Every Student Podcast: Fiona Kelly
Fiona Kelly joins the podcast to explain her journey to becoming an exceptional leader at the school she once attended, among the state’s most remote.
Fiona Kelly joins the podcast to explain her journey to becoming an exceptional leader at the school she once attended, among the state’s most remote.
Hi, I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education and welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in Australian education. I’m here today with Fiona Kelly. Fiona is a proud Barkindji/Ngiyampaa woman and she is the Executive Principal of Menindee Central School. Menindee Central School is a remote school in far western New South Wales on the Darling River. Fiona’s students range from Kindergarten to Year 12 and 71% of the students at that school are Aboriginal. Fiona came from Menindee, she grew up in Menindee and attended the school that she now leads. There are strong community links at that school based on mutual respect and her school results show the academic and wellbeing results in high attendance and student retention and she is determined to build great pathways into work and study for the students at her school.
Fiona, can you tell us about your education journey and how you ended up principal at your alma mater, Menindee Central School, what is your journey to that job?
As you said I’m from Menindee, I’m the eighth of 10 children and I went to school in Menindee. When I was in Year 5 and 6 I had this teacher and he was an amazing person.
What was the teacher’s name?
Mr Graham Brown and I had him for both years which wasn’t so uncommon in the small schools then, but he was the catalyst for me becoming a teacher. He was firm, really firm but fair as well and he was the one who pushed me to achieve beyond my expectations.
What do you think he saw in you that made him say you can be a teacher?
I guess I was always concerned about other students in the classroom and quite often I would help others who weren’t able to do the work which he got me to do sometimes but also he looked beyond my shyness, because I was really shy, just like I am today, he looked beyond that and he saw that it wasn’t that I didn’t know the work, that I was really capable whenever we had our tests he could see that I did well and he just wanted to keep pushing me.
Did you always do well at school and in your family environment was doing well at school prioritised?
Yes. Dad died when mum was pregnant with the ninth child so she had to work three jobs so her words to us was “you had to go to school” and if we got into trouble at school we got in trouble when we got home. So she was really strict on school and expected that we go and do the right thing. Also, she had this expectation that we would grow up and get jobs and there was never any thought that you wouldn’t get a job.
That sense of high expectations that we know is really important for every kid and every learning setting – that was part of your upbringing from the beginning?
It is great that you had an inspiring teacher and it is interesting how many great educators can pick the person and really set them on their way but it is a long way from a teacher in fifthand sixth class to being principal of Menindee Central School. Tell us about your journey through high school and then university.
Mr Brown came to see mum one time when I was in Year 6 and I remember him pulling up out the front and looking out the window and thinking what is he doing here I didn’t mess around today I was good.
A house call.
Which wasn’t common back in those days and he wanted mum to send me to a school down here in Sydney somewhere, I don’t know where it was and he wanted to apply for a scholarship for me. I didn’t want to go, one of my eldest sisters, I have got six sisters and I talk about them lots, Marie said if I did come down here she would transfer with her job and come down here as well but the thought of a 12-year-old coming to Sydney I just couldn’t comprehend it. My friend was going to St. Joseph’s in Broken Hill the following year and I said can’t I just go there and he thought that would be a good compromise so I went to St. Joey’s. That was a culture shock. At Menindee, we had about 150 kids…
You knew everyone.
Yes, and at least 50% of them were Aboriginal. We went into St. Joey’s because the sister who is just older than me, Michelle, she came as well and went to St. Joey’s and there were about 250 students, 15 might have been Aboriginal and so we copped it, we copped it every single day about being Aboriginal, every derogatory name you can think of we were called.
That hadn’t been part of your experience, you hadn’t experienced racism at Menindee?
No. That was hard initially but I was able to think ‘that is their problem, they are racist that is their problem’ so I was able to ignore it.
Did you develop resilience through that experience?
As hard as it was, it was really good for me to learn because there was a lot of people who had given up things and who had supported us being in Broken Hill, like my sisters – a couple of them paid for the board because we stayed at a hostel.
You were resilient and you’ve got a great career story that comes on the back of your experiences. Could you see the negative impact of racism on your fellow students who were Aboriginal in the school? Could you see the price that they were paying for those attitudes?
Yes, definitely it was that thing for me. The worst thing about it was that I couldn’t have pride in my Aboriginal culture. It was something that I couldn’t deny but I couldn’t be proud of it because we were always put down because of that and it was worse if there was a TV show or something on the news about an Aboriginal person who had done something wrong – because we copped it even more the next day. It was as if we had done the crime.
You went on, to Broken Hill High, for your final two years of schooling. Tell us about that?
That was good, I can’t remember if it was at the end of Year 10 or at the start of Year 11 I ran into Mr Brown again at Menindee and he asked how I went in the School Certificate and when I told him he said I expect to see you in a Teachers College in a couple of years. That was something that I hadn’t thought about. It was like ‘wow’. No-one from my family had gone to college or anything and I was just like ‘whoa’. I went to Year 11 and 12 at Broken Hill High as you said but something else happened in Year 11. I remember getting this guest speaker, it was an Aboriginal person, come out to the school who spoke to us Aboriginal students and it was there that I started thinking ‘why can’t I be proud of who I am?’ I am not going to let other people dictate how I can feel, only I can say that. So that was from a time when I changed and I was very proud of my Aboriginality and so that was good. When I finished school I was like there is no way I am going to do full-time study again, I am not going to uni.
You were done.
Yes, I did that part of my life. So I applied for the Aboriginal rural education program at the Macarthur Institute and did a part-time teaching that way and did two weeks of it, almost two weeks and Lincoln Wood, he was head of the Aboriginal section there, he said why don’t you go full time and because I had that big break it was like ‘yeah this could be good’.
You are up for this.
I had a meeting with the Dean, so I went home for two weeks and then came back down to start fulltime.
Where was your first teaching post?
Easy slot first up. How did you find it?
It was really good. I kept seeing the inspector in Broken Hill: ‘have you got any jobs, have you got any jobs?’, I couldn’t get anything first and then I think he got sick of me so he rang another inspector at Dubbo and said I have got an Aboriginal person who wants to go where there are Aboriginal kids and he was like ‘do you want to go to Bourke?’ and I was like ‘why not’. And I got home and everybody at home – by the time I got home there was a telegram waiting for me, that is how old I am – people at home are going you are not going to take it are you?
I was being facetious when I said easy first start at Bourke. Bourke would be perceived as a challenging school for a teacher first up. Did you find it challenging?
No not at all, I absolutely loved it. I loved the fact that there were Aboriginal kids and I wanted to know the families. My sister had a good friend who was there and she looked after me and it was really good, I absolutely loved it, so I stayed there for five and a half years.
Tell us about your pathway from there to now running this big complex school, K through 12 school – we have got relatively few of them – at Menindee so what was your pathway to leadership?
I went from Bourke to Broken Hill and I was at Alma Bugdlie Preschool and then I was there for many years from when it first started and then went to Alma which was attached to Alma School and I got an AP position at Alma and I was there for two years and then went back to Menindee as an AP there and from there I got a DP position. I did a Stronger Smarter Course which was fantastic because I reconnected with people that I had known for a long time.
Tell us about the Stronger Smarter Course.
It was just something that happened and it was just the perfect time for me and it made me believe in myself again because I was starting to think that I couldn’t do it and this was just before I got the DP position and then I reconnected with people who believed in me as well as making me see that I could do this and it was then that I decided that I want to be the next principal at Menindee Central School. So I went back and told my boss and he was quite shocked because I was almost ready to leave the department. I was lucky enough that the principal had moved in the next six months and I had just started the DP position and six months later he’d moved so I went for the relieving Executive Principal position.
It is a fast rise really, so you weren’t spending a long time in any of those levels when you finally became principal. Firstly tell us a little bit; it is a different kind of school – a K through 12 school. Just give us a bit of a sense of what it is like running a school with that range of students in it.
It would be easier if you just had a primary or a secondary but the positives of having whole families in there, where the older ones are looking out for the younger siblings which mostly is good.
But families can be families.
For me I am primary trained so I had to learn a lot about the secondary curriculum and we are also a Wilvandee Access Program, we are the hub school for that, so I had to learn about the access program as well but on the whole, it is good because it is about the whole family group.
How many students do you have?
It is a small school but a broad school in a geographical area about 100kms away from Broken Hill. It is a Connected Communities school which is a feature that we have in NSW Education. How is a Connected Communities school different?
The most important part of a Connected Communities school is the senior leader position, because I think they are as important if not more important than the executive principal, because they are the conduit between the school and the community. It is their role to be supporting students and also the staff and I am lucky enough that our senior leader who was there from when it first started, Daniel – also happens to be my nephew – but he is just an amazing person and I wouldn’t have taken the position when the job came up I was like are you staying in the school for a bit because I am not taking it if you are not going to stay.
You moved quickly up through leadership and all of a sudden you are running the school, you know that community really well, but what are the things that when you become a principal and when you are finally sitting in that seat and you have got that responsibility, what aren’t you ready for and what aren’t you prepared for and what are the challenges that you have to learn on the job?
All the paperwork. That is the hardest thing and finding that time for all the emails.
The administrative responsibilities that come with the job?
That part is probably the part that I least enjoy.
But it is the people and working with staff. I guess I am getting good at seeing talent in people and seeing peoples’ strengths and being able to move them.
Are you a Mr Brown to students and teachers on your staff?
I would like to think I am.
One of the tough things sometimes about being a principal and particularly if you have come through the school is that they were all your peers, your friends, you see them around the community. It is not a big town, now all of a sudden you are the boss and so some of the conversations you will have to have can be tougher conversations, how has that switch been?
Ultimately I might be the boss of the school, but I am just Fiona Kelly. I have already built that relationship with so many of the parents and it is something I value that relationship, I am honest and people know that. I have lots of the parents if there is something that goes wrong if I am not there oh we will just wait until Fiona comes back, because they know that I know their kid and I want to do the best for the student but also that I am bound by rules as well and I will be quite honest with the families. When I have had to suspend somebody; I’ve got no choice but to do this now and they are like ‘I know’. There were some families – in small communities you always have the factions – but we have moved beyond that once they know you care about their kid they are going to be supportive of you. So we have had some students who with the slightest thing will ring home and say this has happened and we have got it to where mum will say ‘go and see Fiona. She will sort it out’.
We talked about high expectations earlier and I think we know as we look at the data across the state that there is an enormous amount of work that needs to be done about improving the learning outcomes of Aboriginal children and closing the gap targets indicated in a whole series of areas that outcomes for Aboriginal people still remain just far lower than we would expect or we would want and you wouldn’t want there to be any gap at all. Tell me about in a sense the challenge of imbuing this school and these families with a sense of high expectations for the learning outcomes of their students. How are you going about framing those conversations?
That started before I got into the position. When I first went back to Menindee as the AP I can remember anything we did it was like ‘as long as they have a go’. And I got so angry and said ‘this is ridiculous because whatever the just having a go or we are accepting something less these kids aren’t going anywhere, they are not achieving anything’. And I remember saying ‘I am sick to death of sitting in an audience and being shamed by Menindee students and their performance or whatever they were doing because it wasn’t up to the standard of everyone else’. I said at an exec: ‘if we do something we do it to be as good as everyone else up there, if not better’ so we started doing that with the students and started preparing them more and started raising those expectations. With our staff when they come on board, we don’t want you to lower your expectations for the kids just because they are Aboriginal or they are from a small country town, we want you to have those high expectations, but we want you to put the necessary support in so that these kids can achieve the goals that we set for them. And it’s those conversations that I have had with parents; ‘your kid can do better than this and this is what I want’ but it is also the conversations with the students as well.
Are you finding parents open and receptive to those approaches that you’re making?
Yes because there are a lot of conversations that go on before these and it is all the little incidental times that I get to talk to parents. I will take any opportunity that I can, but they know what it’s about: I did it so what is stopping anyone else from Menindee. And we have got a lot of people that have achieved great things that have gone through Menindee Central.
One of the interesting things you have done is place a real priority on attendance and you publish attendance rates in the school newsletter, which is unusual around the state. Tell us a bit about that.
With a lot of things, I like to be very transparent with the community. We wanted to show that we are doing pretty well, but also if we do see lapses then people are starting to notice it and talk about it. So I wanted it in a very simple graph, so that anyone who picked it up, they could read it and think ‘wow, we have gone down this week, I wonder why that was, a whole class or whatever it is’ and so people are starting to look at that. With the attendance we have reward excursions as well, which is reliant on attendance, classwork submitted.
You send students to the School Spectacular in Sydney and you can only get there if your attendance levels are good.
85% or more, that they have had no negative incidents in the semester before and also they have completed set tasks in class.
Your high expectations don’t just stop at the school gate, do they? You have this sense of high expectations for students to be able to progress from Menindee Central into training or further learning or into the workplace. How are you going about prioritising that ambition and that focus for your students?
It is something that we do, certainly we are getting better at doing, so there will be a focus on from Year 10 that the conversations are ‘what traineeship are you looking at? One, do you want one?’ because there are some kids who choose not to have one and then if you do want one where would you like to go. Because we have got to make sure it is in an area that they are interested in because it is something that we didn’t do well in the past so we look at that. It is about supporting the students when they do go there. Some kids are just ready to go and they are used to it but then we get other students who are a bit worried because a lot of our traineeships are in Broken Hill with a town our size there is not that opportunity for students to have traineeships apart from the health service and the National Parks. We need to support the students to be able to go into Broken Hill and that could be taking them up to get the town bus. The first time, we might take them into Broken Hill but it is also checking in on them and that is a role that Daniel our senior leader will play; seeing how they are going and this year we haven’t needed it, but in the past we have had to have the set work gear so we will get that for them.
One of the first times we met and had a conversation was when you were leading this Connecting to Country program that the AECG ran for the Department of Education Executive here in NSW and it was really interesting cultural immersion work for the most senior executives who work in the department. Tell us about your work around cultural immersion programs and why you think that is important for educators to do and to appreciate.
In our instance we are a Connected Communities school with 71% Aboriginal students it’s important that our staff know about our local history and so that they can understand where we are coming from and why we might act the way we do and it is just a great time to learn and to share. We have local people telling their stories and for some of our staff they have never spoken to an Aboriginal person before. And I guess it could even be a bit daunting because we do have a lot of Aboriginal people working at our school, but we want to make it as relaxing as possible for them, but then still giving them that knowledge and a lot of it just comes from conversations.
If you think of your experience early on in teaching and I am assuming even your experience as a student and looking at the work we are doing now with Aboriginal students and with cultural awareness we’re making some progress but we still have a way to go, do you think?
Yeah, but I am one of those people that we have always got a way to go and we can always improve what we are doing but we have certainly made a lot of progress from certainly my days at school and even when I first started out teaching. We are putting Aboriginal education out there.
You see amazing things. I remember being at high schools on the North Coast, when I was at high school the languages were French or German, and they were learning local Aboriginal language there, all the students, taught by Elders. We need to continue to grab all opportunities we can, for all our students to have a rich understanding of what has happened in Australia not just for the last 200 years but for the last 60,000 years and language is an important part of that.
Definitely and we do Barkindji for our students and it has been happening for eight or nine years and it has been good. It wasn’t well received when it first started.
Why was that?
We had non-Aboriginal people saying ‘what is the point of doing this?’ but they could see the point of doing Japanese or something like that. But also even some Aboriginal people didn’t want it. There could have been still some of those feelings from in the old days when they weren’t allowed to speak language and as a way of protecting their kids, people didn’t speak it. So I don’t know if there was still an element of that there but we don’t have those complaints now and we do teach it from Kindergarten to Year 8 and it has been running really well. In the Kindergarten and Year 1 class we do it every day in the literacy rotations, the 2/3 class just starting that and then the 4/5/6 will look at having a couple of times a week.
You are currently bilingual education in a sense, for some of these kids early on.
Yes and unfortunately for our language, we don’t have a lot of speakers left so our Aboriginal education officer has started, she is the one who is now doing it and the driving force in our school but it has just been amazing to see.
Who are the big influences on your career now? We talked about Mr Brown in Year 5 and 6; you are one of our leading educators but who do you go to for advice and guidance and who helps you as you’re wrestling through the complexities of your leadership?
My sisters, but also Michele Hall.
Michele Hall who runs Connected Communities for us and is a formidable educational leader and someone who we’ll need to get on this podcast – that is a message to you Michele, who I know is listening. A final question; Menindee has been in the news, so if a lot of people didn’t know where Menindee was on the map, they will after this summer with those fish killed on the Darling River. What has it been like with that terrible natural disaster in a sense that has been taking place on the footsteps of the town?
It was just terrible just to see the wellbeing of people who for so long that was such a big part of their life being on the river and fishing. The Barkindji people, the Barka is what they call it, they’re river people so not to have that is just horrible and it is really sad to see. In all this adversity we have seen the opposite too; we have seen people come together and we have seen other communities support us and bring water in. So while that was shocking for us not being able to wash in water or drink the water, we have seen support from other people so that has been good for us. We are a resilient mob and we will keep going.
Fiona Kelly thanks for being so resilient in your career. We want to thank great teachers who influenced you and the support that came around you but your commitment and your determination to be a great leader in our schools. Thanks for all the work you’re doing at Menindee Central School and thanks for joining us today on the Every Student podcast.
No worries. Thank you, Mark.
Thank you for listening to this episode of every student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter @NSWEducation on Facebook or email email@example.com. Thanks again and I will catch you next time.