Why is coming to school not as exciting as Disneyland?

Why is coming to school not as exciting as Disneyland?

At the start of 2022, Daniel Thomas was selected to head up Melbourne Montessori School as its new Principal, succeeding Gay Wales, who stepped down after a decade of service.

Prior to his appointment, Daniel was Head of Primary at Billanook College, an independent co-educational ELC – Year 12 College, and the inaugural Principal of St Joseph’s Primary School where he created a new state-of-art learning environment for 500 students.

Daniel says his experience as an educator has developed his belief the more laughter there is in the school, the more goodwill, the more mutual concern, the more it will be a truly human and a truly educative place.

And so, on the school’s recent Professional Learning Day, Daniel took the opportunity to build collegiality and teamwork with all staff by asking the question: “why is coming to school not as exciting as Disneyland?”.

Below, The Educator speaks to Daniel about his leadership journey, the culture he is building at Melbourne Montessori School and how principals can make their schools an engaging and inspiring place for both teachers and students.

TE: What was it like starting a school from scratch, and what the experience teach you about school leadership as you progressed into other leadership roles elsewhere?

In 2007, I was given the privilege of being the inaugural Principal of St Joseph’s Primary School. My role was to plan for a new school in a growing outer suburb of Melbourne, to think boldly, to establish an innovative curriculum and to work with the architect to create a state-of-the-art learning environment.   

The curriculum was designed to develop life-long learning and that students learnt through engagement in complex experiences in which they made relevant, purposeful connections. It is with these considerations that the school employed an Inquiry Approach to Learning and Teaching in a seamless curriculum. Each day was a journey, full of purpose, where intellectual engagement and connectedness to the real world were priorities.

Marketing, communicating and developing relationships with a new community can be both challenging and rewarding but sustaining professional relationships with all stakeholders is vital to the success and culture of a school. This opportunity to build a new school taught me to be a very visible leader who interacts with students, parents, teachers, gardeners, maintenance and administrative staff every day and each one important to be called by name.

So often in schools, I find that we do things because that is the way they have always been done and we rarely stop to think about why or if this is the most efficient way to achieve a goal. Setting up a school from the first building to enrolling the first student taught me that we are all human. It is the human element that I have found to be integral to leading any community, and it is this lens of empathy that I humbly bring to my leadership strategies. Listening for understanding rather than responding is just one way that I empower staff to be solution providers.

TE: How would you describe the learning and teaching culture you have set out to create at Melbourne Montessori School? 

I want to create a culture where staff feel supported and inspired to bring new ideas to the table. I want to foster an environment where teachers and staff can feel empowered to question the status quo; to bring their expertise to work and to engage students in purposeful, meaningful and authentic learning experiences.

Melbourne Montessori School will have a culture of collaboration and collegiality where every staff member shares the ultimate goal and vision of being there for our students. Differentiation and personalised learning are not just words or educational jargon but the way we approach learning every day. Each student has their own learning pathway and any community member walking into our school should see the engagement and feel the joy of learning.

TE: Your staff used the school’s recent Professional Learning Day to value others and build trust, as well as step outside their comfort zone. Can you share some outcomes from this experience, and what other school leaders might be able to learn from it?

The goal of our day at Luna Park was to create a sense of joy amongst the staff at Melbourne Montessori School. The experience recognised their contribution to the school and also allowed us to just have fun! As a result of our Professional Learning Day at Luna Park, there were some immediate positive outcomes. We observed staff that would not typically interact speaking to each other in the playground and greeting each other as they pass. It is my hope that in the coming weeks, we will observe more interdepartmental connections being formed and perhaps even some new committees being formed.

In the climate of COVID-19 and learning from home, it was a positive experience and reminder for us all to step away from the screen in an environment where being present and in the moment can be a powerful reminder of the things that really matter. Embrace that inner child! Try new things, be brave and have the courage to do that thing you always thought you couldn’t… because if we don’t, how can any of us ask this of our students?

TE: Looking ahead, what are the greatest opportunities you see for school leaders to bring about meaningful positive change in terms of whole-of-school wellbeing, and making learning fun and engaging for young people?

I want to make coming to school just as exciting as going to Disneyland. Richard Gerver, one of the clearest and most passionate voices for radical change both in education and in business, wonders this in his book “Creating Tomorrow’s Schools Today” (2010) about education and why we do what we do.

My intention is for all members of our community to feel like attending Melbourne Montessori School is the happiest place on earth, and I believe that this starts with our staff. If our staff don’t come to school with enthusiasm and experience job satisfaction, how can we ask our students to do the same?

Our leaders need to lead by example and role model positive behaviours, be a visible presence in the school, greet staff and students every morning. Interact with as many people as you can each day and find time to have meaningful conversations.  We must also find the joy in coming to work every day.