Speaking to Lisa Helenius, it soon becomes clear that humanity is at the heart of everything she does as a school leader. People as individuals, and the communities they form together, are her focus.
The school community she is currently leading is a brand new one: Rapids Landing Primary School, in Margaret River, Western Australia. The school opened its doors in term one of this year, with Helenius having stepped into the role of foundation principal in March last year. Foundation students, staff and families have already formed “an incredibly supportive school community”, Helenius says.
‘Something I knew I would love’
Helenius declares teaching as having been her career goal “from as early as I can remember”. Despite being encouraged by her teachers to explore different options, education stayed firmly in her sights. “I persevered with doing something I knew I would love,” she explains.
Since 1983, there has only been one year that she has spent in a role other than that of a teacher or school leader: a 12-month stint as a principal consultant in the Goldfields Education Region in 1998. West Australian regional communities, including Kalgoorlie, Esperance and Margaret River, have been the beneficiaries of Helenius’ commitment to school leadership over the past 28 years.
The accidental leader
Funnily enough, Helenius describes herself as the “accidental leader”, explaining she never planned to become a principal. “After teaching for six years, I was encouraged to take on an acting deputy role – and really enjoyed the opportunities it provided to make a difference at a whole-school level,” she recalls. “I actually applied for a principal’s position to return to my extended families. I’m grateful for the professional experiences I then gained and was offered throughout my leadership journey.”
For an accidental leader, she’s a highly regarded one. In 2017, Helenius received a John Laing Award for Professional Development, presented by Principals Australia Institute (PAI). “Lisa’s nomination from the Western Australian Primary Principals’ Association for a John Laing Award was a glowing endorsement of her talents,” says Paul Geyer, PAI’s chief executive officer. “It’s wonderful to see her achievements continue this year as foundation principal at Rapids Landing.”
Autonomy and accountability
Helenius is well practised at trying new things, and bringing a community along with her to achieve a successful transition. In 2010, she was principal of Esperance Primary School, which under her leadership became one of the first Independent Public Schools in Western Australia, part of an inaugural intake of 34 schools.
“I am a strong advocate of autonomy and willingly accept the associated accountability and responsibility that being a leader in unique environments brings,” Helenius says. “I have supported staff to embrace this mindset and provided advice, support and coaching as needed, and supported colleagues and communities as an IPS Advisor for schools wanting to achieve IPS status or maximise their autonomy in this distinctive context.”
No stranger to change
Clearly no stranger to change management, Helenius describes her leadership style as one that brings “energy, passion and intentional action when defining, monitoring and achieving articulated visions”.
Trust in her staff is crucial. “I really privilege staff and have implicit trust in their practice. I have three main drivers: relationships, inclusion and opportunity,” she explains. “To achieve this, I enable a school culture that strongly supports professional learning communities and community partnerships. The greatest opportunities will be identified and acted upon by an agile, informed, autonomous and healthy principal and staff.”
People make the biggest difference
Helenius honed her HR knowledge through further tertiary education, earning a graduate diploma in business, majoring in organisational behaviour and human resource management.
“Believing that people make the biggest difference to student learning, I have always had a passion for personal growth and developing others,” she says.
She’s also gained accreditation in Growth Coaching, Cognitive Coaching and ICT Peer Coaching. This commitment to professional development has seen her “develop a skill set to help educational staff and colleagues articulate their hopes and aspirations, define where they want to be and support them in achieving their goals”, she explains. “I use my professional learning to make a difference to staff capacity and student success.”
In addition, Helenius is a coach for WAPPA and the Department of Education’s Women in Leadership initiative.
Tribes Learning Communities, or TLC, is one of Helenius’ preferred processes for achieving learning success for staff and students. Tribes “maximises learning and human development and underpins the practice in the schools I lead,” says Helenius, who is an accredited trainer in the program.
“We use it to build, nurture and maintain this inclusive, supportive, safe and resilient environment where students can really take risks and challenge themselves to achieve their personal best.
“The schools I lead develop the whole child and establish a strong culture of shared responsibility for the learning of every child by all staff. It is this collective responsibility that makes such a difference to our student learning and school performance.
“Every child matters and staff want to make a difference as a team,” Helenius says.
Strategy versus operations
For the individual leading the team, it can be challenging to personally source the support she or he is working so hard to create for their community. Helenius identifies one significant stressor as “the tension in remaining strategic when the operation demands are many”. Where does she find empathy when that tension is rising
Principals access camaraderie and help “usually from each other”.
“I find to explain the role of a principal to someone external to the job is challenging, as there is the strategic definition, but I find I am often being operational, especially opening a new school.
The tension of what you are doing and what you know you should, or would, like to be doing is tricky to manage, so colleagues who ‘get it’ are a strong support.”
Helenius observes that “the world of school leadership has certainly changed significantly in the past 25 years” since she became a school leader, describing a frenetic pace and “incredibly diverse demands”. Good leaders will also “manage up”, she advises, “keeping the system well informed of what is working well and providing feedback on the ‘even better if’ to ensure decisions are timely, purposeful and relevant to our ever-changing educational sector”.
Experimenting and staying agile
Helenius is up for the challenge of 21st century school leadership. “Seriously, I love to experiment with what is possible,” she insists. “I find keeping an open mind, researching, selecting stimulating professional learning, and engaging in healthy dialogue with colleagues and staff creates opportunities to stay agile. I love sharing a possibility with staff and seeing where they take it.
By giving time to play, experiment and learn from each other, we create new learning opportunities for students and have fun along the way. I know people working in schools can make such a difference to their students.”
New beginnings, new challenges
Opening a new school as the foundation principal at Rapids Landing has provided “an amazing context for intensive professional growth,” Helenius says. “There is still much to be achieved, but we have already created a wonderful place where our students have connected, developed a sense of belonging and are showing positive learning outcomes.”
Helenius started the groundwork by making sure she articulated her vision early. “This was created with strong and frequent consultation with the school community,” she says. “Staff were then recruited based on their capacity to demonstrate how they can achieve this vision together.”
Her aspirations for the coming year are, naturally, to continue building on those solid foundations, establishing systems and practices that will enable strong learning outcomes for today’s students and beyond.
“It really is a privilege to open a school,” she says, “as so much trust and faith is placed in the principal to really know the distinctive needs and interests of the community, and create something special.”
Many magic moments
Helenius doesn’t take her role at Rapids Landing for granted. In the foreword of the new school’s prospectus, she writes: “We have been given a unique opportunity to build a new school with a new vision and ethos that reflects Margaret River, our community and most importantly the needs of our children… This will be the beginning of something very special for us all.”
This experience is one she counts among the “many magic moments” of her school leadership career. But again, she credits the role of her staff and the school community in making that magic happen.
“The nuances are now being added as we use the gifts each of us bring in making the vision a reality,” she says. “We create excellence together.”