Tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m Neesha, the Principal at Geraldton Grammar School. I was born in India, but left when I was four years old when my family immigrated to Canada. I completed my first degree, a Bachelor of Science (chemistry), at the University of British Columbia. After that, I met my husband and we decided to move to Australia.
In Australia, I did two Diplomas in Education and Education Leadership, as well as a Masters. I always wanted to be a teacher, however, my father wanted me to get a science degree. He’s happy now that I’m a principal, but at the time he wasn’t that keen on me becoming a teacher. Stand your ground with your parents; they’ll eventually see why you went down the path you did.
What does your role as a school principal entail?
This is actually my first principalship. My job is to lead the school, and I work through my senior leadership team and my administrative ladies. There’s no manual on how to become a principal, so you have to work it out for yourself. You spend a lot of time signing things. I laugh at how often my signature is required!
You spend a lot of time in meetings and on committees: fundraising, IT, child-safety, and one-on-one meetings with parents and children.
There are an awful lot of emails and I’m always trying to keep on top of it all. I make a point to re-read all my emails at least twice because I’ll always miss something if I don’t. Sometimes I’m in the middle of an email and someone walks in, needing me.
I try to stay away from disciplining, but I help the senior leadership team when a student gets suspended. Then I always get involved and speak to that student about whatever reason they’ve been suspended for.
I also have to write board reports every month – this was quite a new thing to me. I have a different approach to these reports in that I don’t tell them much operational stuff but more of the bigger-picture issues that they might not be so familiar with.
Being in a smaller school like this one, I try to get out every day and go into the classrooms for about 45 minutes at the start of the school day. This allows me to do all my little tasks in one go. I always say hello to all the kids, and I find that’s quite effective because it’s really important to be a visible principal.
What has been your biggest career highlight?
Becoming a principal. I was head of senior school for a long time at Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC) in Perth and I thought that being a principal looked too hard. It was only when I became a principal that I realised that this is actually really good and that I really enjoy it.
What does a typical day look like for you?
On a typical day, I leave the house at 5:15am and go to the gym. That’s important — even when I don’t feel like going, it means I’ve had my time to myself.
I get to work around 7:30am and go straight into my Deputy Principal’s office. We update each other on anything important, and any staff absences. Then I turn on my computer, and do the aforementioned walkabout around the school.
I have a running to-do list going, but meetings, assemblies, and chapel services typically break it up. If there is sport, I go watch the kids play. Occasionally you get a block of time to do some of your own work which might be writing the newsletter or proofreading the school magazine.
Most days there’s a meeting after school hours, either with all staff members, the fundraising committee or the Heads of Department. The day generally ends about six o’clock.
In terms of COVID-19, what was it like at Geraldton? What was a typical day during COVID?
It was bad in Term One when COVID first hit. Not only was the entire world scared, I was also dealing with the anxiety of staff, students and parents.
In terms of decision-making, there’s a lot of pressure to get it right but luckily, I have my senior leadership team (Deputy, Heads of School and Business Manager). I relied on them to step up during that time, and they did!
I would say, I’m going to write a letter, I want you all to read it or to check it. They would then read it, edit it and then we’d send it out. That being said, sometimes an hour after we sent it the government had changed the rules, and it became obsolete. There was a lot of letter writing during that period.
We shut down for nine days and went online. Because our school was so prepared, our transition to online learning was the talk of the town. As an independent school, I didn’t wait for the government to tell me to shut down, I just shut down when I saw anxiety getting high.
Today, Perth is mostly back to normal, and I’m no longer having to make those decisions. However, it’s still painful because I can’t have parents come to school assemblies or events as with social distancing, our rooms just aren’t big enough to hold everyone.
Taking a step back, your journey to becoming a teacher is a truly inspiring one. How did your upbringing, qualifications and early adult life put you on the path to teaching?
I wanted to be a teacher from the day I was born. I know that sounds weird, but I remember as a child lining up my Barbie dolls and playing school. From a young age, I loved school and all my teachers, and I always tried to have a relationship with them.
I decided to follow my passion, which was teaching mathematics. First, I taught at a private all-boys Catholic school. At that time I didn’t have children and I learned a lot. Now, teaching is hard because there is so much paperwork and regulation.
As I had aspirations for a leadership position, the school told me that the best thing would be to find a job in a non-Catholic school. So I got a job at Penrhos College, which is a beautiful, all-girls school. I was there for ten years and I taught maths, but also had a pastoral care role as Year Coordinator.
I then saw the job for Head at Senior School PLC in the newspaper. I applied and didn’t even get an interview. Two years later, the same job was in the paper, but I didn’t even apply.
One day, one of the Deputy Principals walked past my office at Penrhos and said, ‘Your PLC job is in the paper again’. I told him I wasn’t going to apply because I already did two years ago, and they didn’t give me an interview. He told me to just throw my hat in the ring… and I ended up getting the job!
This is advice I’d give young people: just because you get turned down once, doesn’t mean you should not apply again because you never really know the reason you were turned down the first time.
I enjoyed my time as Head of Senior School at PLC. I always knew I could lead because I’m bossy, organised and people tell me I have a commanding presence. But leading has its downsides, too. I miss being in the classroom, which was my first love. The higher up the ladder you go, the less you teach because your brain starts to be pulled in so many directions. Soon, it’s no longer fair on your students because you have to be 100% in the room and prepared [when you’re teaching].
Having grown up in Hobart, I can appreciate the dichotomy of the regional education system: the benefits that small school communities offer in terms of flexible learning and a strong sense of community contrasted against resource and access constraints. In your own words, why do you think regional schools are so valuable?
The year I decided I wanted to be a Principal, I got this job at Geraldton. Obviously, they are not that easy to get but I applied for three jobs that came up because I was ready to move on.
The first job I applied for was at Emmanuel College in Sydney. They flew me over and I was interviewed in a large boardroom. I was relieved when I didn’t get the job because firstly I’m not Jewish (it’s a Jewish school), and secondly it didn’t feel right.
The second interview was for a school in Wellington, New Zealand. However, because I didn’t really want the job and I guess it came across in the interview.
Then this position was advertised, and I applied. I was shocked because suddenly I had the job, and I hadn’t really thought it through. Ultimately, I decided because it’s a four-and-a-half hour drive to my house in Perth, I could go home on the weekend. I was living in a beautiful, yet insular spot in Perth. It was time to do something different.
Everyone assumed that I was there to get my ticket to a fancy school, without caring about the school or the region. Instead, I brought all the wonderful things I learnt at those highly-resourced schools.
There’s not the same pull to education in Geraldton as I experienced at PLC. There’s a fear of the city because of how tough it can be. When students move to study, they stay in colleges, there’s extra expenses. I try to teach them that cities are microcosms of smaller communities joined together.
So, I try to make this school as good as the schools in Perth, even though it is not as resourced. I want parents to feel like their children are getting a good education and they don’t need to send them to Perth.
What does ‘education for all’ mean to you? What does it look like in practice/in a practical sense?
Education means opportunity and independence. It means you feel comfortable in your own skin.
Education gives you choice, and as women, it’s important because of the many relationships that end in domestic violence or divorce. Education encourages women to do it all.
As my dad used to say: “no matter what happens in this world, they can take your house away, they can take your car, steal your jewellery or take your food. But they can never take your education away from you.” Remember that.
No one can take your education from you, no matter what.
What do you think Australia’s education system needs?
It’s too driven to get you to the next step, to the extent that you can’t enjoy the step you’re in. Some of my students’ marks have dropped because universities are offering early-entry. I ask them whether the sole purpose of coming to school was to get into university. What about for the love of learning? What about learning for the sake of learning?
The education system needs to rethink what education is for
I was at an art gallery in England last year, looking at these amazing paintings and reading up on their stories. There was a school group there and I was observing them. The students would run up to the painting, take a quick picture, write down notes and then run off. I remember standing there thinking, you’ve missed the whole point of coming here.
The education system needs to rethink what education is for: it is not for getting into university. Why would we spend 13 years at school just to get into university? Surely that 13 years should count for something in its own right.
You have shown tremendous courage, resilience and strength throughout your life. What gave you, and continues to give you, this power?
I had a bit of a tough upbringing. I worked as a child while all other kids played. All the money went to the family account, so I wasn’t ever able to save up for a new stereo. We worked seven days a week; it was tiring, backbreaking and I can’t say I enjoyed it.
There was one summer where I had two jobs at two chicken farms. You had to clean these barns for rats, make sure the eggs came down the conveyor belts and remove the eggs with double yolks. One summer, I marked off on a calendar 72 days without a day off. My current role as a principal, in comparison, is not hard. I’m sitting in a chair, dressed nicely and I can come and go, and I get days off. This is nothing compared to an immigrant’s upbringing.
My upbringing made me tough and resilient. When I say tough, I was always clothed, fed, and there was never any violence. But it was a typical Asian upbringing, in that our family immigrated to a new country and started again from nothing.
What would you tell young girls to inspire them to keep rising?
To stop worrying about their image and to not give up because they fail the first time. Young girls now, whether they’re eight or 15 years old, are caught in the window of technology that makes them doubt themselves.
To back yourself means not being afraid of making a mistake or having a second go at things. Continue to follow your dreams and desires and know that it’s okay not to wear makeup.
Don’t give up on your education, and be more comfortable in yourself.
What advice do you have for recently graduated university students?
You need to work smart.
You need to be prepared for job interviews. You need to know how to shake hands, dress professionally and be honest with employers.
I’m really big on making and keeping contacts because you meet so many interesting people in your life. They don’t necessarily all have to be your best friend, but you should always be nice to people you work with because you never know when you’re going to need their help. Also, when you’re in your first job, you need to be flexible and accommodating because it pays off in the long run. Your first boss is going to be your next reference. You need to work smart.
I also think that young people need to be more resilient and realise that when they take a sick day, it’s noticed even though the boss won’t necessarily say or do anything about it. I’ve got some staff members here who never watch the clock. The admin ladies here are supposed to knock off at 3:30pm but will work late when the school is under the pump. When they need to leave early, I let them. Your relationships with your employers are reciprocal. It’s not a one-way street.
I would also tell young graduates to go for jobs even if you don’t think you’re capable.
So education is not just the period from prep to university, education is a lifelong process. What are some strategies for becoming truly lifelong learners?
There are a lot of ways to learn. There’s books, courses, your own mistakes or observing other people. We’ve got to remember that learning doesn’t occur just through school. To be a lifelong learner, you have to remember there are many ways to learn in this life but start with learning from your own mistakes.
Don’t let people tell you the limit of your human capacity. In the middle of completing my Masters degree and working full time as the Head of Senior School, my mother died. I had to fly back to Canada, write a eulogy and mourn her. I look back and think, how did I do that?
My advice would be just take things in your stride. Also, if you’re super organised in life, when unexpected things occur, you can recover swiftly. So don’t procrastinate… get on with things and get them done.