Suzanne Farley, Deputy Principal Learning and Teaching, Caroline Chisholm Catholic College, was recently recognised by The Knowledge Review as one of the 10 most inspiring educational leaders in Australia. To celebrate this achievement, we got in touch with Suzanne to discuss her journey as an educator.

You were recognised by The Knowledge Review as one of the 10 most inspiring educational leaders in Australia, a remarkable achievement. How did this come about?

It was quite unexpected and truly an honour when the College received an email informing them that I had been identified by The Knowledge Review editorial team.

You’ve improved your school’s academic results and created a more specialised learning program. Can you outline what sort of initiatives you put in place?

In 2016, the College joined the University of Melbourne’s Network of Schools (UMNOS) which offered us the chance to work with world-class, leading researchers in education on a project that was important to the school. The Reading Program, led by our teacher librarians aims to:

  • encourage students to read and take every opportunity to read
  • monitor and challenge students to read a variety of texts and texts appropriate to their reading level
  • encourage students to think about and analyse what they are reading
  • explicitly teach skills which enhance and engage students in active reading.

The notion of personalised learning was born out of the idea an innovative education and teaching program. We began our journey to a more personalised learning curriculum about five years ago, focusing on getting to know our students. We have developed a robust data-based process, that aims to allow us to know our students. This premise permeates all aspects of the College, from our core curriculum, lesson planning, through to elective subjects and the student learner mentor system. In addition, we have developed the range of choices for students at the senior pathways.

We are currently exploring a change for our lower year levels (years 7-9). These year levels need to balance the engagement of students while providing a foundation of skills for further learning. The way we capture the focus of these students and measure their success needs to follow our change to a personalised learning model. The days of a one-size-fits-all model is long gone.

Can you tell us a little about your professional journey leading up to this award?

I began teaching in 2000. I started my career in Gippsland Victoria teaching Biology and secondary Science subjects in regional Catholic secondary schools in Sale and Traralgon. My first leadership position was leading the Year 9 and 10 Curriculum as the Victorian Curriculum was introduced. We started to look at curriculum differently around then, planning the curriculum outcomes as a two-year continuum.

I grew up in Gippsland Victoria and attended school in Sale and was very grateful to the school for giving me my start. After many years teaching in the country I felt it was time for a new challenge. Moving to work in the city was an opportunity and experience I thought I might regret if I didn’t take it.

Caroline Chisholm Catholic College students vary in so many ways and I have loved the different learning styles and needs that I have encountered. I have worked with some incredible teachers in my career and was delighted when the opportunity arose to work with someone familiar. Coming to Caroline Chisholm Catholic College in the role of Director of Learning Year 10 - 12 was exciting. The opportunity to move up to Deputy Principal came about shortly after my arrival.

What do you love most about teaching/working as an educator?

I enjoy sharing my interest in the Sciences and the opportunity to discuss the concepts and theories I love. I love seeing students grow in their knowledge, understanding and skills.

How has the COVID pandemic affected your work and students this year? And what is the mood upon the return to school?

The pandemic has affected everyone in education. The greatest challenge was the unknown around dates, lockdowns, potential openings, etc. This made planning quite challenging, but also allowed us to improve our use of technology. We’ve used a number of online platforms to allow for flexible learning, as well as access to a wide range of materials. Some of these platforms include ClickView, Edrolo, Compass, Science uses Education Perfect & Stile (both online classrooms), digital textbooks - we have Microsoft tools like Microsoft Teams to conduct classes in different ways. However, vibrant learning environments don’t need to be digital. Students love to be onsite amongst their friends and familiar surroundings. The mood has been extremely upbeat, and we are confident we will finish off the year and be able to celebrate what has been an extremely extraordinary and challenging year.

Who were your favourite teachers growing up? Why?

My favourite teachers growing up were my junior secondary Science teacher and my Religious Education teacher. I remember how kind they were and how much they encouraged and supported us. But most vividly I remember their stories. They were willing to share their stories and that willingness to show that we are all learning and we all face challenges has really stuck with me. I think it’s very true what people say about teaching being about relationships, and that openness they had allowed them to build strong relationships with students and I still remember them.

Do you remember your first day in a classroom? What was going through your mind as a ‘newly minted’ teacher?

I do remember my first day in a classroom – my first class is very vivid; a group of 28 year 9 boys in a Physics class. I was 24 years old and I was so excited. Thinking back, I’m not sure anything really prepares you for being in the classroom for the first time on your own; it’s exciting but at the same time I was so nervous about how I was going to engage these students. It’s still a feeling I get at the beginning of the year, and I’m happy about that. I don’t want to lose that anxiety about engaging my students, I think it helps drive me to try new things and give my best to building those important relationships.

What appeals to you most about teaching a Catholic school? What do you see as the ‘point of difference’ of Catholic education?

Caroline Chisholm Catholic College is a diverse community of more than 1700 students and staff from 80+ different nationalities, each with their own cultural backgrounds. A clear point of difference is how we treat each other and encourage each other to live our values of faith, acceptance, compassion and excellence (FACE). Our personalised approach means we see the FACE in every student and stay true to our vision to be the leader in learning excellence in our community.

How do you feel about the future of young people today?

I’m confident the future is here now for our young people – they are a much more connected generation than ever before. We are seeing a shift from a traditional focus on the performance and academic achievement of students, to a greater emphasis on the abilities of students to grow and achieve. This is a good thing. Growth is becoming the catch phrase and it’s a positive move. As a College we have been focused for a long time on personalising the student learning experience and at its heart is an understanding of the needs and abilities of the student and looking for ways to support their own growth.
There is still a way to go, too much discussion is still around performance – NAPLAN is used too widely as simply a measurement of student performance, leading to evaluations and criticisms of schools, and not enough time is given to the growth that students show over the years between testing. Similarly, the ATAR still drives too much of the discussion about education at senior years. The conversation is changing though, which is wonderful to see, and the future of our young people is bright as they prepare and integrate into a changing workforce.

Having been a teacher/educator now for more than 20 years, what advice would you give to your younger self starting out in the system?

Be innovative. Never be afraid to try something new. Failure is not a bad thing, it’s integral to how we learn, so try new things, reflect and evaluate, but never be afraid to try something because it might not work.

Has teaching in a Catholic school influenced your own faith journey?

Yes, it certainly has. It brings with it an inbuilt reflective process. Guiding the faith journey of our students is such a powerful experience for me. Their questions about implementing their faith or maintaining their faith with the many challenges that are presented to it, are questions for me too. I am much more aware of my faith as a result.