Ursula Jamieson is Principal of St Thomas the Apostle school and immediately impresses with her warmth and nurturing personality. I note at the time of our meeting that there is a ‘quiet corner’, located in her office for children who need some time out – now that’s a caring principal! She is just in the second year of her first principalship and perhaps that’s why she oozes positivity, enthusiasm and a definite affection for her school. Whatever the reason, it’s an endearing quality in a world where we often don’t have as much love/caring as we’d like it to have.
Ursula commenced her teaching career in Gladstone in the 80s and progressed through several schools in the Catholic system in Canberra, such as St Thomas Moore’s at Campbell, St John the Apostle at Florey and Good Shepherd at Amaroo, before arriving here at St Thomas the Apostle two years ago as the new principal.
“It’s a steep learning curve, to step up to a principalship,” she tells me. Luckily she has landed on her feet, with excellent staff who are a mix of old and new, young and mature, and who work together well as a cohesive unit. Ursula considers that to be a true gift to a new principal.
So when we dig into what it takes to do such a crucial job, leading the education of future leaders, we find that Ursula is guided by certain principles. First and foremost, she has an open-door policy and believes in the link between home and school.
“I enrol a family, not a child,” Ursula tells me.
The school encourages participation in the life of the school, and in the library, they offer a community corner which is open all the time and offers tea and coffee facilities. It’s a friendly connection space. Friday mornings are typically popular for social networking. And this school is truly community-based, with parents collaborating for 40 years. Ursula noted that recently, on an open night with many grandparents in attendance, it was fun to go through just how many of them had gone to school here; and on Mothers’ Day recently, it was a delight to see the dads swarm in too.
As for the students, “the school is small and intimate, with only 300 students, and we know them all”, Ursula says. In fact, both she and the Assistant Principal still have a small teaching load, which helps to keep up with what is happening in the children’s lives. There are twelve classes, twenty-five staff members and this year they are fortunate enough to have appointed their ‘well-being’ counsellor. Every child has a story and sometimes there are life’s traumas when a child’s life can get complicated. St Thomas the Apostle is prepared to meet those challenges head-on. The school recently received special training as a trauma-informed school, right down to the office staff. They were fortunate to have psychologists, Nicola Paffrey and Velissa Aplen, in to train the staff in handling trauma. So, the children are in good hands as far as pastoral care is concerned, simply because the staff are truly well-equipped.
As for a well-rounded education, there are plenty of opportunities for kids to have fun and build skills beyond the traditional curriculum. There is a chess game for students from year 2 up, which runs on a Thursday and a Friday. There are a variety of lunchtime clubs for such diverse interests as gardening (which includes seasonal planting), and even raising chooks. There are clubs for coding, for construction and board/card games, table tennis, and even shipping containers for play equipment and dress-ups. There is also a recess program called ‘Monday Fun day’, where engaging games are introduced to teach social skills in connecting.
One feature that Ursula introduced which I personally thought was just brilliant and innovative, was that there is music from the 70s (which I could certainly relate to) booming across the playground in the mornings before school, simply to set the mood for the day and aid in setting the children up for positive learning experiences. And we all know the power of music in mood-setting!
But it’s not just all about fun. There is some serious pedagogy happening in the school too and the school is based around Inquiry Learning through the latest theories of John Hattie and James Nottingham, in adopting the Learning Pit, which empowers children to take charge of their own learning. ‘James Nottingham talks about why challenge leads to enhanced learning. By developing metacognitive skills students are able to recognise when learning is hard, similar to being in the pit. More importantly, they can articulate what skills and strategies they need to use to get out of it. Click here to read the analogy of the learning pit.’ It’s fascinating.
The school also recently employed consultant, Leonie Anstey, who specialises in instructional leadership, and according to her website, ‘Taking your school from good to great through the targeted approach of Instructional leadership’, with a focus on Mathematics.
To say that the school is a busy, thriving, positive community is an understatement. There is a lot of passion from the Principal trickling down and the individual student and his/her needs are prioritised. It’s lovely to see that students, our next generation, are being nurtured in such a rich environment.
Just goes to show that big things can still come from small schools.
39 Boddington Crescent, Kambah ACT 2902
Phone: 02 6231 4144