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Name: Donna Wright
Title: Principal - School Principal
Organisation: Bandiana Primary School
Donna Wright was awarded the Australian Principal of the Year Award - Government and Independent Schools (2020) and Australian Primary School Principal of the Year - Government (2020). Her school was a national finalist for Australian Government Primary School of the Year (2021) and a state finalist for the Outstanding Provision for High Ability Students in the Victorian Excellence Awards (2020 & 2021). Donna holds a Bachelor of Education, Graduate Diploma of Student Welfare, Master of Educational Leadership and Bachelor of Laws. Donna is passionate about inclusive education, has high expectations of all students and celebrates excellence. She is a passionate educator and champions success in education.
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?
Maintaining enthusiasm and a love for work is a challenge many leaders face. My response has been to set achievable but high expectations, celebrate success on the journey and read the world with an optimistic outlook.
To maintain my passion for the role, I see first-hand the difference good teaching and learning makes, which is rewarding. Within my context, I can move the education agenda to hone in on developing and refining the art of teaching to create environments that value inclusivity and challenge education practices to gain the best outcomes.
I can empower teachers to be creative, to pursue their passions and create an environment that engenders trust and teacher empowerment, ultimately improving a child's day and optimising future success. My challenge is ensuring I can separate myself from my work.
Education is based on developing strong personal relationships; separating the personal and professional takes some serious time and experience. A good leader must have a balanced life – health, fitness, a good family or friends, and for most leaders, a keen eye on the clock to ensure they go home at the end of the day.
2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
Becoming an educational leader requires sound education, experience, skill and luck. I was extremely fortunate that on my journey, school principals recognised me as a diligent teacher who worked hard for the students and my schools.
I was brave enough to take on new initiatives and took opportunities to develop my skills. I continued to study and grow my knowledge. When I was proficient, I looked at ways to improve my deficits to ensure I could meet the needs of the diverse student body.
Most importantly, I felt valued, enjoyed teaching, and had fun. I was trusted in my early career and became an early Leading Teacher in the 1990s in secondary education (Physical Education and English) before my move to being a Department Education Consultant (Middle Years) and a primary Principal early in the 2000s.
My career was diverse as I moved schools for my career and family, nine schools inclusive of some short-term contracts during my pregnancies, and my three children were educated in seven more schools, giving greater insight into what education can look like across sectors. This teaching diversity added spice to my skill set.
I have worked for fifteen years as a principal in two states in independent and government systems. I have continued to study, completing a Master of Education and, most recently, a Bachelor of Law. The key to my success in education has been to work on the notion of 'ever my best', the school motto.
Today I look for an opportunity to grow and develop the education system and reflect on keeping our focus on creating opportunities for students that teach them solid foundational skills and on aiming high.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
On most days, I want to sleep in, but I go to Pilates or exercise in the morning over at least three workdays (7:00 – 7:45 am). I skip breakfast and buy lunch and coffee on the way; I'm on time but not early! Work begins at 8:30 am. Part 1 (8:30 am – 9:30 am) I meet and greet as many staff as possible and give the students warm hellos and good mornings before class. Part 2 (9:30 – 11:00 am) I promptly move to my office for email retrieval and action. I do everything I can immediately to clear my day of simple and mundane tasks, including payroll approval, HR functions and administrative work.
I am a slave to my calendar to ensure I have diarised everything necessary! I am the walking, talking school memory bank for past and future school activities. As a principal, I orchestrate the education activity and ensure all the moving parts are harmonious. The orchestra plays the same tune and is aligned with the school's vision and values. Part 3 (11:00 – 12:30 pm) I take on a more substantive task in the function of the school.
My management roles have been delegated, and my priority is staffing, environment, and overseeing my part-time assistants, Assistant Principal student well-being and Learning Specialist teaching and learning. The big job of the day is generally set in the middle block, and it may vary from ensuring the current building project is underway to compliance and safety being managed.
There is never a dull moment in addressing the practical elements of the environment. Alternatively, I may be working on ensuring our staffing planning is working well, including recruitment, and we are proofing our staffing plans with positive staff development. Part 4 (1:00 – 2:30 pm) Generally, this is time to complete report writing, newsletters, correspondence, school council reports, work on strategic or annual implementation plans, work with data analysis, discuss system changes and implementation of new strategic approaches to school improvement.
Part 5 (2:30 – 5:30 pm) I am out of the office to mix across the school attending to school issues; this may be with students, staff, families or groups preparing or attending meetings. I will try to be out of the school by 5:30 pm. Organisation and time management are critical to staying vibrant and tuned in and flexible.
Everything is thrown out of kilter when we are engaged in whole school events! I never miss events that included being the high jump coach at the athletics, Easter hat parade, the school fete, colour run, cultural days, and eisteddfods, but naming a few occasions where I, too, am part of the fun of education. What I love is no day is the same.
4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?
Trust Your People. Do not do to them - do with them.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
I have taken to reading books rated as good literature that explore complex themes that can be ambiguous, philosophical, and critical. I have just finished the book 'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt.
This book is about crossing moral boundaries and recounts a terrible price paid for mistakes made on the dark journey to adulthood. The other book I'm currently reading is 'The Prince' by Niccolò Machiavelli, a book about the dynamics of power.
These novels invite leaders to engage in conversations about life. My reading, whether for pleasure or purpose, changes the lens through which I see the world. In my mind, diversity in education is not about a single-minded path and following one strategy to success but about building on knowledge across a range of forums to expand your breadth of understanding about how the world works.
6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?
Keep your intent honourable to the child and family of whom you are given the privilege to educate and follow the rules expected in your profession. Stay true to your values and ensure you can go home at the end of the week proud of your achievements.
Align yourself with an organisation to which you can contribute positively and look for new opportunities to expand your knowledge. Understand that if teaching were easy, everyone would do it for the holidays! Smile as you walk through life.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?
I taught tennis mid-summer, in my first year of teaching and graduating year of university. The courts were located near a local creek, and no matter what I did when those boys asked permission to go to the toilet, they would always come back to class drenched.
How does a first-year teacher manage this? Deny the students the toilets? Stop the supervision of the majority to catch this minority slipping in the shallow slow-moving water? Sit the boys down and discuss trust and respect? Keep them all in? Cancel tennis? The answer is complex for the inexperienced.
The lesson for my leadership is to remember that all teachers begin their journey with some skill but generally need to gain the art of manoeuvring through the unique situational complexities of teaching on the spot. As a leader, remember that no beginner is perfect and we all need time and support to learn our craft.