Back To School – Spotlight on: Jenny Allen
This spring, we’re shining a light on Jenny Allen, Executive Director of Schools from the Diocese of Bathurst. She explains the important role of young people, the value of a Catholic education, and why being a good leader doesn’t mean having all the answers.
What do you do?
I’m the Executive Director of Schools for Catholic Education in the Diocese of Bathurst, which essentially means I’m responsible for our 33 schools within the Diocese. My work is to lead our teams in Bathurst and our smaller office in Dubbo, (and to) support every dimension in the lives of our schools, working closely with Bishop Michael in his leadership of our Diocese, and making sure the work of education supports his pastoral vision.
Describe an average day?
On an average day, sometimes I’m in the office but on another average day, I’m not in the office. An average day outside of the office might mean that I’m in a school, working shoulder to shoulder with the principal, delivering some professional learning with the staff of the school. I’m a teacher first and foremost, and my classes are principals, and really working with principals and supporting them. I also work with principals, being engaged in professional learning meetings and other meetings that take me beyond my Diocese such as with my fellow Directors of Education across NSW, as well as being involved in local Diocesan meetings, all in service of our 33 schools.
But a day in the office may include meeting with the different personnel here in the office and also attending to all the administration that comes with such a job.
What is a great day?
A great day is when I’m in the schools working in support of our principals and teachers – really supporting, encouraging and enabling them to flourish in their roles, and seeing the impact on young people that they work with. That’s the best day!
What is a challenging day? (or worst day)
The most challenging thing about any aspect of leadership is when you have to work with people on complex issues, sometimes in regards to performance management issues and to help them reflect and grow in their role. I like to prepare really well for them so that it can be the best possible outcome in what is often a challenging and sometimes a distressing moment for them.
Why did you choose this kind of work?
I was a teacher, then a principal, now a director. But I still consider myself a teacher first and foremost. I had wonderful education myself. I went to Mercy Schools. I was educated by the Sisters of Mercy in my Primary and two Secondary Schools. I had such a wonderful experience of school myself that I aspired to be like my teachers. I could see the significant impact of their work. I thought if they could do that and gain great satisfaction, that’s a very worthy career.
What advice would you give to others interested in this line of work?
To always have a sense of calm. I think that’s important because on a lot of days, you are dealing with complex issues where people might have a heightened sense of anxiety about the issues that we might be deliberating about.
I try to invest in a sense of joy into the workplace and in the work that I do. I think humour goes a long way in helping people to really approach an issue or the work that we’re doing in a comfortable manner.
Another (bit of) advice would be to really focus on the interpersonal. Teaching is all about relationships. Leadership is all about relationships. So hone in on your interpersonal skills and reflect about that. Leadership is always about influencing people for the best outcomes, and in this case, the best outcomes for young people.
What kinds of skills or talent does someone need for this job?
Be a good listener, and not always think that, as a good leader, you need to have all the answers to everything. Be a really good collaborator – we talk about that all the time in schools and in education. We expect that in our young people so we have to model that.
Have a strategic vision – be somebody that’s a big picture person, as well as knowing how to support people in implementing that vision.
What is something only those in your industry would know?
People in education understand how to enable young people to learn and to grow, both, academically and spiritually. We have a good understanding of pedagogy and how to really support young people in their learning journey in all dimensions. We always have to make sure that we know and understand our young people in any particular moment in time.
What role does faith play in your work?
There was no other thought in my mind. Once I wanted to be a teacher, that meant being a Catholic teacher because my faith is so important to me because I was taught it by my mother and my teachers as I was growing up. So faith is at the heart of everything I did when I was a teacher and principal, and now, as a leader here.
It’s about trying to model what Jesus would do in any situation. So faith is at the heart of what I do personally because it is integrally connected to who I am as a person. Now that I’m in such a significant leadership role, it has come upon me to really understand what a Catholic education vision is. We don’t just have good schools, we have good Catholic schools. As a leader, if I don’t know what that looks like and can’t articulate that, then we’re not going to have the best system of Catholic schools.
What is your view of the importance of a Catholic education?
As all of our Church documents attest, I think it has a vital role to play in the evangelising mission of the Church, particularly in the times that we are living right now. I think we need our Catholic schools more than ever. We still have (Catholic) families turning to our Catholic schools seeking that sort of education for their children, and others beyond the Catholic faith are still turning to our Catholic schools. If we’re going to be an evangelising Church, then our schools have such an important role to play.
What is your vision of Catholic education in the future?
I think that going into the future, it’s really important for all of our schools and all of our principals and teachers of our schools to deepen their understanding of the role that Catholic education can play in the life and mission of the Church.
My vision for Catholic education is that teachers are renewed in their vocation as teachers, and principals as Catholic school leaders. With that deeper understanding of the role that they can play in supporting young people in their educational journey, they come to build their everyday practices more profoundly around that mission.
For example, if you’re a science teacher, then having that deeper understanding of ‘What does it mean to teach science in a Catholic school?’ So when they’re unpacking, designing and delivering that science curriculum, that they can (as much as possible) do so in that Catholic worldview. We’re called to do that. If everybody can have a heightened awareness of that, then we will be much more attractive as a system of schools to families who are grappling with the Church and their faith.
Our young people will come to understand the meaning of life and their own part in that by the way our curriculum is designed and delivered in our schools. They can feel that they can be active agents of transformation when they leave school.