Life experience has shown a school leader that students will rise to the occasion when a teacher expects the best of them.
Fiona Kelly’s journey from student to executive principal at Menindee Central School has instilled in her the power of high expectations.
It was the expectations of her mother and her Year 5 teacher at Menindee Central School, Graham Brown, that pushed the young Fiona on to high school in Broken Hill and then to teacher’s college.
The eighth of 10 children, Mrs Kelly’s father died when she was young leaving her mother, Marie Halls, to work three jobs to support the family. In return the Kelly children were expected to go to school and “do the right thing”.
“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,” Mrs Kelly recalled.
The idea she might become a teacher was first nurtured by teacher Mr Brown, who followed her academic career after she left Menindee Central School to complete her schooling in Broken Hill.
“He was the catalyst for me becoming a teacher,” Mrs Kelly told Department of Education Secretary Mark Scott in the latest episode of the Every Student Podcast.
“He was really firm but fair as well and he was the one who pushed me to achieve beyond my expectations.”
From her first posting as a teacher at Bourke Public School, Mrs Kelly knew she wanted to teach Aboriginal students. It was partly a reflection of the lack of understanding from teachers that she experienced as an Aboriginal student of Barkindji and Ngiyampaa heritage.
“I loved the fact there were Aboriginal kids and I wanted to know the families. I absolutely loved [teaching at Bourke] so I stayed there for five and a half years,” she said.
In 2010 Mrs Kelly’s educational journey came full circle when she returned to Menindee Central School as an assistant principal, becoming executive principal in the final term of 2016.
From the moment she arrived at her alma mater, Mrs Kelly was ready to take up the fight for her students.
“When I first went back to Menindee as the assistant principal I can remember anything we did it was like, ‘As long as they have a go’ and I got so angry,” Mrs Kelly said.
“I said at an exec meeting, ‘If we do something we do it to be as good as everyone else, 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 tell them, ‘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’.”
As part of growing the culture of expectations, Mrs Kelly publishes school attendance rates and students with an attendance rate above 85% are rewarded with a school excursion to the Schools Spectacular in Sydney.
She also ensures her students have clear pathways to work post-school and has instituted a system of traineeships for Year 10 students to widen their career options.
Underpinning all this work is a strong cultural program at Menindee Central School that Mrs Kelly said was vital to connecting students and the community to the local culture.
“For some of our staff they have never spoken to an Aboriginal person before,” Mrs Kelly said.
“We have 71% Aboriginal students so it is important our staff know about our local history and so that they can understand where we are coming from.”
Listen to the full podcast:
Read the transcript of Every Student Podcast: Fiona Kelly.