Trudy Moala has led primary schools for 24 years. Starting her career in Adelaide as a primary school teacher, her life took an intrepid turn when she travelled to the Kingdom of Tonga to teach English. She’s since worked in Japan too, but it’s Queensland that she calls home.
For just over a year now, Moala has been principal of Grace Lutheran Primary School in Clontarf, Brisbane. In that time she’s been presented with a John Laing Award for Professional Development by Principals Australia Institute (PAI).
“I was humbled to be nominated by my peers,” Moala says.
PAI chief executive officer, Paul Geyer, says it’s clear that Moala is a highly respected representative of the independent schools sector.
“Trudy’s commitment to professional development across multiple schools she’s led, for both herself as a leader and her staff, makes her a worthy recipient of a John Laing Award.”
Moala’s inspiration for becoming an educator came from home.
“My mother was instrumental in me becoming a teacher,” she explains.
“She had wanted to be a teacher, but due to the depression and the times in which she lived, she was unable to do so. But she instilled a love of learning in me, and during my formative years encouraged me to seek a university degree and a career.”
Her entry into school leadership came about by an unexpected turn of events, but it was a development to which Moala soon committed herself.
“I fell into school leadership when there was a crisis in leadership at one of the schools I was working at in the early 1990s,” she recalls. “But I then pursued a master’s degree in leadership and management, which helped me better understand the role.”
Taking ideas abroad
In 2002, Moala took her leadership expertise and transplanted it into a very different setting: Japan, becoming a Head of Primary School in Tokyo.
There, she worked on professional development in areas including primary maths (increasing mathematical thinking and real life mathematics), rewriting curriculums to become conceptually based instead of content-based, with staff from Canada, Australia and the UK, and exploring strategies to use in an international setting where the majority of students had English as a second or third language.
“The experience enhanced my enthusiasm for the international teaching sector,” she adds. “It also made me very grateful for our outstanding system in Australia.”
Leading from behind
Moala describes her leadership style as “empowering, and leading from behind”. Identifying others in her school community who have things to offer, she then encourages them to show and share their talents with others.
“I think it’s about empowering others by lighting their flame within the context of what is achievable at school. I am visionary but I do so by talking and finding out from the staff, parents and students and then show them how to achieve their goals.”
Moala has worked in three schools which have the International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Programme in place. She says her leadership in professional development in these schools has centred on a constructivist, concept-driven pedagogy. She also implemented staff coaching, mentoring and collaboration strategies, and a focus on staff wellbeing.
“I believe that supporting staff by using quality training and in-service times with them is essential,” says Moala.
“Strategies I have introduced in my current school include a focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of students, and an emphasis on intentional teaching in literacy and numeracy.”
Moala also recognises physical wellbeing as vital for students. “I believe that we must encourage healthy, active students, so I always have a strong emphasis on participation in PE and sporting activities in my schools,” she adds.
Wellbeing is a focus across the whole school community, too. “The greatest challenge for me is dealing with the mental health issues of staff, students and parents effectively,” says Moala.
Her attention to wellbeing issues and the strategies she’s put in place seem to be working. During her time at the helm of Trinity Lutheran College, the school was recognised by Queensland University of Technology in its ‘People at Work’ survey as having the highest level of positive wellbeing and most collaborative staff from contributing schools in Queensland.
Geyer says Moala’s passion for whole-school wellbeing and ongoing professional learning for her staff is very much in the spirit of the John Laing Awards for Professional Development.
“Great schools have great leaders – like Trudy – who inspire their staff and their students every day.
“PAI enjoys presenting these awards each year, recognising and celebrating the role principals play in providing leadership and development in their schools and the wider community. Trudy’s efforts at Grace Lutheran Primary School and her previous schools made her a deserving recipient last year.”
Moala encourages her students to consider the lessons of life beyond the proverbial reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Indeed, her principal’s welcome message on Grace Lutheran’s website states:
“We are conscious at Grace of the need to grow lifelong learners who have both the knowledge and skills as well as the emotional intelligence to engage in a changing world.”
Moala considers the influence of educators in society to be “enormous”.
“Important issues for me are Indigenous issues in Australia, and bringing empathy and understanding to our valued First People in our society.
“Also, the wellbeing of our communities can be hugely influenced by schools. Teaching students love, joy, fun, grit and contentment are high priorities for me. I believe as hubs of community, we can facilitate a better world just by our attitudes and compassion for one another.”
Moala says she loves that her leadership role is constantly changing.
“It means I am continuing to grow and learn in the role,” she explains.
So where does a school leader find support for herself when pressures inevitably mount? Moala turns to her peers within the Independent Primary School Heads of Australia, a group of more than 400 heads of independent schools, 70 of which are in Queensland.
“It offers outstanding professional development and collegiality,” says Moala.
“As a principal in a Lutheran school, we are given a mentor, and I’ve found this wise counsel from time to time invaluable.”
Moala is also conscious of the need for work-life balance.
“I have found that it is important to have an active social life outside of school which takes me away from thinking about school 24/7, and gives me perspective.”
Working out the world
That sense of perspective on life is clear in Moala’s vision for her school over the next few years.
“We are moving to a flexible, agile style of teaching and learning, and we are growing collaboratively because of that,” she says.
“My aspiration for our school is to enhance the teaching and learning program in general – so that students are growing in empathy, problem solving, and in their understanding of how to work out their world as they grow in it.”
With an empathetic, visionary educator like Moala leading the way, there’s every chance her students will become the lifelong learners she dreams of.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 edition of the Education Review.