Streets ahead in the joy of interacting and tackling change

Fort Street High School principal Juliette MacMurray.
Fort Street High School principal Juliette MacMurray.

Name: Juliette MacMurray, principal of Fort Street High School in Sydney.

What do you do – what does a typical work day/week look like for you?

There is no typical workday or week for a principal or deputy principal. The nature of our work requires us to respond to the varied and changing needs of our students, families and staff as they arise. This ranges from practical support to emotional support.

Daily tasks involve communicating with students, family members and other significantly involved people over the phone, face to face and via email. It involves supporting and challenging staff to achieve the high standards expected of public education. On some days, I lead staff meetings or Professional Learning, on other days I consult the student leaders in the school or P&C and every day I manage aspects of the financial running of the school including budgeting and expenditure management and the physical maintenance and improvement of school grounds and facilities.


How long have you been doing this job and what first sparked your interest in this area?

I became a teacher 25 years ago. I always loved to learn and still love learning new things. Like so many others who find themselves in education, I was inspired by a number of amazing teachers when I was in high school. I never wanted to be in a job that would have me sitting or standing at a counter all day. Having said that I find myself sitting at my desk an awful lot these days but at least my office has a revolving door with plenty of different people coming and going.

What do you like most about the job?

One of the aspects of the job that I enjoy is the social nature of the job that has a primary focus on helping others. I like the unpredictability and constant change; you can never claim to be bored as a principal. Education is such a great place to be, it is wonderful interacting on a regular basis with so many bright young people and the staff both teaching and non-teaching are of the highest calibre.

What was the most unexpected thing you have had to do in your job?

There are many unexpected aspects to this job, like accompanying a student in an ambulance to hospital, choosing the colour of paint and patterns of carpet and becoming familiar with guttering styles and the plumbing of the school. In terms of recent events, I never imagined I would have to lead a whole school community in a transition to remote/online learning! That was certainly a learning experience, and something I could never have foreseen when I started teaching 25 years ago.

What is the worst thing you have had to do?

Attend the funerals of young people – educators end up becoming so much more than teachers; we develop strong relationships with not only the students themselves but also with their extended families.

Has your approach to being the principal changed after taking charge of a selective school – and one of the oldest and most renowned schools in Australia? If so, how?

Not really, I have always been acutely aware of how important a school’s culture and traditions are to the entire school community, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my journey in education in many different school settings including special education in London. Fort Street High School does have a rich history and pride in many old traditions. For example, I was surprised to find that students still sing in Latin every school assembly. That was something unfamiliar to me, but I felt it was important to make the effort to learn the school songs myself to show that I value that aspect of the school’s history and tradition.

The school’s long tradition of academic excellence is also important to me and to the students. Academically selective schools like Fort Street play an important role in the wider public education system.

Having such a concentration of gifted students allows them to become more than the sum of their parts, and the things they are able to achieve not just academically, but also artistically, culturally and in a leadership sense, are incredible. Part of the tradition of Fort Street is also recognising the responsibility that the privilege of such an education is for our students, developing in them a strong social conscience and encouraging them to make a positive contribution to society.

What advice do you have for people wanting to get into this career? What should they study and what experience do they need to get into this field?

Make sure you realise that the old days of teaching are over – it is not a job for you if you are looking to exert influence and power over others. Teachers and school leaders need to be tolerant, understanding and patient.

Teaching hours also do not reflect the school day. There are many hours spent late into the night and on weekends and holidays preparing lessons, creating resources, marking and providing feedback for students’ work and writing reports. A job in education requires a huge commitment. For those who are interested in school leadership in particular, it is important to realise that while schools are large and complex organisations that increasingly require skills in financial management, human resources management etc. at their heart they remain about the education of young people – quality teaching and learning – and it is important for someone in a position like mine to never lose sight of that.

What personal skills do they need?

Most importantly, you will need to have excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate well. A joy of interacting and spending lots of time with young people is also vital.

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