Principal profile: Dr Paul Rijken

After falling into teaching when his original career plans stalled, this Adelaide principal set out to make his mark in education.

A dynamic, visionary and authentic Catholic school leader who is passionate about leading contemporary educational change, informed by research, to foster outstanding learning outcomes for students – this is Dr Paul Rijken.

As principal and CEO of Cardijn College and Marcellin Technical College in the southern suburbs of Adelaide, Rijken thrives on leading a unique learning environment. Cardijn is a middle and senior school (Years 8–12) with an enrolment of 900 students and 120 staff. Its second campus, Marcellin, is a technical and vocational education school for students in Years 10–12 with an enrolment of 152 students and 14 staff.

Rijken started his career as a PE teacher in the early 1980s, and became a house leader and senior teacher at Cardijn College in the early 1990s. A stint as deputy principal at St Aloysius College (R–12 Catholic girls school) led to his appointment as principal of Cardijn in 2005.

“I actually fell into teaching by accident,” Rijken says. “I originally wanted to join the navy when I was at school, but was not able to meet the medical requirements as my eyesight was not 20/20 vision.

“I was an avid sportsman and keen on PE, so I was thrilled to begin my Bachelor of Education (Secondary) degree at what was then the Sturt College of Advanced Education.

“I was keen to make a difference in society as I’m a great believer that education makes life better, makes people better and ultimately helps to make the world better.”

His experience also includes a stint as a commanding officer of the 10th/27th Battalion of the Royal South Australia Regiment, the premier Army Reserve unit in SA, with a unit strength of over 600. In this role he successfully commanded the unit during the deployment of members on Operation Gold, the security of the Sydney Olympics and the deployment of two operational rotations on active service to Butterworth, Malaysia.

In 2016, Rijken successfully merged Marcellin Technical College with Cardijn College as one school on two campuses providing extensive curriculum offerings and pathways for mainstream academic and vocational/trade destinations; realigned a business plan which provided financial sustainability and growth; facilitated a reimagined college culture aligning the Charism of Joseph Cardijn and Marcellin Champagnat; and established partnerships with Curtin University, training providers and industry to provide leading STEM programs at both schools. The college has established itself as a leading STEM school in SA.

Rijken also established a whole-of school professional learning culture and program for teaching staff in collaboration with Curtin University, using perception data to inform whole-school improvement in the learning environment. He also set up a Catholic education sector-wide collaborative learning project in partnership with the university using the Effective Schools Improvement program involving 20 secondary and primary schools.

In the last six years, Rijken has held senior appointments in Catholic Education, notably as a commissioner with the South Australian Commission for Catholic Schools, chair of the People and Culture Standing Committee and chair of the Association of Principals of Catholic Secondary Schools.

This year, he has been appointed director of the Catholic Secondary Principals Australia and member of the Regional Council (Southern) for Marist Schools Australia. In 2017, he completed a PhD in mathematics and science from Curtin University and was awarded Principals Australia Institute’s John Laing Award for Professional Development.

Given his reputation for leading whole school improvement and collaborative professional learning, it’s no surprise he was nominated for the award. The John Laing Awards are managed by PAI, the national organisation providing professional learning and leadership development to leaders across all school systems and sectors.

“Paul’s commitment to facilitating professional learning for all staff in his school and across the SA Catholic sector made him a standout candidate for a John Laing Award,” says Paul Geyer, chief executive officer of PAI. His commitment to the profession and to achieving educational outcomes for his students is highly commendable.

School improvement
As a school leader, Rijken agrees the education sector needs to develop a more holistic approach to the provision of education.

“Schools need to be key stakeholders in the vision and work in local economic development, community care and building social capital and connectedness in the community,” he says.

“The health of a community is often hampered by three social ills. People feeling hopelessness (their circumstances), people feeling helpless (don’t know if anyone cares and not knowing where to turn to), and loneliness (people are disconnected and have no-one to turn to). Schools can make a huge difference in educating young people to help manage social ills, develop student leadership and build citizenship.

“For school leaders and staff, developing competencies and skills in a climate of social responsibility is essential.”

One key initiative Rijken has implemented at Cardijn and Marcellin has been the Teacher and Reflective Practice. “At the core of learning is the classroom and the student,” he says. “The quality of the learning environment plays an important role in the success of student learning. Using student perception data, the teacher is able to measure the climate of the classroom and make modifications/interventions to learning and pedagogy.

“Research has shown that working with students to develop the best classroom learning environment has a direct impact on student outcomes such as self-efficacy, confidence, motivation, self-regulation and ultimately achievement.

“Over a period of seven years, I have conducted research in partnership with Curtin University which proves that the school has made a significant impact on students’ self-efficacy and achievement.

“Developing a culture of ongoing reflective practice with teachers and students has set the standards for both teachers and staff in terms of learning expectations.

“I have been able to publish and present this research at an international level as well.”

Rijken’s international presentations include a paper, The Effectiveness of Project-Based Mathematics in the First Year of High School in Terms of Learning Environment, Attitudes, Academic Efficacy and Achievement, at the 2015 American Educational Research Association Conference in Chicago. And In 2016 he presented The Effectiveness of Teacher Action Research in Improving Learning Environment at the American Educational Research Association Conference in Washington.

Rijken also co-authored an article in 2017, ‘Collaborative Action Research as Part of a School Improvement Effort: Improving the Classroom Learning Environment and Student Self-Efficacy’, that will be published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education.

Keeping up with the changing nature of the principal’s role in the school and in the community is something Rijken often reflects on.

“It is critical that a principal has the right people as part of a school leadership team,” he says. “Education is becoming more and more complex, and we could well look at how the corporate sector is managing complexity. There is certainly a requirement for specialist staff to support the principal, especially in compliance, HR, wellbeing and staff formation and development.

“As a school principal, I am blessed with an outstanding leadership team and leaders across the school.

“Using a distributive leadership model to empower leaders to make decisions at the local level is critical. A clear vision and mission are essential if this is to work well. I am also grateful for my colleague principals in my principal associations (CaSPA and AHISA) which provide a network of support and guidance.”

When asked to describe his leadership style, Rijken responds: “I have often been asked this question. Leadership is situational, as a principal must be able to adjust leadership depending on the situation – from decisive, clear and directive leadership in times of high need/critical situations to one of collaboration, developing and nurturing, at times when it is best to take a back seat.

“As principal, my style is characterised by presence – presence to people in listening, and attention to their stories – to a genuine interest in students, staff and their families.”

“The role of a principal is totally consuming 24/7 and my greatest challenge is making sure there is a balance of life between school and family.

“Being a principal in my context means you are part of a very large school and church community. Principal wellbeing is my biggest personal challenge, along with health, fitness and time to focus on leisure activities.”

Driving whole-school vision
Rijken’s vision for his school is that staff have a broad experience, and he insists that they continuously develop by engaging with educational research across the globe, having a thorough understanding of key worldwide educational issues, and developing a passion for continuous improvement.

“These conditions are essential in developing a collaborative vision,” he says.

The college is preparing to admit Year 7 students in 2019, as part of SA’s alignment to school levels as per the eastern states. The school will grow from 1050 to 1250 in the next two years, and Rijken’s aspiration is for this transition to be successful in every aspect, “from students and staff care, to a quality learning environment, to developing outstanding learning spaces and providing specialist facilities”.

“For this to occur,” he says, “the school leadership team and staff need to own and help drive the vision, so we can transition the college into a high performing, educational leader in the Catholic school system.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 edition of the Education Review.