Belridge Secondary College principal John Burke is no stranger to building successful schools. For a decade he has taken up the reins at secondary schools throughout Western Australia, transforming them and inspiring staff and students along the way. Announced today as the foundation principal of Inner City College in Subiaco, John talks about the exciting challenge ahead as he heads into “the best job in the world”.
Congratulations on your appointment as principal of the highly anticipated Inner City College (planning name). What interested you in this position? Thank you. I’m really looking forward to taking on the leadership of this brand new secondary school. It’s a unique opportunity and the possibilities are endless for the students, their families and the community of Subiaco and surrounding areas. I’m excited about working with the community to build a college that excels, both in the way we care for students and in their academic success.
What do you hope to achieve as the school’s foundation principal? I hope that, by the time the foundation students graduate in 2025, the college has established a reputation for excellence – in student achievement and in teacher practice. I want students, parents and staff to feel a strong sense of belonging to the college, and we have created an environment where we are an integral part of the community.
You’ve been in school leadership for the past 10 years. Tell us a bit about your career journey. It’s been a privilege to serve in many communities across Western Australia. I started my teaching career in Halls Creek in the early 1990s, and went on to work in teaching and leadership roles at Fitzroy Crossing District High School, Kwinana Senior High School, Gilmore College, Hedland Senior High School and, most recently, Belridge Secondary College. I was also involved in setting up the successful Classroom Management Strategies program in 2005 and 2006. Public education in Western Australia provides incredible career opportunities and personal experiences, and I have been so fortunate in the roles I have undertaken.
What has been the highlight so far? I can’t single out a particular highlight. I have worked with inspirational staff and committed communities throughout my career. Working in the northwest with local Aboriginal communities was very rewarding. In Kwinana, we worked hand-in-hand with families, industry and business to improve outcomes for kids. At Belridge, we have the education support centre for students with disability on the same site as the secondary school and I can see the benefits of this arrangement – benefits for both students and staff.
You went and studied in the USA as part of the Independent Public School Fellowship Program. How has that experienced changed your leadership? The whole fellowship program was the most powerful professional learning experience of my career. The Harvard lecturers, discussions with peers from across the world and the executive mentorship component really challenged me and I learned so much. For my fellowship project, I devoted my attention to an important system matter – effective classroom observation and feedback in secondary schools.
How did your work in regional WA shape your leadership? Having the skills to build strong and positive relationships is critical for all school leaders – and working in the country really brings this to the fore. In Hedland, stakeholders are vital to the success of schools. I focused on building productive relationships with the local community, resource companies, service providers and colleagues across the Pilbara so that students at my school would directly benefit.
What do you enjoy most about being a principal? It’s the best job in the world. You have an impact on the lives of children and young people, their families and staff. It’s an incredibly humbling and privileged role.
What inspired you to teach? I was passionate about history and wanted to share this with young people. We can learn so much about ourselves and our society through history – and everyone is naturally curious about the world around them. Teachers can create a climate in the classroom that humanises and inspires students – and that’s what I wanted to do.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt in your career? All of us can improve and learn more about our work – not because we aren’t good at it but because we can get better at what we do.
Children’s education is a subject that fires up people’s emotions. What do you think is the most significant shaper of school education? For me, it’s the principle that all students in a civilised society have equal access to a high quality education. I have never met a parent who doesn’t want the very best education for their children. Our core mission as public educators is to provide high quality teaching for all students – whatever their ability, wherever they live, whatever their background. That’s my focus every day.
What was your first job? In the three years between my undergraduate and teaching degrees I laboured for a team of stonemasons. I learned a lot about myself and gained a great deal of respect for tradespeople.
How would other people describe you and how would you describe yourself? I would describe myself as positive and as a ‘glass half full’ person. I hope that other people might describe me as respectful, inclusive and caring.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? A mentor early in my career made me aware of a quote from educator Haim Ginott. In part, he said: “I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather...” In essence, the quote highlights the significance of teachers in the lives of students, and the power we have to impact positively on them.
Did you have a teacher or principal who inspired you during your school days? Who inspires you now? I went to Morley Senior High School and had an inspiring history teacher. My career goal, which I wrote in the school yearbook, was to become a history teacher and that was a result of his influence. I’m consistently inspired by younger staff who are so capable and professional, and by experienced staff who have incredible professional knowledge. My family inspires me now – I just loved sharing the journey with them.
What has been your most memorable experience so far as principal? At an individual level, it’s about supporting students who are vulnerable and helping them realise that school is a safe place. At a school level, it’s about seeing teaching improvements through classroom observation at Hedland Senior High School and Belridge Secondary College.
Given the new school’s location in the former heart of Western Australian football, the burning question is where do your allegiances lie? I’m a bit old school. My first club is the ‘black ducks’ in the WAFL, Swan Districts. In the AFL I have had the pleasure of following the Fremantle Dockers.