Over 450 school and education office leaders in the Diocese of Parramatta gathered at Rosehill Gardens on Thursday 21 January 2016 for the annual system leadership day, prior to the commencement of the new school year.
Opening the day with a focus on student diversity, Executive Director of Schools Greg Whitby said the theme ‘Everything’s Connected’ was taken from Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, which calls for humanity to accept shared responsibility for the care of nature and our human relationships in a changing world.
At the end of last year, Greg spoke at the Vatican World Congress in Rome delivering a keynote address, ‘How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’. He shared some of the key points with school leaders highlighting the need for Catholic schools to transform learning and teaching, not just improve.
‘We’re learning to sing a new song in a strange land but we’ll be well positioned in the work that we do,’ Greg said. ‘Improvement has had its time, we now need to talk about transformation - to go about the reimagination process.’
‘Pope Francis’ vision of connectedness is a sublime challenge to educators, to really transform schools and ‘Our Common Home’, the earth,’ he said. ‘A challenge to create communities without outsiders, to see Christ in the other especially when it’s tough.’
‘I think it’s a challenge that we’re not just equal to, but made for,’ he said.
Greg launched the System Strategic Direction 2016-2019 outlining five key priorities:
Forming committed disciples of Jesus Christ
Focus learning and teaching to meet the needs of each student
Build capacity to use data to inform teaching and system decision making
Develop new ways to partner with parents and families
Develop innovative learning environments
Delegate to the Diocesan Administrator, Rev Chris de Souza PP focused on what leaders need to be thinking about in their work as Catholic school leaders and educators.
‘The incredible gift of God we have been given we have to continually unpack,’ Fr Chris said. ‘Gifts only become real when we use them, when we put them into action.’
‘We need to ask ourselves, do I see everything; engage with everything; have I left anything out; can do that through engaging with colleagues - what do you hear; what do you understand?’ he said. ’[The] challenge to be inclusive means everything is new and the gift that is Jesus can keep on challenging us to see new possibilities in the present moment.’
A highlight of the day was the moving address from keynote speaker Neal Murphy, Director of Mission at St John of God Health Care, ‘To belong, I have to be missed’. Neal shared his vision of schools’ work towards the healing mission of Jesus Christ through involving disabled students and their families in school communities.
Neal, who works with children and young people with disabilities and their families on a regular basis, challenges established mindsets about disability education. His address provided meaningful insights into the daily struggles families advocating for a disabled child experience. ‘Parents are always asking “why are people not interested in my child belonging?”,’ Neal said.
‘To be successful as teachers, we have to see inclusion as an act of love,’ Neal observed. Describing himself as ‘an encourager’, Neal’s message to school leaders is that inclusion is not easy but achievable. Schools have a powerful role to play in modeling the inclusion of people with a disability with dignity in mainstream education and society.
Team Leader Student Services Mary Creenaune spoke about the work of schools in making ‘diversity the norm’.
‘I am inspired by passion in schools to create ‘Diversity is the Norm,’ Mary said. ‘Leaders need to consciously continue to create an inclusive culture for students seeking a Catholic education that is attainable for students with disability.’
‘I urge leaders to recognise each person as unique, rather than being identified by their disability,’ she said.
Mary spoke about the importance of inclusive language, student and parent voice, sharing high expectations for all students, strategic resourcing and funding to support students with disability. Leaders were urged to continue to have courage in disrupting and challenge any practices that are not inclusive in schools.
Triple J newsreader Nastasia Campanella is a graduate of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Parramatta. Nastasia who was blind from the age of six months, spoke to educators and leaders about managing diversity from a student perspective.
From her own experience of being blind and unable to read braille due to Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease which affected the sensation in her hands, Nas recalled the challenges she overcame in her schooling and professional life.
Nas was introduced to screen reading software called Job Access with Speech (Jaws) and the use of audio books to help her to read.
‘Suddenly that child who hated reading and used to cry herself to sleep every night for feeling like a failure, wanted to do nothing more than sit with a book,’ Nas said. ‘I owe a lot to this teacher’s aid and to the teachers who supported this transition as this enabled me to go from being a student who struggled and hated being at school, to someone who thoroughly enjoyed it and still to this day loves learning.’
‘The screen reading software that I had used at school came with me to university, my journalism internships and is now still with me in my role as a Triple J presenter,’ she said. ‘I feel immensely lucky with the job that I have and the challenges I have faced in my life.’
‘I hope that from having me as a student my teachers have learnt how to be resilient and creative in their teaching,’ Nas said. ‘I can’t stress to you enough how important the beginning of term meetings were to me; they allowed us to set goals and discuss issues honestly and openly, and at the end of the term have another meeting to evaluate the strategies that we had used and to evaluate how we could do things better.’
‘I can’t stress enough how important it is to include the student in that process,’ she said. ‘I was asked every step of the way what I wanted and I believe that has contributed to my success.’
Pope Francis has also declared 2016 as the Year of Mercy. School leaders had the opportunity to reflect on mercy in our communities and were asked three searching questions: How will you be the merciful face of Christ to students, colleagues, parents and community; when will our students and teachers experience mercy this holy year; and when will our students be the merciful face of Christ to others?
‘It’s a call not just to be Christ-like but to see Christ in all members of our communities, especially those on the fringes,’ Greg said. ‘That’s why I asked every school leader to love most those so-called ‘difficult’ students, who struggle to belong not just in the playground and classroom but in everyday life.’
Director of Evangelisation and Religious Education Ian Smith spoke about the Year of Mercy.
‘Pope Francis has reminded us that we are living in the time of Mercy, the time to heal wounds,’ Ian said.
Ian asked attendees to reflect upon times God has shown his mercy and attendees will be the merciful face of Christ to their students, colleagues, parents and the community during the holy year.
Throughout the year, school leaders and education staff will have further opportunities to participate in their professional learning such as the Principals Masterclass and the Catholic Education, Ann D Clark lecture.
For photos from the day please see the gallery on the right.