Every Student Podcast: John Goh
How did the child of Chinese migrants become one of the state’s most well-known school leaders? John Goh from Merrylands East chats with Mark Scott.
How did the child of Chinese migrants become one of the state’s most well-known school leaders? John Goh from Merrylands East chats with Mark Scott.
Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today I am in conversation with John Goh, he is the principal at Merrylands East Public School in Sydney's west with an enrolment of 370 students; 90% are from a non-English speaking background and 10% are from a refugee background. I have often commented that John is one of NSW's most famous principals. We will come to that in a minute; how everyone has come to know John Goh.
John, how did you come to be principal at Merrylands East what is your education story?
I went to a public school when I was a child, I went to a place called Hornsby Public School. I had an interesting time there I struggled to learn English because my parents came from a non-English speaking background. My father was a refugee, he came out here in World War II as a refugee, he was interned in a camp in Bulimba and my mother came out here via the Cultural Revolution from China. They both instilled values for me about social justice, working hard and what was really important. I used to see my father, in fact, he was a chef so I used to see my father pretty much only on the weekends because he used to leave home at 8 o'clock in the morning and come home at 10 or 11 o'clock but he had a good work ethic and something that I think has rubbed off on myself.
Tell us about your school experience, a challenge learning English, were you successful at school? Did you enjoy school and did you think that one day you might be a teacher?
I really enjoyed parts of school and I remember there was a struggle early on without English and I was quite good at Cuisenaire rods but when it came to thinks like let's make better English I really struggled. It wasn't until later on in my primary school where my English skills increased and I really started to enjoy learning and really finding out there is so much to learn and enjoy things like reading books. I then went to a school called Normanhurst Boys and Normanhurst Boys wasn't selective at the time, it was just a comprehensive boys school and I enjoyed the five R's there which was reading, writing, arithmetic and running rugby, absolutely loved running rugby but as I went through that school by about Year 11 and 12 again I struggled a bit more so with some teachers and in fact I walked out of one of my subjects and didn't go back and learnt in the library and spent the whole year in the library learning one of my subjects but at the same time I had a fantastic maths teacher who loved rugby, loved cricket and instilled different values for me about sport and teamwork and the joy of learning so I took some lessons away from that and that I can learn if I have the right motivation.
Was there parental expectation about the kind of career that you would do and how did they feel about your desire to return to the classroom?
Being from a Chinese background family the old stereotype cropped up and that is that are you going into medicine, computing, dentistry, what are you going to do and I thought to myself well at times I thought I would like to be a greenkeeper on a golf course and play golf and mow the lawns in the morning and then play golf for the rest of the day and then I thought maybe a police officer because they are highly respected but I never made the height regulations in those days. We landed on this consensus of I will go into teaching.
Where was your first teaching job?
My first teaching job was at Newtown, it was at the time when I went looking for casual work in my local area and couldn't find any so I went to inner city and I landed at Newtown Public School and it was at the time where right next door they were refurbishing for the Performing Arts High School so I would be out in the playground doing playground duty and the dust from the building site would blow over but at the same time I really enjoyed that and then I started learning a lot more about children and social equity and disadvantage and then I quickly moved to Stanmore and then I wasn't at Stanmore for very long before I landed at Lakemba which was 90% plus Arabic speaking background.
Did you aspire from early in your career to be a leader of schools and to be a school principal and did you always have the leadership thing on you?
I don't think I ever aspired to be a principal what I aspired to be was as good as a teacher as I could be giving children as many opportunities. I always had a love of curriculum so one of my earlier experiences at Lakemba was sitting in a staffroom in the late 80s and in the afternoon I would be sitting there having a cup of coffee and finding that there was no-one around me as many of the teachers were going off doing post-graduate studies in computers or leadership or PE or something else and I thought I am missing the boat here everyone is out doing post-graduate studies except for me so I actually enrolled into a graduate diploma of TESOL and then I kept on going eventually doing a Bachelor of Ed and a couple of Masters because I found so much joy in curriculum and learning about curriculum and how we can impact on children's lives.
How did you get to be principal of Merrylands East?
I started looking in the mid-90s and I ended up at Met North in those days as the senior education officer in ESL in those days and then I discovered what the department was about and how there is so many different types of leaders in the department and so soon after I finished up there after two years I went out to Glendenning and I opened a brand new school with a fantastic principal named Tony Gorman and I moved from there about five or six years later over to Hebersham and I worked with another fantastic principal named Sue Connell and again all in disadvantaged school communities with high complexity and I learnt so much from there and I thought eventually I will lead a school.
That opportunity opened up at Merrylands East tell me about your first weeks there as leader.
The first week at Merrylands East, in fact, the first six months, I remember jumping the fence during the school holidays because it was in that Easter break where the last week of Term 1 I found out that I had been appointed at Merrylands East during the school holidays I jumped the fence it wasn't a security fence there, walked around the grounds and I thought where is my office, where is this, I am used to big football fields and suddenly I don't have the grounds, I wonder where I have landed myself in.
In the first six months, I walked around the school and one of my deputies will talk about the story I used to walk around with my arms folded and I would be synthesising what was going on and all I did was make mental notes about what I was seeing, what we needed to do, how we can move the school forward and it was quite an interesting time because the previous principal had taken the school up to a certain point and did a tremendous job in bringing that school up to a certain point but at the time if you remember we had no Gonski funding, funding in the department was very limited so I could understand where the school was up to in terms of school resourcing and the school wasn't on the disadvantaged schools program so it was very limited. I tried to spend a lot of time in the first six months doing things about the school grounds and learning as much as I can about the community.
How did you work out where to start? If you are walking around with your arms folded and making mental lists of everything you want to do, how did you know as a leader where to begin and where to have an impact first?
The first thing that I did was to organise a meeting with the P&C. And I remember the P&C came and we sat there and the P&C said to me we have got two types of fundraising John, your fundraising and our fundraising and that is it. I said hang on what about doing fundraising together we can do some projects together and what are some of the things that you want to happen and it was interesting the very first thing that they talked about was a room for themselves, where they can meet and they can plan and they can do things together and we found this old storage room underneath one of our buildings and it was stored up with old furniture and things like that so very early on it was about building. Looking at how we can improve the school grounds so I spent a lot of time building things. I took out all the old furniture out of this storeroom and I took my chainsaw that I borrowed from the SES because I was working with the SES and cut it all up and put it in the skip bin and then once I emptied all that then we started painting this room and building a community room. During that time I was able to spend a lot of time talking to the parents about their aspirations and what they like and didn't like about the school and talked about the grounds so we spent a lot of time working the grounds. I remember I painted the demountable classrooms on the outside based on my shirt colours like bright pink and teal and purple.
As part of that philosophy that partnership with the parents you understood that it was going to be very important to your success at the school?
The very first credibility I felt was that I was able to deliver to the parents a community room and up until that point we talked about it - it hadn't happened.
There would be many schools that don't have a community room why did you think a community room was important?
It wasn't so much about the community room it was the credibility of the fact that we are going to build this and this is what the parents wanted. It could have been anything it was more about the fact that the parents now saw someone that is out there - practical, with the chainsaw, working with the parents and throwing out old refuse, building something, doing up the grounds. And they saw that I would really like to be there and to make a real high impact about the school grounds and the way the environment looked and then start talking about the environment inside the classroom after making a whole lot of mental notes of what was going on.
One of the things that you did and you generated a bit of attention at the time was change the school starting time and the operational hours of the school, so how does it work there now and how did that change come about?
We started in 2011 and in 2011 some of the parents said to me we have got this real problem our children go home from school and they have to go to sport training and by the time they get home they are really fatigued about doing homework and we end up with fights about homework at home and our children are really fatigued. Part of walking around the school I noticed that a lot of the incidents that we had stem from children being fatigued at lunchtime and it seemed like I was doing a lot of student welfare management and we were going around this vicious cycle so some of the parents said can we change the times? I thought "that is not a bad idea, but five minutes or ten minutes wouldn't make a difference," so in 2011/2012 on New Year's Eve I cheekily put a tweet up - as many people know I use Twitter - and I said "let's have a real crack at school hours and I want to change the school hours" and this happened on midnight straight after the fireworks while I was on the train home from Circular Quay but we had already had that conversation so 2012 was really formalising those consultations and then we had a survey and 72% of the parents wanted to change the school hours so then we made that decision.
You copped a bit of criticism, didn't you?
I certainly did. I remember talking to people in the department about it and someone said to me back in those days you can't set a precedent in the department, where is my research evidence? How is this going to work? I thought to myself, where is your research evidence at 1828 when public education started that 9 o'clock was the opportune time? We managed on and I kept my director in the loop at that time, I think I gave him a heart attack and my director at the time was the Deputy Secretary, Murat Dizdar, and at that time I said: "let's see what eventuates". And then the media picked up on it and we ended up on the front page of one of the major papers and talkback radio and people were sending me messages like people are talking about you.
Did you second guess your judgement?
Yes we kind of thought to myself we might be able to roll this and we may be able to move this on but one of the lovely things about it is we kind of knew that it was about our context, we knew our community, we also knew that some of our children were in the streets in the morning buying bread and a lot of our children came from Middle Eastern/Asian/European background where historically school started early.
What time now does it start?
We start now at 8 o'clock and we finish at 1:15.
I have been there at your school in the morning and you just get a sense of families arriving, don't you? They all seem to arrive en-mass a lot of the kids walk to the school with their parents.
I was a bit worried on the very first day we started because it was about 7:30am and I didn't see any children in the playground, 7:40am didn't see any children on the playground and then suddenly they all walked in the gate about five to eight and I thought yes we are right on now.
You are half a decade on how do you view the experiment now?
Many of our teachers won't look back because we have got a lot more time to program, plan, to meet up at 1:15pm because many of our children go home for lunch now and we have reclaimed a bit of wellbeing time back for our teachers, at the same time we are not dealing or spending all our time dealing with playground issues.
Did many other schools follow this example?
Not that I am aware of but I did help Moree East Public School change their times to eight o'clock but if I remember right they have shifted it back to 8:30am because again it is all about their local context not about my context.
If we also go to Merrylands East what are we going to see there that is different to other schools? No bells and no timetable?
We took out the bells because we didn't want our parents to be stressed, I learnt that from an independent school that it could happen but at the same time we have been changing our learning spaces for quite a long while. Back in 2012 we were working with a tech company and a tech company invited us to a whole lot of other industries and as we walked around industries we saw there was a big mismatch about how we were running our school and what our school looked like compared to how people were going to work in the present but also in the future and it was none of this set furniture, everyone was walking around collaborating and there was no bells to regulate their work hours and people were working in teams, they were working collaboratively, problem-solving and we looked at what we were doing and there was a massive mismatch so we had to change our learning spaces and start knocking down walls and opening up spaces and working in terms of team teaching, trying to picture what that would look like and also trying to start personalising a bit of the learning as it is not one size fits all.
How do you judge now the success of that initiative? How do you know that those experiments to modernise the school learning environment, to have a more individual approach is reaping benefits in terms of the learning outcomes of the children in your care?
Very early on in the first year, we changed the school hours we conducted research with Dr Linda Graham who was at Macquarie University at the time and then moved to Queensland. She conducted a study talking to students and parents and found that our engagement was a lot high especially boys in Year 5 and 6. In fact, she did a survey and found that 60% of our students, of the surveyed students, indicate that they came to school because of the learning programs not because of socialisation. In fact, 10% of our students said they came to school because of the principal and teachers and I was really embarrassed and then someone pointed out: "that is teacher and principal - your effect size might be zero." But it was the learning that really captured the students. It was also the fact of letting students follow their passion and we could start seeing that students with non-English speaking background had a lot more skills than we had known. They may not have the English skills but they were able to design websites or make videos or code up - it was all about access to technology and skills. Then over the years, we have framed a learning framework around some of their strengths.
A strong project-based learning commitment at the school?
More so in the upper primary because we have never lost focus on the literacy and numeracy but the project and big projects linking up with industry, partnering up with industry has been really important to us because we take our children out to industry and they see what the workplace is like and then they have a real understanding of why we are doing the things that we are doing.
One of the new things that the new Gonski report talks about is an increased involvement of industry and business in schools and I think when most people read that they would think that is to do with high schools, vocational ed, school to work transition. You are taking primary school students to places like Atlassian. What do you see as a consequence of that engagement, really for ten-year-olds and eleven-year-olds, at your school?
What we do is we frame up a learning program for our children because it is easy to take children to the Museum of Contemporary Arts or Atlassian or somewhere else, so what we encourage our students to do is we put out job ads and our children have to apply and write their CV and we have to teach them the writing skills through that and then we know that they are going to get an interview so we train the children in interview techniques, so we are doing a lot of learning but we are not formalising that 'this is English'. It is all consumed into project-based learning and when the children end up at these organisations they see how people work and they see that this place isn't out of access to them and this is a place that they could be in the future, this is not a foreign place to them. Many of our children have never been to the Museum of Contemporary Art and their parents as well they see the Museum of Contemporary Art for example as that is a place for other people but not for us. So now they start accessing these places and they discover all the learnings that could take place but also they learn a lot about the visual arts or coding or technology while they are there.
One of the interesting things looking at you John it strikes me that you are one of those principals who gets out there and does things, probably more inclined to ask for forgiveness not permission from the system, you are strong-minded on the school you want to run and the things that you want to do and you are not going to leave many questions unasked by that. Do you feel constrained by the system and what else would you like to be able to do that perhaps being part of the biggest education system in the country doesn't allow you to do?
I have always believed that sometimes we have policies and procedures and guidelines for 2,000 schools and it just doesn't fit. I go out to country schools and I have been out to some country schools, for example, and I see the things they have to do for Work Health and Safety and I am thinking there are two teachers in that school but they have to do exactly the same as I have in my school and exactly the same as a big school and yet they have only two staff members who are on playground duty every day. In my mind, it is all about contextualisation of individual schools. I have a belief that all our schools are great. I go out and see wonderful programs where I often believe that I can't wait until the department catches up. 2007 and 2008 we put solar panels in our school we didn't have guidelines there but we went ahead and did it and now it is standardised technology. But we did our research with industry and we knew what was going on. We've been always on the forefront of going out to industry and seeing what is happening and sometimes we are playing catch up all the time and I can't wait. However, what I do say is that really fantastic that more recently I am finding that the environment in our department is like 'let's have a real go at this' and it is not a 'no', it is like 'how can we do this?' Each school has their own context and that's one of the things I am finding really different.
The other thing that I think is really important is when I have got projects I often find now that I look back it is like I wish I could have grabbed the media unit and say "help me, I am changing the school time", grab industrial relations "help me I am changing this". Grab all these people whenever I am doing a project and grabbing people it is the whole concept there are people there to support me or the people that are working in schools and that is what I see in industry - I see that people break out into teams and do projects and they might be working for a whole lot of projects and then they disperse and go and do other projects and I often found myself thinking I wish the department would do that so if I want to knock down a wall can I grab someone from assets to come and help me do this and make it happen and not to tell me the policy guidelines but to say what the potential of all this could be. That is where I think I would like to see the department head in terms of the future but the other thing is sharing the stories.
I go out and see some of the best things that are happening out in the schools but sometimes those stories are never ever told. The school that brings the children into school after so much tragedy or disadvantage and suddenly they are attending school. The third thing, it is a project I like to work on and that is I often wonder why we have 200 free school days. It is like the old notion that only learning occurs at school. We're having flexible work where people can work at home and a lot of industry are doing that. I wonder to myself does that mean learning only occurs at school? We know that is not quite true. We have Year 12 children right now in high schools and many teachers giving up their time and we should be crediting all that. Sometimes I find that we don't credit that type of learning outside of school and we have to break open that model because many children who go overseas are learning just as much as if they are in school if not more, so sometimes we negate the learning that occurs outside of school and we don't reward it.
One of the reasons that you are such a well-known principal, as you alluded to, is you are big on social media. In a sense, I sometimes think you're education's example of the Truman Show, you have got your life out there online in some respects. Why have you found it useful to be very active on Twitter the way you are?
I think social media brings people together. You can find out things that are happening all around and as teachers and educators are sharing on social media and outside organisations are sharing, universities are sharing what they are doing, you learn a lot and you learn what is happening in the rural community schools. One of the lovely things about the 'Team Scott' and the Premier's Sporting Challenge was finding out what was happening in the Broken Hill area as the director was posting as he was walking around and showing a bit about Broken Hill or find out what is happening in our small rural remote schools or you see a big school but it is not just our own department schools, you are starting to see what is happening in a global world. When you start seeing what is happening in a global you put things in perspective you don't realise how great our system is in NSW and the sorts of things that are happening in NSW and at the same time, you can learn a lot from what is happening.
John, one of the interesting things about you knowing you is that you are keen to get good ideas from anywhere and I know that you engage with school systems around the world but you also here in NSW you will engage with Independent school principals, Catholic school principals, what is your rationale and your engagement with other schools and other systems?
I think there are two types of issues here one is the funding debate and I will get involved in the funding debate but take the funding debate away for a minute - one of the things is looking at education systems whether it is independent, Catholic or all around the world and seeing what we can learn from them and what principles we can discover so, for example, I go into the independent schools, I have refereed rugby there, I have seen some of the resources but deep under I am more interested in how they are engaging their students so I can see different things to do with STEM or I can see the way they operate their sporting programs. I am really interested about what they are learning and what is underpinning that learning not so much about the glitz of the funding and everything else. I will have that debate in my own personal way on Twitter or wherever, but it is really about working together and learning from each other, and I see that quite a fair bit. In fact, it was happening a lot or started to happen with things like TeachMeet where we all get together from independent, Catholic schools and we share practices with each other and I think that is the way we can harness up the energy of education but also take back the agenda from governments.
A final question; there is research that is widespread that the demands on a principal are very, very significant and that longitudinal study on work intensity says that principals suffer from long hours, it is an exhausting demanding remorseless job in some respects. As I follow you on Twitter, I follow your interest as a rugby referee, for a long time you are a member of the State Emergency Service how important are things outside school to keeping you fresh and on top of your game at school?
Doing things outside of school actually enriches what you do inside the school. For example, when the tree audit came out it wasn't a hard thing for me to do, cut down a lot of trees, or when we are talking about instructional leadership I am spending a lot of time coaching referees right now, we videotape referees, we analyse their game, we ask them questions so you are bringing outside experience into schools and I think one of the things to look at, in terms of how I feel as a principal, is knowing when to switch off and switch on, knowing what is important, what to outsource but at the same time realising what the most important things that take place in the school. My worst day at school, if I have really stressful day, changes when I walk down to Kindergarten or Year 1 and listen to a child read or see a piece of their writing and just talk to them a bit about their writing. My whole outlook changes because it gives me more perspective about what is really important. I might miss all these deadlines, but this is the most important thing for me, right here and now. It is about what is in front of me, not what is happening in the school, or down the road, or anything else. We have always taken a notion of really focusing on what's in front of me. As a rugby referee that is what we are trained to do, we referee the game in front of you, not the test match, the thirty players in front of you and the same message I often think of is we should be focusing on the children what is best for the children in front of us. Sometimes that becomes really difficult in terms of time management, but for me, it is really about thinking 'what is really important that I need to do'. There are some things that, yes, we have to do but I will put some of those things in the back burner because they are less important. Sometimes that is regretful because I will get the phone call from someone saying "hey John, you haven't done this" or whatever sort of scenario but at the same time, I think that is where the perspective comes in. I have never lost sleep over the fact of missing a deadline or not handing something in on time - I am not encouraging that by the way because I think time management is really important, but what I am saying is that if there was a competition, a choice between two, the children always come first.
Those sins of late deadlines and missed forms, the department absolves you for those sins John, but we want to thank you for your effort and your commitment and your passion on behalf of the students of Merrylands East and all you're teaching the rest of us in education. Thanks for being with us today.
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.
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