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Principal with a mission: 100 Women of Influence winner Linda O'Brien

02 February 2015

Obrien Baird Home Feature

Students filter into Granville Boys High School from around seven in the morning. By eight the school’s café is filtering coffees and the barista-trained students serve until nine.

It’s just one of the school’s successful student community engagement initiatives: there’s also a gym run by the boys providing bottled water and towels, a school garden and chicken pen, music, drama, and a commercial kitchen established and run by the students.

Granville Boys sports a concert band, Arabic bands, the Islander Dance troupe, and reports that more than a fifth of its 550 students participate in the school’s voluntary music and drama program. The school has shown sustained improvement in NAPLAN results since 2012 and boasts fantastic growth in learning, something that hasn’t always been the case.

Located in South Western Sydney, one of the most multicultural regions in Australia, 99 percent of the boys are from non-English speaking backgrounds. The majority are from Arabic speaking background and Muslim faith and the school population also includes pupils from the nations of Africa, South Pacific Islander backgrounds and a small percentage of Asian pupils who come from countries that stretch from Afghanistan to the Philippines.

Spearheading the success is the school’s principal Linda O’Brien (pictured above with NSW Premier Mike Baird), a winner of an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence award in 2014 in the Local Regional category and an advocate of collaborative curriculum building in which student voice and consultation plays a major part in setting up the education experience.

“No one likes being told what to do and teachers are bossy, but you can exert your influence and not upset people,” says this much lauded educator.

Don’t be taken in by the orphan Annie corkscrew auburn ringlets piled high on her head, or the pocket rocket stature, and bright comic timing - Linda O’Brien is a formidable learning experience who, by her own admission, dreams in vivid “colour, gorgeous décor, fabulous places”.

This same woman also confesses without hesitation to being strategic and systematic –plotting paths and visualising where she is going and how her plan will work: “I am very definite about the path and what goes where and how, why and when. Someone might say well what about doing this? If it’s not the right place, if it doesn’t fit the whole, then it won’t happen.”

She’s been President of the University of Western Australia’s Drama society, a youth worker in Townsville, an importer of baskets from East Java for the likes of retailers David Jones and Myers, and a teacher of one sort or another much of her adult life. All her experiences have taught her what she loves to do: guide a whole school community to collaborate and engage successfully in the process of learning and education.

“I think equity in education is essential. Diversity of opinion, multiculturalism and linguistic diversity are also important. We live in a country where we believe in Anglo-centric institutions and yet our population actually challenges that view.

“We set up a barrier by privileging that world view. The people outside it are puzzled by it, they don’t get it. Some work their way through it but many others don’t because it is not of their culture their thing. They look in a puzzled way and wonder, ‘what are they doing now. How do I go about doing that and what does that mean’? I find this particularly to be the case at the school I work in. The children don’t understand the institution of schooling. They don’t fully understand the roots, the derivation, the importance and the meaning of the knowledge being exchanged in schools. They come from a different situation and if the expectation is that they be part of our system and if we are truly offering equity in education then to accommodate them we need to build bridges.”

Equity for Linda means setting the expectations bar for every student at the same level: “I remember one teacher wanting to take the class to Long Bay gaol so students could see where they might end up. I wondered would they take students from MLC [a private Sydney girls school] on the same excursion.

“Equity is about viewing everyone as having the same potential and setting the same high expectations.”

There are a lot of expectations around Linda and her role - a lot of wondering about what she must be like and about how tough the job must be.

“The sorts of things that make it difficult are administrative - replacing a deputy who’s leaving, that’s tough. I’ve always felt confident as a teacher and believed that what I do will work.

“We have systems set up for people to do the right thing and everybody complies. When you do something different, and I have tendency to be a little bit subversive, there is a fear that you might be doing the wrong thing. It’s why it is such a surprise when someone turns around and says, ‘that’s great’, because I think, ‘but I didn’t do exactly what you told me to do’.”

Scottish educator AS Neill’s philosophies, and those of the English academic Dorothy Heathcote, are major influences for Linda. Heathcote, she explains, used drama - ‘teacher in role’ - as a teaching methodology. Neill believed in community self-governance and freedom from adult coercion.

“I am deliberately trying to exert change and influence the boys around gender equality through music and dance. What the Performing Arts can do, which sport can’t do, is it’s not combative. It is competitive but it is collaborative. You can’t step up and perform a trumpet solo in a band unless it’s part of the production.

“Performance also has a purpose. A lot of learning doesn’t have a purpose, but with performance you learn it to perform it and that performance is a very affective experience. It glues people together. It provides a goal and offers the fulfilment of accomplishment. It builds self-esteem and identity.

“The whole idea is to build social cohesion - dance and music are able to do that - because when you want to change from a system that is not working to one that will, cohesion is vital. Cohesion builds capacity and capacity allows you to challenge the orthodoxy.”

Linda, who is ensconced in writing her doctorate, admits to being preoccupied by various ‘doxy’ at the moment and the inevitability of change and breakdown in the process of creating them.

The 100 Women of Influence award gives her a voice in different forums to which she might not have otherwise had access and that recognition for education is extremely important.

“We talk about the vital importance of education and that it is a resource of gold. However, the talk rarely translates economically in terms of real resources. To get the education message out among a group of peers outside education can't hurt."