Principal profile: Graeme Feeney

A love of teaching and a commitment to leadership and professional learning have helped Scone Grammar’s head of primary inspire others to great success.

Graeme Feeney’s career as an educator has taken him from the Blue Mountains in NSW, across the Nullarbor to Western Australia, up to Queensland and back down to the Hunter Valley. For the past 18 years, he’s been the head of primary at Scone Grammar School, a co-educational P–12 Anglican school, located 275km north of Sydney.

In 2016, Feeney was presented with a John Laing Award for Professional Development by Principals Australia Institute, recognising his commitment to his own and his staff’s professional learning. He talks to Education Review about the joys and the challenges of school leadership.

The joy of watching the lights go on

“I loved it from the start,” Feeney recalls of his introduction to teaching in government schools in Sydney’s outer west and lower Blue Mountains. “Every day was an adventure.”

The privilege of working with children and influencing their young lives was not lost on him as an early-career teacher.

“From the outset, I loved the opportunity to connect and engage with them in the classroom, build relationships, bring encouragement, and see the confidence and skills of each student grow as they learned day by day.

There is such a joy in watching ‘the lights go on’ when a child realises they can now read something for themselves, or when they suddenly understand that difficult concept, or when they get excited about discovering a new area of learning to explore.”

The leap into leadership

In the early years of his career, Feeney took some time out to complete theological studies, and in later years undertook further pastoral training in Queensland, but he was always drawn back to schools. In Perth, he seized the opportunity to become founding principal of a K–12 Christian school, which he led for eight years, before moving to Queensland with his wife, and now also a young family of their own. There he took up a primary principal role in another, growing K–12 Christian school on the Darling Downs.

“The mix of teaching and pastoral work I was involved in helped me in building stronger relationships with colleagues, and also with school parents, which then became a natural progression into different leadership roles that opened up.”

Feeney acknowledges his 18-year tenure at Scone Grammar School has been “a long time in one role”, but a very rich and rewarding experience.

“Long-term tenure in a regional/rural school, where school life is so immersed in the life of the wider local community, has been particularly valuable.

“It’s a wonderful, vibrant school.”

Team achievements

Feeney considers his achievements as a school leader also belong to his staff.

“I’ve always worked with strong teams and sought to tap into the knowledge, wisdom and skills of others,” he says. He is “constantly” listening for ideas, and values shared decision-making.

A significant ‘bricks and mortar’ team project he can point to was the opening of a new preschool, the Yellow Cottage, which focuses on play-based learning.

“The impact on improved school readiness and more effective transition into Kindergarten has been wonderful to watch,” he says.

A primary executive team has been established with particular emphasis on curriculum coordination, and this team has made “great changes in the level of valuable collegial conversation around programming, planning and pedagogy, with corresponding growth in student outcomes,” he says.

After carefully monitoring the teaching of reading at the school, teachers are now using the ‘Five from Five’ approach, which Feeney says is proving to be “very effective”, while Accelerated Reader has also seen “very encouraging growth in reading development” through giving students greater ownership and motivation in their reading choices.

Across the school, there is also currently a strong focus on Building Learning Power, with a staff team leading a program called ‘Grammar Minds’, drawing on growth mindset and positive educational psychology concepts.

Developing a “strong, progressive” K–6 outdoor education program, and effective pastoral care and student leadership activities, are additional highlights for Feeney.

“I have also worked hard over the years to ensure our regionally based students don’t miss out on opportunities for co-curricular, extension, sporting or cultural involvement, so have always sought to lead by example, in a willingness to organise and facilitate excursions or activities in these areas,” he adds. “This takes time and energy, and for us, involves much travelling, but it has yielded great rewards in so many ways for the students.”

Student focus

While Feeney feels he and his team have chalked up plenty of wins, he also encounters challenges in his primary principal role.

“There is no doubt that over the years, the emphasis in school leadership has shifted from having time for a more hands-on, education-based role, to ever-increasing bureaucratic time demands and compliance issues,” he observes.

“This has been at the same time as societal changes have constantly shifted more and more traditional family responsibilities onto the school agenda, hopefully to be fitted in along with growing curriculum demands and co-curricular expectations.”

Feeney says today’s greatest challenge is to be able to maintain a focus on the students.

“We need to really make sure that they are the priority in all we do, to know them, to make time to be regularly connected and engaged directly with them,” he says. “School leaders must also provide the vision, support and care for staff that enables them to be their best, and give their best, for the students they teach each day.”

The power of professional networks

So who does the person in the top job turn to for support? Feeney says his professional collegial leadership associations have been invaluable: the Independent Primary School Heads of Australia, Hunter Region Independent Schools Primary Heads, and the Australian Primary Principals Association.

“I have valued greatly the relational and mentoring support from friends and colleagues in these associations, and also from across other educational sectors,” he says, adding that connecting with supportive networks is key to not burning out. “Don’t be a loner, and don’t try to be – and do – everything on your own.”

Look after yourself and others

Self-care is imperative for school leaders, Feeney insists.

“You can only bring to the job who you are. If you don’t look after yourself, you can’t look after and lead your school, your students and your colleagues,” he explains. Also vital: a sense of humour and fun. “Tell good jokes,” he says.

Maintaining positive relationships has been another focus for Feeney – be they with colleagues, staff, parents or students. “I have always sought to be open, honest, authentic, and to lead by example and encouragement,” he says. “People respond and follow when there is trust and confidence in a relationship. ‘Relationship before positional leadership’ is my approach.”

Never cease being a learner

Learning has been lifelong for Feeney, in both his profession and his faith.

“Never cease being a learner,” he advises. “Never cease working to improve your skills, broaden your perspective, deepen your wisdom, increase your awareness, unlock your creativity, and simply grow as a person. The value of life experience and what you bring of yourself to the role of leadership can never be overstated.”

Feeney’s commitment to professional learning was formally recognised at last year’s John Laing Awards for Professional Development, presented by Principals Australia Institute. PAI’s chief executive officer, Paul Geyer, says Feeney’s personal dedication to lifelong learning, as well as his encouragement of staff to continue their development, made him a fitting choice for recognition.

“Graeme’s provision of professional development support for his fellow school leaders and teachers, particularly in a regional location where the ‘tyranny of distance’ can be a hindrance, has been admirable.”

Change is needed and will happen

Like so many educators who work with children and young people, Feeney regularly contemplates the future and the change it will bring, which he says is accelerated by societal developments and the rapid pace of IT advancement.

“While unpredictable in many ways, this future is also very exciting in the possibilities it opens up for the next generations,” he says. “Leading educational change to prepare students for these new and as yet uncharted journeys of opportunity is a wonderful challenge – while also still building into their learning journey, strength of character and balanced positive life perspectives, alongside other skills.”

Change is needed and will happen, he says, “but people are more important”.

“Look after them in the process of change.”

Job - and life - satisfaction

Like many educators, Feeney looks to his students when seeking a sense of achievement.

“The things that satisfy me most are seeing the students I teach achieve,” he says, “and seeing the staff I lead flourish.”

Two former students he met up with a few years ago stand out in his memory. “One had really struggled at school with dyslexia, yet went on to become a very successful lawyer,” Feeney recalls. “The other, though having many career pathway opportunities available after Year 12, chose to go into teaching, also very successfully. Both shared how they had been inspired by my leadership and involvement in their school years, and commented on the influence and change this had brought for them. This was very humbling but brought a deep sense of satisfaction.”

Staff achievements mean a lot to Feeney too. “Helping staff grow and develop, and then watching them move on to leadership roles themselves, is also something I have personally valued greatly, and enjoyed with quiet pride.

“Achievements that matter are so often found in the little things, the ordinary, day-by-day encounters, and the normal activities that often go seemingly unnoticed. When they matter to the ones you lead, they are important. I love the joy of helping to make a difference.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 edition of Education Review.