo that runs over two days for all teaching and support staff. The focus is always linked to professional upskilling and personal wellbeing.
How do you encourage wellbeing among staff and students?
For staff, the open and flexible environment is one of the most important ways we encourage wellbeing. We also have fitness centres at both campuses and a Wellness Team that runs wellness workshops, and share information and wellness techniques on a regular basis. Last year I also incorporated a Wellness Day into our Staff Expo week. This gave staff the opportunity to go and spend time on themselves and to return to work in a positive and calm mindset. Many staff shared photos of what they did to take time for themselves and it was great to see everyone making the most of it.
For students, we try to lead by example and offer various programs through our House structure, pastoral care and positive education programs. Our Buzz primary program focusses on social and emotional wellbeing and what this looks like for students from Years 1-6. We have other examples such as mindfulness and breathing techniques that sit alongside some of the more formal curriculum in this area.
What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of the school’s primary students?
As most Principals will say, I wish I could spend more time in the classrooms. However, running a large, multi-campus school often pulls me more into the strategic side. Having said this, I do attend school productions, concerts, assemblies, school balls, socials and carnivals to let the students know I’m always there to help and cheer them on.
I also dress up for Book Week each year and lead the primary costume parades at each campus which is great fun and a really positive way to interact with everyone. Last year I was also asked to deliver a class on Poetry (with my English teacher background) for our Year 6 students on one of our campuses.
What sort of an emphasis does the School place on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) in the primary years?
STEM is a huge focus in our primary years. Each primary area has a Digital Learning Mentor that helps students integrate their learning online – it’s great to see them learning through green screens, interactive boards and online collaboration. A great foundation for their secondary years and beyond.
We are also one of the host venues for the FIRST LEGO League each year that sees teams from around the state compete in robotics, research and teamwork. We have had great success in this with our own school teams reaching both State and National Finals.
We recently partnered with STEM educator Firetech as its exclusive northern suburbs’ location for holiday workshops. These recent holidays had students from all around the region attending workshops on digital music, animation and robotics.
Our Year 6 students also take part in STEM workshops with our Secondary Science teachers and get to visit the Secondary Science labs for experiments and special classes throughout the year.
Are there any new programs or developments that have been introduced in 2020?
Primary students are enjoying our new modern Music Suite at our Duncraig Campus that has much more space, practice rooms and higher digital capacities. The adjoining Year 6 building has just been given a facelift, mimicking more of the secondary design that will help with their transition into Year 7. Our Early Learning Centre has just been reconfigured to create more than 30 square metres of extra teaching space, which has been warmly welcomed.
There have been upgrades to incorporate more functional furniture across our primary campuses to cater for various learning opportunities.
We have also just installed two RedCat systems and replaced our 10-year-old Smartboard 680s with 86” Smart Interactive Display Panels that incorporate the SMART Learning Suite and collaboration tools that will increase primary student engagement and encourage 21st century skills.
What are some of the biggest challenges currently facing the primary education sector?
It is often said that the jobs our primary students will be employed in have yet to be invented. I find this prospect both exciting and challenging. The so-called ‘soft’ skills, which I like to call life skills, such as critical thinking, resilience, entrepreneurship, creativity and adaptability are important to learn. These are transferable skills, not tied down to any specific curriculum or job. They help to create well-rounded people and people who will succeed in any situation. That is something that we know will be in demand.
There is also the immediacy of technology and social media. Integrating these into education in an ever-changing landscape is vital.
What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?
All diagnostic testing, such as NAPLAN, gives us another piece of a student’s learning and helps to broaden our knowledge of that student. However, it is one test at a particular time which doesn’t measure many of the skills mentioned above. We need to understand what it is that we want to learn from these tests before we state that they are effective or not.
What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or specifically in the role of principal?
I have many memorable moments as a teacher which always involve something that happened in a class within a teaching and learning framework. However, I’m actually going to say that the last two years in my role as Principal have seen significant changes at St Stephen’s. Leading a team of dedicated staff through these changes and delivering a re-aligned teaching and learning program that supports and underpins a PK-Year 12 education has been wonderful. It has taken hard work but to see this structure begin to flourish in areas across the school humbles me.
The work in getting The Kaadadjan Centre as a focal point for our community has also been a highlight.
What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?
I think recognising that while education is our first and foremost focus, school leaders also need to understand that we oversee a large business and this must work in synergy so we can deliver the best possible educational outcomes for the communities we lead. They need to take advantage of partnerships, external opportunities that benefit student learning and wellbeing, and draw on resources beyond the curriculum to prepare students with the best outcomes.
You need to be a good listener, problem solver, be flexible and understand that we work with people; staff, students and parents. It is all about relationships and being able to laugh at yourself always helps.