By Danielle Kutchel
It’s been almost 31 years, but founding principal of Berwick Lodge Primary School, Henry Grossek, is still “thrilled” to be in the role. He spoke to DANIELLE KUTCHEL about sticking to his principles and how the school rose to become a leader in e-learning.
I’m very proud that many thousands of kids have given it their best shot and as a leader I owe it to them to do the same
Back in October 1989, Henry Grossek never would have dreamed that three decades later he’d still be principal of the school he opened.
Nevertheless, he’s pleased to have overseen Berwick Lodge Primary School’s growth and helped it find its place in local education – not bad for someone who originally wanted to be an engineer or research scientist.
After “wasting” his chance at university and failing his first year, Mr Grossek moved into a primary teaching qualification and, realising he enjoyed it, decided he “might give this thing a shot”.
Opening a school is “a very exciting, interesting, challenging time,” the experienced educator said.
“Learning on the job was very challenging – you lack experience and the workload is incredible, you start from scratch with a new team that has never worked together, and to some degree you’re winging it because it’s new for your too and you don’t know some of the things that are going to confront you.”
It was a role that tested him to the limit, but Mr Grossek says it is “incredibly rewarding” to be part of a team that has built something from nothing.
In a way, one could say it’s a role he was well suited to.
Born to German and Polish parents who migrated to Australia after World War II, Mr Grossek views challenges in a different light, comparing them to his parents and the generation of people who had no choice but to leave everything, including their families, behind for a shot at a better life.
Teaching at Doveton West Primary School in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he faced a series of testing circumstances, including a firebug who burned down a third of the school.
“For quite a few months we were teaching in the corridor,” Mr Grossek recalls.
“That was pretty hard work, and I confess there was a time when I started thinking that maybe teaching wasn’t for me.
“You seemed to be treading water at best.”
But the resilience and sacrifice of immigrants like his parents inspired him to continue.
“You roll up your sleeves and get on with it – that’s how I was brought up,” he says.
That spirit has seen Berwick Lodge Primary School cement itself under his leadership as a local pioneer in using digital technology for learning.
The school first built a partnership with Casey Radio 20 years ago, later receiving a Federal Government grant that allowed it to build a studio on its grounds. The principal started his own radio program.
“Our students became interested in audio learning before it was fashionable,” Mr Grossek laughs.
As STEM became embedded in schools and computer learning became a way of life, Berwick Lodge found that in some ways it was ahead of the curve.
The school was able to make a logical transition from audio e-learning to new fields, like robotics and, more recently, filmmaking.
Now, they are doing pioneering work in augmented reality, using it to enhance student interest in reading.
The school has also established a partnership with Deakin University to research the value of augmented reality in engaging students better in their learning.
Part of the school’s success in these areas is due to the calibre of its teachers, Mr Grossek explains.
“Because we had strong investments in digital learning, we attracted teachers with that interest to our school.”
He’s proud of having gone the distance with these ideas, investing enough time in them to see the rewards in students’ learning.
“When I was a young teacher, I remember an assistant director of education chatting to me one day, and he said ‘one of the things to remember to be a successful educator is that many people are good at starting things, but less people are good at finishing them, so get your teeth into things and stay the distance’”, Mr Grossek recalls.
“They were wise words because we’re constantly bombarded with new ideas, initiatives and programs, always seeking to find better ways to help kids learn, so you can get caught up on the treadmill of constant change and can only handle so much at a time.
“You really need to put three to five years into things. I’ve had many opportunities to be patient with ideas.”
The experience has also taught him how to manage and handle change.
While change can be challenging, Mr Grossek says “if we don’t change, you go backwards”.
Successfully leading change involves investing in it and giving staff the chance to grow with the change.
Stable leadership also helps to guide change – and Mr Grossek hopes that he’s been able to provide that over his 31-year tenure.
Throughout his years as principal, he has also been an outspoken advocate for teachers and for public education.
His advocacy work has seen him chair education boards and become a member of various associations.
Connections encouraged him to try for more senior bureaucratic positions, like a regional director of education, and Mr Grossek admits he did once dream of moving into such things.
But the principal found that sticking to his principles was more important.
“I’ve been a very public critic at times of what I’ve seen to be poor policy,” he says.
He’s referring to his role in blowing the whistle on underutilisation of funds during the Rudd Government’s Building the Education Revolution program.
“Those sorts of things don’t win your favour with the people who make decisions about careers there,” he observes wryly.
“I’m not bitter about it; I’ve made my choices.
“More lately I’d rather not be a bureaucrat, I’m happier not to be one because from what I can see, I would have to sing to too many tunes I would only partly believe.
“The last thing I want is to be talking to my colleagues saying one thing, when my heart is not in that approach.”
It’s yet another lesson he learned from his family.
“My father very sternly said ‘whatever you do in life, do it properly’, so the message I got there from my father was don’t do anything you’re not going to do well.
“If I’m going to stay in something and my heart isn’t in it, why stay in it? I’ve chosen to stay in it and do my best.
“Thirty-one years later at Berwick Lodge, I’m very proud that many thousands of kids have given it their best shot and as a leader I owe it to them to do the same. If not, I shouldn’t be leading a school,” he says.