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My Story: Brian O’Neill

Brian O’Neill is principal of Calen District State College in Queensland and recently-appointed President of the Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia (SPERA). We recently caught up with Brian at the 30th National SPERA Conference and spoke to him about his work at Calen, SPERA’s role in the education sector, and his and his children’s journeys into higher education.

NCSEHE: You have been a teacher based in regional locations for over thirty years now. What inspired you to become a teacher? What would you say your biggest learnings have been?

Brian: I was born and reared in Normanton in Queensland’s Gulf Country. The dedicated teachers that I had at the Normanton State School (Mrs Nora Spanner, Mr Peter Kenny, Mr Geoff Courtney, Mr John Murphy and Mr John Weir) were the ones who inspired me to become a teacher. They were interesting and engaging and I wanted to be like them.

However, when I was in year 10 at boarding school in Charters Towers, I was incorrectly diagnosed as being an epileptic and was given eight sleeping tablets a day. I subsequently slept through my senior years and, not surprisingly, I failed. I saw my dream of being a teacher shattered like glass and so found employment as a teachers’ aide at the Normanton State School and Secondary Department.

During this time, I re-read the novel A Town Like Alice which was written by Nevil Shute. The novel is partially set in the fictitious town of Willstown and the description of that location is based on Normanton. The main male character Joe Harmon is based on my grandfather’s friend Jimmy Edwards, a former prisoner of war and manager of a cattle property near Normanton. Jimmy seemed to have a philosophy that you can achieve anything as long as you are willing to have a go and are determined to succeed.

Taking this advice and with the prompting of my grandmother, I wrote to Professor Ted Scott at James Cook University and he was prepared to give me a go. When I completed my four years of my Bachelor of Education, I approached Professor Scott and said, “You probably don’t remember but I wrote to you asking to be allowed to attend uni and I wanted to say thank you for giving me the opportunity.”

He replied “You don’t have to say thank you as you have done that by completing your degree and justifying my faith in you. You are wrong, I do remember you. I have kept my eye on your progress all the way.”

I owe a great deal to this man who was willing to take a gamble with me. I not only became the first member of my immediate family to attend university but also the first person from Normanton.

As a teacher, and now principal, I want to provide opportunities for other students, especially in providing alternative pathways.

NCSEHE: Calen District State College is a small primary-to-year 12 school located between Mackay and Proserpine in Queensland. What are some of the common characteristics of the students at your school? Do you have a guiding principle or goal in terms of what you’d like your students to take away as a result of their time at Calen?

Brian: My students are predominantly country kids and are respectful and responsible. Some live on farms (cane, cattle, banana and strawberry) while the parents of others are employed in the coal mines to the west. The students generally are very practical and for the boys their interests include rugby league (Johnathan Thurston is our hero), motor cycle riding and “pigging” (pig hunting).

My staff work hard to broaden the horizons of our students and to expose them to as many different career options as possible. Our partnership with CQUniversity Australia is also beneficial as they have a range of programs to provide insights into careers and university attendance for students. These programs include the Engaged Education van to expose year 6 and 7 students to careers; the Hero’s Journey film making program for year 8s; Career Match for year 9s; Uni Skills for year 10; the Start Uni Now (SUN) and Roc-Q – Reach Out Central Queensland – programs for years 11 and 12.

About 5% of our students are Indigenous. We have an Indigenous student in year 12 currently and she is performing exceptionally well, having completed three CQU Start Uni Now (SUN) courses and earning consistent Credit grades. She intends to study at university next year to become an IT and Media secondary teacher.

We at Calen are proud of the fact that reports from the Teaching & Learning and Discipline Audits have summarised the feeling of the school as “a family”.

We would like to see that our students when they leave us take the principles of commitment, consistency and courtesy and apply them to their work, social and family lives. If they can do that they can have no better start in life.

Personally, I would like our students to look back at their time at Calen as a time when they were supported, encouraged and had a smorgasbord of opportunities from which to choose. I like to believe that we have given them the skills to make the best choices for themselves.

NCSEHE: In terms of working in regional schools, what do you see as the most significant advantages and challenges?

Brian: I have spent all of the thirty-three years of my teaching career in rural schools. I especially like smaller rural communities as you become involved in the community and there are many opportunities to link the school with the community. You also have an increased awareness of the connections between families and of any issues which have the potential to impact on the students.

The tyranny of distance and small cohort size often mean that subject choice and co-curricular opportunities are restricted. However in many ways this becomes an advantage because staff members use their creativity and initiative to find ways to overcome many of the challenges created by distance or size. Rural schools are innovative, as is demonstrated in SPERA’s annual awards – the Australian Rural Education Awards (AREA).

A continual battle that I face and I believe most of my colleagues in rural and remote schools also face, is the misconception that our schools don’t offer the subjects to allow students to gain entry into university. One of the things that I have developed at Calen is a booklet titled Pathways: Career Paths of Former Calen DSC Students. This booklet contains the narratives of many former students, what training they undertook and the careers they are now undertaking. They also provide advice to our current students on subject selection, achieving goals and overcoming obstacles. The booklet has a threefold purpose. Firstly it provides advice to our current students. Secondly it opens their eyes to the wide range of career opportunities available and finally it demonstrates to parents that you can achieve all of those careers from an education at Calen. The booklet is a work in progress as we are continually adding to it.

NCSEHE: Please tell us a little about Calen’s “from crayons to careers” slogan.

Brian: As an English teacher I love using poetic devices such as similes, metaphors, personification and alliteration as well as metonymy and symbolism. This year, a kindergarten was constructed on our campus so it is now possible to complete fourteen years of education on our campus. I often say that we are a K-U school rather than a P-12 as students in years 11 and 12 can study up to four first year university subjects through CQU’s SUN program. If these subjects are passed, the students achieve points towards their Queensland Certificate of Education, direct entry to the degree to which these subjects contribute and credit towards their degree. This year one of my senior students completes secondary education having also completed four nursing subjects (one whole semester) and with results of two Credits and two Distinctions.

We are proud of the fact that at our school we can take students from crayons in the early years through to helping them plan their futures whether it is to a trade or to university study. We have sustained the use of alliteration with the “C” in our slogan and rules – Calen, crayons and careers in the slogan and “Commitment”, “Consistency” and “Courtesy” in the school’s three rules.

NCSEHE: What percentage of Calen students go on to higher education? Do your students have particular subject interests that they tend to go on to study?

Brian: The percentages of students who go on to study at higher education fluctuate from year to year, depending on the cohort. One year we had no-one go on to study at tertiary level but most years we have between 30% to 50% transition to tertiary study. Teaching, nursing, law, accounting and information technology are the most popular choices but we have also had students move on to study graphic design, digital media, aviation, engineering, physiotherapy, pharmacy and theatre.

NCSEHE: You were recently appointed President of the Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia (SPERA). Please tell us a little about what your role entails.

Brian: As President, I see my role as serving and supporting the members; to recognise the skills that my Executive members possess and to encourage them to run with those ideas and concepts. Other important parts of my role are to recognise and celebrate our success stories, to promote our organisation to potential members, to work with our partners and to forge new alliances.

I am very excited about the year ahead. I have a terrific team on the Executive – a balance of experienced members who have made significant contributions to education in this country and new and enthusiastic members who have the technical knowledge and skills to move us forward in terms of using social media to promote SPERA and who are recent graduates thereby providing a student voice.

NCSEHE: How did SPERA come about and what has the society accomplished? What are your plans for the society, moving forward?

Brian: SPERA was formed thirty years ago and arose from a discussion at an inservice in New South Wales organised by Marie Dale who became SPERA’s first National President. The first National Conference was held at the University of New England in Armidale in 1984. SPERA also held the first International Symposium for Innovation in Rural Education (ISFIRE) at UNE in 2009. Marie and her fellow inaugural SPERA members wanted to advance the positive aspects of rural life and rural education. They wanted to celebrate the unique features of rural education as they were concerned that the “disadvantaged” label was having a negative impact on rural communities.

Since its formation, SPERA has become a driver in helping rural communities and an advocate for improved conditions and opportunities for rural students. A great deal of research has been undertaken by SPERA researchers from throughout Australia and this data has been used to improve conditions or to highlight areas of concern.

As the 2014-2015 National President, I would like to consolidate our existing alliances and build new ones; build our membership base; celebrate the successes, initiatives and innovations in rural schools; advocate for improved facilities and opportunities; continue to be involved in ground breaking research into rural education; and continue to find ways to better prepare teachers to teach in rural communities and then to support them in the early years of their rural teaching. I want to continue with Marie Dale’s concept that rural education is not a deficit model – we have much to celebrate.

I also intend to travel, visiting metropolitan and regional universities, particularly ones that specifically prepare teachers for rural service, and visiting rural schools throughout Australia. As I do so, I will focus on areas of potential research and promote the benefits of SPERA membership.

NCSEHE: Your children have all attended uni now, and your eldest son Jonathan has even attended three different universities. Would you tell us a little about their experiences?

Brian: I have three children and all have completed their education at Calen. My eldest, Felicity was in year 6 when I arrived here. When she was in year 12 she went to an accounting firm in Mackay on work experience. They offered her a cadetship so she worked during the day and studied online at night. She said that this enabled her to make the connection between the theory and practice as well as obtain experience. At twenty-five she is now a senior accountant with the same firm that she went to for work experience.

Jonathan was in grade three when we arrived at Calen. He completed his senior year and went on to study engineering. He was the only student from Calen at the university at that time and he found moving from a small school with a total enrolment of 220 students to a university with 2000 students in first year engineering to be a daunting and lonely experience. He subsequently withdrew and moved universities to study aviation internally. He found the experience much better in that he found the staff and the students to be friendly and noted that the staff took the time to get to know students.

Before completing his degree, however, Jonathan moved to Wagga Wagga to take flying lessons and to work as a member of the ground crew for Qantaslink. He continued studying aviation, but this time externally, and found it to be an isolating experience. It seemed that lectures were geared towards the internal students as lecturers would often move out of the camera’s lens and turn off microphones, forgetting the sessions were being recorded for external students.

Jonathan decided to change universities again, this time to study mechanical engineering externally. This third institution placed a strong emphasis on external students, with lecturers keen to develop a rapport with the students through regular phone and email contact. Jonathan has now moved back to Mackay and will enrol in mechanical engineering as an internal student next year. He plans to combine his degrees and then study for a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering. Jonathan found that he prefers the more personalised approach of smaller universities, especially the regional ones.

My youngest son Daniel did all of his schooling at Calen. He completed three SUN courses (Digital Media, The Short Story and Marketing) while at school and has now completed the first year of his Bachelor of Theatre degree.

I believe that my children’s experiences highlight the problems that young rural students face when they move to cities to study and are isolated from their support networks – their family and friends. Jonathan’s experiences in particular demonstrate this, in addition to emphasising the importance for universities to consider how they cater for external students. If universities plan to cater for external students by recording lectures, they need to be mindful of the need to include them and to develop a network of support and regular communication.

All students need to feel included and supported. The successes that Felicity and Daniel have experienced demonstrate the importance of regional and rural universities in catering for students from rural communities.

NCSEHE: Your personal higher education journey continues as you’re currently working toward a doctorate. What is the focus of your study? Have you gleaned any insights so far that you might like to share?

Brian: My doctoral research (Ed.D) is using the phenomenographic methodology to study the conceptions that principals have of success in rural P-12 schools. There is such a focus on quantitative data (NAPLAN) and media league tables in regards to successful schools, so in my research I want to give a voice to those people who are instrumental in driving the school’s improvement agenda. I want to see if other principals see success as being broader than the quantitative league tables and NAPLAN scores as I suspect they do. I have especially selected rural schools since they bring another layer and that is the aspect of community. To date I have not found any information regarding a study of what this group of people (our schools’ leaders) believe makes a successful school. I am still in the early days of my research (the methodology and literature review sections).

I completed my Master’s degree a couple of years ago and got such a buzz from the research. I feel that the process and study enhanced my leadership skills and the direction I set for my school. I wanted to continue my learning journey and the development of my school so a doctorate was the logical next step.

Posted 30 October 2014 Posted in General, My Story, Regional