Principal profile: Helen Chatto

Helen Chatto with studentsA love of reading is what brings many an educator to the profession, but Helen Chatto has taken her career-long passion for literacy all the way to the principal’s office of Girraween Primary School on the outskirts of Darwin.

“We love reading at Girraween,” her principal’s message on the school website reads, “and promote a love of literature at every opportunity. Our library is well stocked and we love seeing students curled up with books all around the school.” Chatto has been in the top job at Girraween since 2010, and was its assistant principal for two years before that. In the school’s earliest days, she was the senior teacher, working with the founding principal to establish Girraween from the ground up. In previous years she held leadership roles at Moulden Park, Driver and Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, having first established her teaching career at Lucknow and Stratford primary schools in Victoria’s East Gippsland, before moving to the Territory in 1990.

Unlocking the mysteries of reading and writing

“I only ever wanted to teach,” recalls Chatto, “and from an early age would force my younger cousins to be my pupils!”

Her particular love for literacy is what propelled her towards school leadership. “Watching children unlock the mysteries of reading and writing has always fascinated me, and I have taken up leadership opportunities to have a greater input in this area.”

The opportunity to become a literacy specialist led to Chatto’s only hiatus from teaching: two years as the Northern Territory literacy project manager. “I learned a lot about how the overall system worked,” she reflects.

After returning to Girraween, Chatto developed what she describes as a “strong reading culture” for the school. “We have a teacher librarian, focus on students using quality texts as they learn to read, hold a reading challenge over the school holidays – with the library being open – plus we do ‘read-alouds’ at assemblies and over the school’s PA system.” Not surprisingly, this has led to improvement in all reading data for Girraween.

Environment as the 'extra teacher'

While many at Girraween are committed bookworms, the school also fosters a love of the great outdoors.

“We believe the environment is the extra teacher,” Chatto says, “and have created effective outside learning spaces.” These include a large vegetable garden and farm, an outdoor learning centre and pendopo (pavilion structure), and a “very engaging” early childhood space. The school has even explored aquaponics with its youngest students, after some “enthusiastic young teachers came to me saying they’d like to have a barramundi farm”.

Chatto encourages her staff to create engaging learning experiences for students. “It provides scope for them to take the learning further; it’s important to have these exciting things happening in the school.”

Sustainability and community

A highlight of the Girraween school calendar is the Sustainability Field Day, which was established when Chatto was assistant principal. “Every class shares their learning from their inquiry unit which has a sustainability focus through science or geography,” says Chatto, “and we invite parents, community groups and other schools to set up displays or come and be our guests as the children share their learning.”

Girraween has attracted media coverage for its field day and won awards for it. “It’s a wonderful day that the whole community looks forward to, and each year it just gets better.”

Team approach to school improvement

Chatto’s leadership style hinges on building the capacity of her team. “I lead from within the team,” she explains, “guiding the development of strong pedagogical approaches through providing quality professional learning opportunities, and allowing teachers to teach the curriculum in innovative and engaging ways.”

Her commitment to professional learning for both herself and her staff saw her awarded a John Laing Award for Professional Development by Principals Australia Institute last year.

“We engage in a lot of professional learning and dialogue to build common understandings and shared vision for our school,” she says.

Visiting experts may come to the school, or the school’s own staff may present to their colleagues in areas of expertise. Teachers are also encouraged and supported to attend workshops and conferences outside the school, and to get involved in local and national projects.

“We then work together to look at all of our different data to determine what our priorities are each year, and then collaboratively strive for continuous improvement.” Teachers are given time to work together to design units of work and engaging lessons.

“We also ensure we recognise the achievements of our teachers, and provide regular feedback and opportunities to grow,” Chatto adds. She says this leads to a team approach to school improvement. “Building capacity of teachers leads to greater personal satisfaction for them and creates a network of committed educators.”

Paul Geyer, chief executive officer of Principals Australia Institute, says Chatto’s experience as a literacy project officer working with schools has enhanced her understanding of professional development for teachers and school leaders.

“Having developed and organised professional learning opportunities for other educators in the field of literacy means Helen holds valuable expertise in how to deepen and broaden teachers’ professional knowledge, and develop whole-school understandings of best practice in literacy teaching. It was a pleasure for Principals Australia Institute to present Helen with a John Laing Award for Professional Development last year.”

Networking a necessity

Chatto has also been an active member of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association, having been on the local council for two decades and the national executive for eight years as NT state director. In this role, she co-convened the national conference in 2014, where 600 teachers from across Australia came to Darwin for three days of research and classroom-based presentations and workshops. Chatto’s service to the association was recognised with the ALEA Medal, and she was named an ALEA principal fellow at the last national conference.

She says her professional network has boosted her growth as a leader, and has helped her to stay current in her pedagogical knowledge, giving her credibility when working with teachers.

“These networks also provide excellent recommendations for my own professional reading,” she adds.

School-to-school support

Importantly, Chatto says the principals in her region are very supportive of each other, regularly sharing and planning events and initiatives together. “This year the Rural Hub have instigated instructional rounds, so each term we visit each other’s schools. The host principal identifies a problem of practice, and then the visiting principals and assistant principals visit classrooms and collect observations, before going through a process to provide feedback to the host school,” she explains. “This has been invaluable professional learning for both the host school and the visitors.”

Facing challenges together

Like so many principals, Chatto is familiar with the struggles of time management and stress. She also cites national and statewide assessments as a source of discomfort. 

“They have an impact on how teachers feel they have to teach,” she says. “I worry a lot that this is having an impact on how very young students see themselves as learners, as they are being assessed – and sometimes seen to be failing – before we have had time to let them develop, and teach them.”

Chatto acknowledges the role that her professional networks and school community play in helping her face the challenges that come with leading a school. “It is hard work at times, as there are so many facets of this job – when you think you have mastered an area, things change. Principals do need a huge amount of resilience and to build a good team around them.”

Among her support network, she counts her “active and positive” school council, instructional leadership teams, and also the wider educational network she is able to connect with through her regional hubs and professional associations. “I have been very lucky to work in a very supportive community.”

School pride

That Girraween’s students are “confident and proud of their school” is also a source of pride for its principal. Its teachers are “members of a positive professional learning community”, Chatto says, “setting themselves high standards and implementing great programs for the students”. With a positive and cohesive school culture in place, Chatto stands in good stead to achieve her list of aspirations for the school in the next two years: establishing whole-school approaches based on solid pedagogical practices, embedding digital technologies across the curriculum in all classes to “prepare our students for a future of new possibilities”, and further developing the school grounds, creating more cool, green playing spaces for its warm Darwin climate.

Citizens of the future

Chatto’s vision for Girraween’s students extends far beyond the next couple of years, however. “We are working with the global citizens of the future,” she says. “We have the opportunity to support students to grow as caring, empathic citizens who know how to sustain themselves – and to see learning as a never-ending process.”

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