Principal profile: Gill Berriman

Gill Berriman
 
Principal Gill Berriman's time at the helm of Bayview Secondary College, a freshly named high school on Hobart’s eastern shore, has been one of radical change rather than seachange, with Berriman leading many new initiatives and bringing the school community along with her.
 
In 2016, Berriman received a John Laing Award for Professional Development from Principals Australia Institute, for her leadership of professional learning in her own and neighbouring schools, creating a powerful learning alliance in a disadvantaged area. Berriman tells Education Review about how she navigated these sometimes troubled waters, and what’s on the horizon.
 
Developing strengths on new shores
“I was keen to be a teacher from a very young age,” recalls Berriman, who has now been in the profession for 24 years. Her family emigrated from a “low socio-economic, housing estate area” in Stockport, England, in 1983. “I think I developed resilience and independence through moving countries as a young person, and this enabled me to develop some useful strengths which ultimately have assisted me in a principal role.” 
Berriman worked as a music and humanities teacher, achieved Advanced Skills Teacher status, and held an Assistant Principal role for five years at Rokeby High School. She also won a Hardie Fellowship to study change leadership in the United States, and gained a Master’s degree and other postgraduate qualifications in leadership and administration, change, behaviour disorders and counselling. Berriman won her first principal role in 2010 at the Jordan River Learning Federation, establishing a new middle school following the burning down of Bridgewater High School. In late 2012, after having a child, she returned to Rokeby High – this time, as principal.
 
A school in decline
The situation at Rokeby was grim. “Student numbers were at an all-time low; we were looking down the barrel of future closure,” Berriman recalls. “Students were bypassing us in great numbers, and our image in the community and local feeder schools was poor.” 
Berriman knew sweeping changes were necessary. “Through an open, honest, transparent and realistic approach to evaluating our situation, using school data and feedback, I was able to create a sense of urgency for change that was adopted by the whole staff and most importantly, the leadership team and school association.”
 
Connecting with the community
Berriman and her team developed a four-year strategic plan, focussing on three main outcomes. 
“These outcomes would guide every decision we made, and the impact of every initiative has been measured against them. These were: to improve community connections, to improve our academic profile, and to increase enrolments. If an initiative was not going to impact on at least two of these outcomes, we didn’t progress it.” 
They also developed a masterplan for an ideal school for the future, envisioning their school as a hub for sport, community and learning. Then after the planning: action. Berriman appointed a staffing resource to focus purely on community connections and marketing. Connections were made with business, industry, community groups and sports clubs, generating interest in before-school, after-school and weekend activities, and sustaining ongoing, mutually beneficial partnerships. The school also connected with the University of Tasmania, “to challenge local stigma around our academic programs and break down barriers for students”.
Inside the school, Berriman worked to change both the physical environment and the teaching culture. 
“I showed staff that at least some of our poor reputation was deserved, so had them evaluate our systems, policies and teaching and learning pedagogy,” Berriman says. “'Consistent, persistent and insistent' was our motto. I was convinced that my team could pull together, but it would require constant and regular feedback, review, professional learning, and a high level of detail.
“We opened up our classroom doors, designed new collaborative planning and practice analysis models, and developed an inquiry approach to improvement through establishing expert inquiry teams, so our whole professional learning processes changed.” 
 
What’s in a name? 
Berriman considers the school’s name change to be the most significant aspect of its improvement journey. “The community in which the school sits was very loyal to the Rokeby name,” Berriman says. “The idea of changing the name had been thrown around for many years, due to the negative influence of five per cent of the community who damaged our reputation and lost enrolments. I refused to let the five per cent continue to have such a profound impact on our fortunes.” 
When the school decided to extend enrolments to Year 11 and 12, Berriman knew it was time. 
“Over a 12-month period I led a rigorous, often political, and highly consultative process. Our families chose the name Bayview Secondary College, and completely owned the final decision. The impact has been positive beyond all expectations. Our image and brand in the broader community has shifted significantly.”
 
Employing the principles of equity
Underpinning the changes at Bayview have been the principles of equity: fair access, participation, opportunity, inclusion, differentiation and acceptance of diversity, and development of a growth mindset. This has seen flexible learning options developed for the most at-risk students. 
“We have used these ideals to challenge the generational poverty cycle, and focus on building up our students’ internal resources, to get what they need to be successful. We live the mantras ‘together we achieve more’, and ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. 
Berriman credits Tony Wagner, Geoff Munns, Michael Fullan, Geoff Masters and Vic Zbar as sources of inspiration during these processes.
 
Re-imagining Rokeby: the results
The impact of the re-imagining of the school is already evident. “A 40 per cent increase in enrolments, increased attendance, fewer suspensions, an orderly learning environment with outstanding programs, a very positive image in the community and a large amount of interest in the school,” are among the achievements Berriman lists. 
Investment has been made in new school facilities, including a $1.5 million STEAM hub. The proportion of the school’s senior students achieving their Tasmanian Certificate of Education trebled, from 14 per cent in 2014 to 42 per cent in 2015. 
“My proudest achievement is where my school sits now compared to five years ago,” she says. “We focus on celebrating great practice and regularly acknowledging the efforts of staff and students.”
 
Being in the moment
While Berriman's achievements as principal of Bayview have been prolific, she acknowledges the struggles. “It’s challenging to have to multi-task in a continual way, and never knowing what will challenge me on a given day – being an instructional leader, but also an HR, organisational and financial manager. There is a loneliness that comes with the role, where I have to hold a large amount of information in my head, and sometimes this can’t be shared.
“I struggle with time management, work-life balance, and conflicting priorities, just as every principal would,” she says. “I try to be kind to myself, write lots of lists, and try to work through them.” She lists exercise, reading, connecting with friends and family, and quiet time, including mindfulness, as vital to her wellbeing. “I do my best to be in the moment, and give every moment my full attention and time.”
 
It takes a village
Berriman says her current staff is made up of diverse individuals who have been placed in particular roles due to their interests, passions and skillsets. “To develop and sustain a positive environment it was vital to have all staff happy in their work,” says Berriman, “so they would stay with me and be invested in our journey towards school improvement. My staff are an outstanding group of highly skilled, caring and motivated individuals.”
She appreciates the support of her “very connected” leadership team, as well as her supportive partner, also a teacher – “he understands the demands of my work”. Her principal peers provide crucial support too. Within the teggana Collective, a network of local schools supporting senior students to gain qualifications, they share resources, staffing, help with problem solving, and share effective practice. “The Tasmanian Principals Association is excellent and very supportive too. I know I could contact them if I had an issue I was struggling with. I feel I have excellent support within the department and my concerns and needs are acknowledged,” says Berriman. 
The Tasmanian Principals Association showed its appreciation for Berriman's leadership in 2016, nominating her for a John Laing Award for Professional Development. Paul Geyer, Chief Executive of Principals Australia Institute, says, “Gill’s bright and bold ideas, and her ability to bring her community along to implement them to great success, made her a worthy recipient of the award.”
 
On the horizon
Berriman's vision for Bayview over the next few years is multi-faceted. Its Year 11-12 extension project “should triple the number of enrolments through the unique and ‘niche’ courses we have developed”, aiming to reach 300-350 students. A Bayview Sports Academy will be created with a local sporting club, in keeping with the school’s community hub masterplan. Bayview’s reputation as a STEAM and HEAT hub will grow further with new facilities being built. As part of the Collective Ed project in conjunction with the Beacon Foundation and Paul Ramsey Foundation, Bayview will work towards the ambitious goal of 90 per cent of students attaining a Year 12 Tasmanian Certificate of Education or equivalent. 
“And I want our students to continue to enjoy a positive, diverse learning culture that is innovative, progressive and engaging for all,” Berriman concludes. “We will be small by design, but specialists by our nature, and our reputation will be recognised nationally as forward-thinking, and innovative.”
 
Preparing students for tomorrow
Berriman believes the greatest opportunities for schools are in the establishment of networks and partnerships. 
“We need to think outside the square, open up our doors, and look carefully at the future needs of industry and business, so that we are adequately preparing our students for the world of tomorrow. No longer should we think we have all the answers and are the deliverers of the knowledge. Those days are long gone. We are now facilitators, teaching ‘how to learn’”.
 
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 edition of Education Review.