Fiona Collopy is the school principal we wish we all had.
A quick chat over a coconut water on our island in Timor-Leste revealed an innovative and inspired approach to education. Kids get sensory breaks, gardeners are applying for funding to create frog bogs. There’s a ‘whole child’ philosophy. I wouldn’t mind going back to school for this kind of education. Fiona is an empowering woman and it was a total joy writing this post for my Everyone Has A Story series.
Lives: Northam, Western Australia . Age: 54 Three words to describe yourself: reflective, loyal and organised (dare I say, painfully so?) . Best time of the day: sunset, that moment when the sun meets the horizon. Can’t live without: My creature comforts and a little luxury – I have to have my own pillow, good coffee and beautiful smelling creams and lotions. And of course my dogs (and my husband..) . All time fave food: cheese, nuts and figs. Ultimate way to relax: Lying in my hammock on the front veranda, listening to the sounds of the fountain, the birds and dogs barking. The travel destination or experience that rocked your soul: India opened my eyes… I loved the gentle and accepting way of the people we met, and the melting pot of cultures and religion. When we visited a Sikh temple and heard the mesmerising music I was struck with an enormous sense of good will. I was also quite overwhelmed by the beauty of the Taj Mahal in Agra. As I walked up the steps through the gateway I became quite emotional to think this serene and elegant monument was built out of love and heartbreak.
Karen: You are the Principal at Sawyers Valley Primary School, an Independent Public School. What exactly does that mean?
Fiona: It’s a privilege actually. Becoming an Independent Public School means that you have the faith and commitment from the school community to work in partnership for the betterment of the school…as well as the acknowledge from the Department of Education that you have the proven capacity to operate autonomously. Our school has a School Board and I have a very close working relationship with its members. It’s terrifically empowering, and we know that we are better able to reflect the aspirations of our school community this way.
Karen: What is the most innovative project you’ve created or been involved with at your school? The one that set your heart on fire?
Fiona: I love the culture I have been able to foster of positivity, inclusivity and growth mindset amongst my staff at my current school. Although it might have started with the introduction of some specific programs such as Positive Behaviour Support, Positive Partnerships, and Changing Health, Acting Together, the ideology behind these has gradually spread to encompass everything we do. All of our programs and approaches now dovetail into a common philosophy around the development of the whole child. Although we have articulated our shared philosophy in our school’s Business Plan, I am thrilled to say that I see evidence of this every day in the tiniest of moments – like seeing our older students helping the younger students sort out an issue in the playground, seeing our deputy kicking the footy with a student who is having a sensory break, our Green Team of students selling produce from our school gardens, chooks and worm farms at assemblies, the school gardener helping our students create a frog bog, or when our early childhood students are having a ‘discovery walk’ in the Nature Play and Jarrah Creek. I like to think it is summed up by our final statement from our Business Plan:
‘We value authenticity and integrity and endeavour to do what is honest and right for our community, others and our own selves. We see ourselves in relation to our environment and seek to preserve the principles of fairness: everyone receiving what they need, rather than all receiving the same.’
Karen: This is so progressive and inclusive. I would love to dive deeper into a couple of the ‘tiniest moments’….. how does a sensory break work?
Fiona:Children with Autism can experience sensory overload in a very busy classroom or in noisy situations. This can cause anxiety, and children can become frustrated, angry, overwhelmed or anxious and start to ‘stim’. Often children and teenagers use ‘stimming’ to calm themselves because it lets them focus on just one thing and take away some of the sensory overload. We try to teach our students how to recognise when they need to take a break, but before they learn this self-regulation, we build in lots of sensory breaks. These sometimes involve movement breaks, heavy lifting, weighted blankets, cool down cubbies or tents, or soft toys and ‘fiddlies’. Our staff have recognised that these breaks can help other children with sensory needs too, and so it has become a feature of our school environment. If we successfully manage a child’s sensory needs at school he or she is less likely to melt down at home too. We have a lot of communication with parents to build sensory profiles for our students. It’s win win.
Karen: Trading is at the heart of every community. Are “The Green Team of students selling produce” guided along the path from growers to traders?
Fiona:In a very basic way I guess…. At every assembly and school event the team sets up a stall and sells the produce from our school projects. The projects are part of our curriculum and students opt in and out of these over the year. What is sold pays for the maintenance of our projects. Often other things creep onto the stalls too from some of our parents, like homemade soaps and lotions, packets of poppy seeds, bags of macadamias. These are just added to the stall quietly and our school reaps the benefit. It’s very sweet.
Karen: Cohesive programming is clearly at the heart of the school culture. Are your programs developed by your school team?
Fiona:Absolutely! Right now we are in the process of developing our next three year business plan and last night at our School Board meeting, I took our draft plan to the board for feedback. It was a fantastic feeling to be able to sit back and have the three staff members on the board, answer the questions and explain our strategies, rather than rely on me to do the talking. I love that about our staff. They have such ownership. It is an ongoing process but we have a thorough self-assessment process and we continually look at our data and plan on what it tells us. We have invested heavily in making the time to develop our vision and then have whole school approaches with our programs – so that means that we have to develop these in teams to get ‘buy in’ from all staff. It also means that when we have success we celebrate together.
Karen: It must be very interesting for you to look back at the skills and experience you’ve developed since qualifying as a teacher. As an outsider looking in, it appears that you have a broad range of skills that go beyond the norm. Typically cleaners/gardeners would be thought of as support staff operating in isolation from the teaching program. Your model requires these people to be fully integrated into school life. And then there’s financial, compliance, program development etc.etc. Were there some significant steps you took in your career to get to this point?
Fiona:Yes.. I have had to undergo some professional learning and training in all of those things when I decided I wanted to pursue a leadership role. I won a scholarship to study my public sector management program which gave me a new insight into the machinations of government and working within our public service. Before I became a principal I worked as a curriculum manager in the district education office and had to visit many schools to provide support. You certainly learn a lot in that role and that is when I decided I wanted to be a principal. I also think it is a combination of being located in a small community, where we believe that it takes a village to raise a child, and also being able to harness people’s passions. Our school gardener is a very clever and resourceful lady, who loves creating new and interesting environments around the school. She loves kids too – and she involves them in all of her projects. She successfully applied for a grant to fund the frog bog and then worked with groups of students at recess and lunch times to build it. Sometimes, just seeing these opportunities and going for them is the key!
Karen: We all know a teacher’s day doesn’t start or finish with the bell. How many hours a week do you work? At school/at home.
Fiona: So hard to say. It varies according to what is required. I’m not an early arriver at school, as I have a long drive to get there – but I am thinking about my day as soon as I wake up and what it might bring. My day ends at school between 5 and 6pm, and then I have the drive home unless I have a board meeting. But then after it is all quiet at home, after our walk and dinner, I will often switch on the computer again and work until about 11pm. I do most of my thinking work at home, as while I am at school it is all action and interaction. I will always have to spend a day out of my weekend working to prepare for the week. It’s a commitment – but worth it!
Karen: You live in a small community. How do you handle those moments in the supermarket aisle when parents strike up a conversation about their kids progress/issues at school?
Fiona: This is a tricky one, and one with which I have struggled…Although I am still very connected to my school community I choose not to live in it. To be an effective school principal I believe there is a need to have a certain distance from some of the community issues that might arise, so these can be handled with a certain degree of emotional detachment and objectivity. There is also a level of professionalism that I think I am able to maintain by keeping my home life away from school. I need to switch off too. I know that several of my staff have these difficulties as some even have their own children at the school.
Karen: What is the best advice you’ve been given?
Fiona: To be aware of the tyranny of ‘The’. Avoid thinking that you know ‘the’ answer as otherwise it could stop you considering other solutions that might be presented to you by listening and finding out more from others.
Karen: What ignited your spark to become a teacher?
Fiona: It’s always been there. I am the oldest of five. I love kids and am fascinated by their natural curiosity and love of learning. I think being a teacher is kind of a big deal. They are always watching and learning from you.
Karen: Looking back, is there a word of advice you would give to anyone starting out as a teacher?
Fiona: Congratulations! What a noble professional you have chosen. Remember to ask for help from your colleagues. None expects you to know how to do it all straight away. Begin by developing routines and relationships with your students.
Karen: Your holidays are well earned. Do you have a dream travel destination lined up in the future?
Fiona: We are off to Europe in September. We start in Athens, then spend some time in Santorini. Then to Rome, Paris, Normandy and Tuscany. I haven’t been to Europe before, but I am talking my walking poles, and are getting busy getting my capsule wardrobe ready!
Karen: This has been a fascinating story. I think there’s room in the world for an adult version of your school! As you know from our time together in Timor-Leste I love to finish up with my favourite question…. ‘what was your Best Moment of the day today?’
Fiona: I love doing this now – I have a bit of trouble deciding though – as now I look for my BMs each day, I see so many.
My best moment today was standing outside the school on duty saying goodbye to the kids as they left for home. It had been a terribly muggy day and I was dripping with sweat. Then a few drops of rain fell, and then down came a deluge and the most magnificent thunderstorm. I love being caught in the rain!
Sawyers Valley Independent school is the only WA institution awarded an ‘Courageous and Inspired Community’ award from NAPCAN. To find out more about the good work Fiona and her team do hit the Sawyers Valley Primary School website.