With the support of her deputy, Lisa Richardson, the pair have formed a successful and stable 20-year leadership team that has negotiated the school through its many highs and lows. With a recently completed $6 million building upgrade, enrolments are up, along with NAPLAN results and school morale levels and parental satisfaction. Burt shares a few of the important life lessons and philosophies that have ensured she's not only survived 50 memorable years in education, but thrived, and what has helped her  remain as positive and passionate about the profession now as she was in 1974 when she walked into her first classroom at Highton Primary School in Geelong. 

GQ: How would you describe your style of leadership?

JB: When I started the job, I don’t think I had any leadership ability, to be honest. I look back and I was worried about every decision I made. I tend to like collaborating with others, I don’t like making decisions that may be unpopular at times, which can be a disadvantage as well. I try to work with staff, and hope they see that, and we come up with shared decisions, as a team. I’ve been really fortunate in having a wonderful assistant principal, Lisa, who’s been here for 20 years, too. We complement each other in many different ways.

I believe you never really had aspirations to be a leader, what was it that drew you to leadership?

I suppose, as I went through my career, I was always happy to help out with other responsibilities … but I didn’t want to have that ultimate responsibility. When I came to Forest Street I picked up a role as an integration coordinator as well as teaching full time, and when we had a new principal come into the school, she really encouraged me to take on additional responsibilities. I eventually applied for an assistant principal’s position, and was successful in that. Very soon after, our principal left and I was put into the acting principal role. I had no intention of doing it, I definitely didn’t think I had the skills, I didn’t think I’d have the ability to cope with some of the stresses and challenges. I filled in that position for probably six months and then decided I quite liked parts of it, I liked some of the challenges, I loved the opportunity to work with teams of teachers, so I applied for that job and was successful in it. I’ve been in that role ever since.

So across your 50 years, you’ve seen a lot of pedagogy styles and approaches come and go. Have you morphed and adapted over the years depending on the research?

I think over that period of time, definitely we’ve changed and staff would say that sometimes we’ve picked up fads and didn’t actually embed them enough, and then we change again. I think, definitely, you’re influenced by what’s happening outside the school, what the region or state are doing and what professional learning opportunities we’ve had, but I think a lot of things, like really explicit teaching and catering for individuals, haven’t changed over the period of time. I go back to my early days, and I was simply differentiating what I was giving the students – more if they’re able to do it and less if they weren’t – but I think now we’re much more equipped and work harder on really catering purposefully for each and every student and use that data to actually direct their goals and work on that. I think that’s been a big shift over the period of time.

Have attitudes towards principals and teachers changed much during your time? Are parents demanding more?

For the majority of our parents and the majority of our community members, I don’t think it’s changed greatly, but for a small percentage of students and parents, I think they’re dealing with a lot of outside pressures and a lot of change in family situations. And I think they are probably more demanding on the school as a result of the issues that sometimes they’re having to deal with. And I think, previously, there were a lot of other areas that families could go into – maybe the church or other community organisations – but at the moment, really, schools are the main things that they’re involved in. I think that puts pressure on anything you do within schools. Parents are worried about their children – are they supervised enough? Have you looked after them? I think that it’s coming from more parents being worried or anxious about their children that they question some of the things that we do.

What would you say to a young principal, who’s just starting in the role?

One of the things that’s really helped me, is I have a fellow principal at one of the other schools in our region and she’s been in the role as long as me. Just having someone close who you can run things by all the time, your ups and your downs - it’s so important that you have someone that you can talk to. I’ve been so lucky, and have had wonderful regional support all through my teaching career, but I think having that one person that you can confide in and talk to, outside of the school, has been really beneficial for me. I also think sometimes we can be so hard on ourselves and not actually look at all the things that we have done for the day, you pick on the things that haven’t gone, right. So really being positive about the things that are successes and just not dwelling on the other areas too much. I think sometimes, too, rather than focusing on the majority of students and parents, where there’s not one ounce of trouble, you focus on the couple that cause concern and need that extra support. So I suppose be positive and enjoy the times that are really good.

The school has recently undergone a $6 million redevelopment, including all of the junior classrooms, a new library area, new business offices, sickbay and new playground areas.

You found teaching reading in the early part of your career to be very difficult. Is that something your school does well?

Reading at the school’s been one of our higher pieces of data. So we have used more that instructional model, of that ‘whole part whole’, we might call it, of really focusing on explicit teaching of students on strategic behaviours. But I think too, as we’ve moved on, we’ve looked at different approaches to teaching of spelling, of actually trying to embed our writing into our inquiry approach across the school. I think possibly those have strengthened, with students having a bit of a purpose and a voice in what they actually would like to learn and be involved in.

Do you see many of your early career teachers questioning whether they’ve made the right career decision to go into education?

I know a lot of the teachers coming in now are choosing to do CRT work, rather than be in a permanent role. And I think teachers find that the additional work and the reporting assessments, while they’ve always been part of the job, but finding the challenges of all of that and keeping up with the curriculum can be tough going. If teachers work in a school where there’s a collaborative approach, and there are supports there, and you have that shared planning, it certainly helps. I think it’s sometimes that lack of confidence, that teachers worry about moving students, and I know the pressure of data over a period of time. I’ve had some real ups and some downs, like when you get feedback that staff opinion is really low, or you get back student data that’s of concern, or after COVID, our attendance data was really poor and our NAPLAN data fell. Those pressures have a big impact on principals, but they definitely have a big impact more broadly. And I think sometimes, young teachers worry about all of those type of things.

Compared to, say, 30 or 40 years ago, what are we doing better now in schools now?

I definitely think looking at each individual child looking at where they’re at, and what they need next has changed hugely. I look back at the work program I did at the start, and it was virtually a line for reading and a line for writing, a line for maths and you taught the same to every student in that grade. There was not the differentiation that staff deal with now, and the level of planning and the catering for each and every student. Definitely in terms of wellbeing and teaching respectful relationships, we’ve got responsibility for a huge amount now, compared to when I started. Yes, you did some social-emotional work in the schools, but it’s definitely not to the level that teachers are responsible for now, in catering for all those different areas across the curriculum.

You’ve had longevity in the role, how have you avoided burnout?

One of the things I’ve always tried to do is keep myself relatively fit, and involved in other things. And I have been very, very lucky with my health over the period of time. I think in a classroom now, it’s quite challenging, compared to when I was in my own classroom, but the high levels of curriculum knowledge and catering for every student and, perhaps dealing maybe more with family members and looking at the student overall. When I first started, it was a 9 to 3.30 role, but teachers now have so many more things to deal with beyond that time. I think the students are still the same, they come to school mostly wanting to learn, are happy, curious, fun. I love that. But I think a lot of the pressures on students and families have created a lot more challenges for students and ultimately, a lot more challenges for staff and I think teaching for a long period of time in the classroom now can be very challenging.

You still clearly have a really strong passion for education. What is it that gets you up and out of bed every day?

I must admit, I really love the children still. They’re just so unique and have got something special about them. Fifty years on, I can’t believe how quickly that time has gone. I spoke to the school captains and said I was being recognised for 50 years and they said, “my parents are not even that old”. I definitely enjoy working with the staff. I like the challenges, but sometimes during the challenges I think, ‘Oh, why do I do this?’ Every day is different, which I like, but sometimes that can be really annoying too – you plan to do this, this and this and get none of it done. But I think just those opportunities, and as a principal, yes, you have the ultimate responsibility, but I think the assistant principal in schools is one of the hardest jobs to do. I’ve got the celebrations and the highlights and yes, I also get the responsibilities when things don’t go as well, but I think that’s why I really enjoy this job.