Comms yt player
  • Leading in different contexts
  • Aspiring to lead
  • Recognising potential
  • Learning from a mentor, coach or role model
  • Targeting leadership learning
  • Learning on the job
  • Developing a leadership pipeline
96% of school principals in Australia say they would choose the job again if given the chance. Yet fewer than 10% intended to be a principal when they started teaching. Once you’re on the path to leadership you never know where you’ll end up.

Respected journalist and TV presenter Jenny Brockie leads the National Conversation and explores how a diverse group of school principals – from Melbourne to Milikapati – got to where they are.

Following the findings in the report Preparing Future Leaders: Effective Preparation for Aspiring School Principals, AITSL’s focus on principal preparation is about ensuring tomorrow’s leaders get the opportunities today to develop the skills necessary for the principal job

Learn more from these principals

  • Caroline FishpoolCaroline Fishpool

    Wirreanda Secondary School, SA

  • Esther DjayhgurrngaEsther Djayhgurrnga and Sue Trimble

    Gunbalanya School, NT

  • Geoff MillerGeoff Miller

    East Hamilton Hill Primary School, WA

  • Iris NastasiIris Nastasi

    Clancy Catholic College, West Hoxton, NSW

  • Jennie LindsayJennie Lindsay

    Assistant Regional Director State-wide Special Schools, DET QLD

  • Jonathan WalterJonathan Walter

    Woodleigh School, Langwarrin South, VIC

  • Karen MoneyKaren Money

    Melbourne Girls' College, Richmond, VIC

  • Kathryn LeoKathryn Leo

    Milikapiti School, Melville Island, Tiwi Islands, NT

  • Michael Briggs-MillerMichael Briggs-Miller

    Warracknabeal Secondary College, VIC

  • Michael PortaroMichael Portaro

    Elsternwick Primary School, VIC

  • Monique CarterMonique Carter

    Lansdowne Crescent Primary School, TAS

  • Ngaire BenfellNgaire Benfell

    Penola High School, South Australia

  • Paul BrowningPaul Browning

    St Paul’s Anglican School, Brisbane, QLD

  • Peter MulcahyPeter Mulcahy

    Greenwood Primary School, Greenwood, WA

  • Pitsa BinnionPitsa Binnion

    McKinnon Secondary College, McKinnon, VIC

  • Shayne PlayerShayne Player

    Tuggerah Lakes Secondary College, Tumbi Umbi, NSW

  • Simon VaughanSimon Vaughan

    Melrose High School, Pearce, ACT

  • Stephen HarrisStephen Harris

    Northern Beaches Christian School, Terrey Hills, NSW

Name
Caroline Fishpool
Current school
Wirreanda Secondary School, SA
Location
Major city
School type
Secondary
System
Government
Years as a principal
2 years
Name
Esther Djayhgurrnga and Sue Trimble
Current school
Gunbalanya School, NT
Location
Very remote
School type
0-12
System
Government
Years as a principal
Esther 16 years, Sue 6 years
Name
Geoff Miller
Current school
East Hamilton Hill Primary School, WA
Location
Major city
School type
Primary
System
Government
Years as a principal
13 years
Name
Iris Nastasi
Current school
Clancy Catholic College, West Hoxton, NSW
Location
Major city
School type
Secondary
System
Catholic
Years as a principal
5 years
Name
Jennie Lindsay
Current school
Assistant Regional Director Special Schools, DET QLD
Location
State-wide
School type
Special
System
Government
Years as a principal
10 years
Name
Jonathan Walter
Current school
Woodleigh School, Langwarrin South, VIC
Location
Major city
School type
K-12
System
Independent
Years as a principal
7 years
Name
Karen Money
Current school
Melbourne Girls' College, Richmond, VIC
Location
Major city
School type
Secondary
System
Government
Years as a principal
6 years
Name
Kathryn Leo
Current school
Milikapiti School, Melville Island, Tiwi Islands, NT
Location
Very remote
School type
Primary
System
Government
Years as a principal
4 years
Name
Michael Briggs-Miller
Current school
Warracknabeal Secondary College, VIC
Location
Outer regional
School type
Secondary
System
Government
Years as a principal
2 years
Name
Michael Portaro
Current school
Elsternwick Primary School, Victoria
Location
Major city
School type
Primary
System
Government
Years as a principal
1 year
Name
Monique Carter
Current school
Lansdowne Crescent Primary School, TAS
Location
Major city
School type
Primary
System
Government
Years as a principal
8 years
Name
Ngaire Benfell
Current school
Penola High School, South Australia
Location
Outer regional
School type
Secondary
System
Government
Years as a principal
5 years
Name
Paul Browning
Current school
St Paul’s Anglican School, Brisbane, QLD
Location
Major city
School type
Pre-12
System
Independent
Years as a principal
19 years
Name
Peter Mulcahy
Current school
Greenwood Primary School, Greenwood, Western Australia
Location
Major city
School type
Primary
System
Government
Years as a principal
12 years
Name
Pitsa Binnion
Current school
McKinnon Secondary College, McKinnon, Victoria
Location
Major city
School type
Secondary
System
Government
Years as a principal
6 years
Name
Shayne Player
Current school
Tuggerah Lakes Secondary College, Tumbi Umbi, NSW
Location
Inner regional
School type
Middle School
System
Government
Years as a principal
12 years
Name
Simon Vaughan
Current school
Melrose High School, Pearce, ACT
Location
Major city
School type
Secondary 7-10
System
Government
Years as a principal
3 years
Name
Stephen Harris
Current school
Northern Beaches Christian School, Terrey Hills, NSW
Location
Major city
School type
K-12
System
Independent
Years as a principal
19 years

Caroline is new to the principalship – this is her second year as principal of Wirreanda Secondary School – but she is not new to leadership. As an assistant and deputy principal, Caroline benefited from working with different principals with some now being mentors to her, encouraging her to take on unfamiliar challenges and further build her skill set.

Caroline set herself the personal target to be a principal from early in her career as an aspiring leader embracing challenges early on. She mapped herself against the Australian Professional Standard for Principals, and identified opportunities that could help develop the additional management and leadership skills she needed to be a principal.

Esther Djayhgurrnga and Sue Trimble are co-principals of Gunbalanya School. Esther left the community of 1,600 in Gunbalanya to attend secondary school and then university in Darwin and has returned as one of the very early Indigenous principals in the Northern Territory. She credits her relatives and elders in the community for their support to overcome obstacles and cope with the pressure on her pathway to being a principal.

It is also Sue’s first time as a principal. She has had significant leadership roles outside of schools, including leading a literacy and numeracy team supporting teachers new to the Northern Territory, and six years in head office working with Indigenous principals. Sue learned most from the encouraging principal of a Darwin school who passed on a wealth of the local knowledge vital in many Northern Territory settings.

Geoff’s father was a teacher and school principal, often teaching him in the small country towns they lived in. Geoff followed in his father’s footsteps, moving around the state to seek promotion and other opportunities in South Kalgoorlie, Kununurra, Port Hedland, Dalwallinu, Walpole and East Kalgoorlie.

Geoff’s experiences in challenging schools helped him develop skills in managing student behaviour and improving academic achievement. He became an active instructional leader and, by teaching groups of students, gained credibility and commitment to change with staff. Geoff learned a lot about how to lead a school – especially about how to work with people and establish good processes – from two outstanding principals he worked with.

Iris came from Ireland on a working holiday and took up her first teaching position here. She was amazed by the workload of teaching but experienced a real sense of achievement by making a difference to the lives of young people.

After four years as an Assistant Principal, Iris was encouraged to apply for a Principal position. Despite feeling that she may need more time and experience, Iris was offered the job. Along the way Iris has developed courage and with her depth of experience has become a confident leader, setting directions, making decisions and developing improved learning outcomes for her community.

Special education has been Jennie’s dream from a young age. She began her career as a teacher of students with multiple impairments and moved states in order to gain a specialist qualification. Since then Jennie has had diverse leadership experiences in schools in Australia and overseas as well as departmental administrative roles, community and nationally at AITSL.

Jennie has not had a specific career mentor. Rather, like-minded people have encouraged her to take up informal and later formal leadership roles. While she had the confidence of the people around her, there was very little guidance about the skills needed to achieve the transformational goals Jennie set for herself and her school.

Jennie continues to have a strong professional and personal commitment to leading for change. She draws strength from strong role models around her in the education sector and in the broader special education sector. Jennie now applies her strong leadership experience at a systemic level to lead improvements special school education more broadly.

Jonathan started his career as an outdoor education specialist with his first formal exposure to school leadership running an outdoor education campus. Jonathan developed his confidence and a strong grounding in evidence-based practice by taking a master’s degree in school leadership. His leadership was also influenced by two principals, from whom he developed the capacity to set a vision for change and take people along with him.

As an experienced principal he now has the opportunity to help others. Through an Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) network, he is now helping new principals with issues they face in the transition to leadership.

Karen never saw herself as a principal, identifying as a teacher first and foremost. She balanced the demands of teaching around her family commitments, often by working part-time.

Karen’s school leadership journey began as head of a learning area. Another significant leadership opportunity came as a consultant to a school merger project. She drew on this rapid learning when the opportunity arose to become a principal of two merging schools, with her continual focus on gaining improvements in student learning.

Karen is now in a second Principal role in a large inner city State Girls' school where the experience gleaned throughout her career inform current practice.

Kathryn has a fine arts degree and originally worked as an education officer in the Queensland Art Gallery before completing a graduate diploma of education. She spent two years doing contract and relief teaching first in Brisbane and then moved to Alekarenge, north of Alice Springs. After some informal leadership opportunities, Kathryn took up a teaching principal role at Urapunga, a remote community of about 100 people, in the rivers region, 300km east of Katherine.

As part of a group of 13 teaching principals, her development as a principal has been assisted by a supportive lead principal, regional director and mentor principal. Kathryn was helped to identify her strengths and gained confidence to apply for a bigger school, Milikapiti, on the Tiwi Islands, where she has the opportunity to lead others.

As a Murri woman from Queensland, Kathryn is a newcomer to the community she leads, and has noticed both similarities and differences. In a bigger and busier community where the school is the hub for a lot of services, she has benefited from leadership courses offered by the Education Department and Charles Darwin University.

Whilst studying an Arts/Theology course, a youth work placement in a school helped Michael realise that teaching was a way for him to have an impact on young people. He thought that Teach for Australia’s combination of four days a week in schools and part-time study would suit him and so applied for a rural school appointment.

Michael has since been appointed as substantive principal of a rural school of 200 students. He credits the Teach for Australia program for encouraging and increasing his leadership capacity. He benefited from coaching in his first two years and has subsequently had the opportunity to coach other Teach for Australia associates. Michael has always seen himself as a person committed to leading systemic change and continues to focus on building an inclusive school environment to support improvement for every student.

As a child, Michael always wanted to be a teacher. He began in 2001 as an early year’s teacher and sought out leadership roles after his first few years. Despite some set-backs along the way, Michael has benefited from his commitment to embrace opportunities to lead and develop, including those that others have overlooked.

He has had a varied set of roles including leading teacher, numeracy coach, a role in the Department and as an assistant principal. Michael also gained valuable experience as an acting principal before taking up his first substantive position at Elsternwick Primary School.

From the earliest years of her career Monique has taken on leadership roles. With the trust and encouragement of her principal, Monique took up a train-the-trainer teaching role and was able to observe the different cultures and expectations of teachers and students in a wide range of schools. After a series of promotions, she was appointed deputy principal.

Her last principal made a particularly important contribution to her development by delegating a range of administrative functions to Monique. She had a “sink or swim” apprenticeship in staff and budgeting work that was new to her and was very appreciative of the confidence her principal showed. She’s now applying the same thinking for her own senior leadership team, developing their skills through delegation of leadership roles.

Ngaire has been teaching for 25 years and has had 15 years in middle management roles. Five years ago she was working as permanent relieving teacher. As a step away from relief teaching, she took the opportunity to apply for a principal’s position in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia.

Ngaire rates resilience as a particularly important skill for principals in remote communities, and a high level of tolerance of individual difference. She drew on her background of living in the bush and as a counsellor to help her support young and inexperienced staff, and worked hard to recruit and select the right mix of staff to serve the Pipalyatjara community.

Ngaire is now in her second principal role at Penola High School.

Paul demonstrated early talent in education and was headhunted out of university before he finished his degree, starting out teaching in kindergarten. Paul was actively involved in independent school’s associations at state and national levels. He just missed his goal of becoming a principal by the time he was 30. Appointed at 31 as founding Head he built his first school from just 24 to 1,500 students.

Paul’s first lessons in leadership were through watching others, and using that learning to develop a vision for his own leadership. His leadership style is highly personal, but he acknowledges that leaders draw strength and wisdom from the people around them. Paul is acknowledged for his expertise in how leaders build trust to achieve academic outcomes.

Peter had a long period of preparation for the principal role with 24 years as a classroom teacher, developing his leadership skills in deputy principal roles and as an acting principal. He has worked with several excellent principals and taken up a variety of valuable professional learning programs offered by state and national principals’ associations, formal coaching organized through his principals’ association, and a three-year intervention program provided by a charitable foundation.

At the heart of Peter’s practice as a principal is acting on a shared moral purpose derived from a strong evidence base, and consistent challenges around the conditions for learning, curriculum and teaching, parent and community support, leadership and professional learning.

Pitsa Binnion began teaching in 1983, inspired by a great geography teacher. She had to move schools several times but has a long history at McKinnon Secondary College, progressing from head of the senior school to assistant principal and now principal.

She took on additional responsibilities from her second year of teaching, but never sought promotion for its own sake. Pitsa has benefited from excellent mentoring and from people who saw that she had something to contribute and encouraged her to grow and develop. She also benefited from formal leadership training such as departmental programs, especially opportunities made available to support more women in leadership. Now, as a principal, she does what was done for her, tapping able young teachers on the shoulder and recommending that they take on more responsibilities.

Shayne trained as a secondary history teacher but learnt a great deal in her first 8 years in casual and short-term teaching for students with learning difficulties. Shayne never planned to be a principal, and has always organized her career around her family’s needs. Her talent for leadership was recognised by school and education system leaders, who encouraged her to take on additional responsibilities. She also benefitted from further qualifications in inclusive education and has a commitment to ongoing professional learning.

Shayne has been propelled along the road to leadership not by ambition but by a drive to be the best teacher she could be for students and people who showed that they had faith in her ability. She has had excellent personal mentors, but none of these has been in a formal arrangement. A reflective and analytical mindset has helped her to learn from the experiences of others along the way and to develop her own approach to effective school leadership which has also been reflective of context and respectful of the history of each position she has held.

Simon initially struggled to secure a permanent position in his first few years as a teacher but before long he was working as a year level leader and was promoted to the role of faculty head. With no mentoring or coaching in the role, Simon navigated the challenge of leading a group of teachers who had been his colleagues.

After a dozen years in deputy roles, Simon started looking around for a new challenge. When he didn’t get the first principals’ jobs that he applied for, Simon looked to the Australian Professional Standard for Principals to identify preparation gaps in networking and relationships beyond the school. From there, Simon worked at a more systemic level to select teachers for ‘Highly Accomplished and Lead’ teacher roles and applied successfully for the principal position at Melrose High School.

Stephen trained as a secondary English and history teacher. When he found there were limited opportunities in secondary schools he took a job in a primary school and has since taught every age from year three to twelve. Stephen also made a shift from the government to the independent sector, spending nine years as the deputy principal of a K-12 school in the Blue Mountains. This broad ranging experience was a significant advantage to his preparation for leading a school.

When Stephen became a principal at 43, he led a school that was acknowledged to be struggling with conflict around its governance structures. The school has since grown from 250 to 1,300 students. Stephen describes his learning journey as a combination of opportunity and challenge; the opportunity to lead a growing school and the challenge of doing that while working through conflict.