Tell us about the school when you first arrived.
I arrived in 2006 as the deputy principal. There were 270-odd boys in the school at that time and the school culture was very divided. There were cliquey groups amongst the staff and kids, and a very limited belief in what could be achieved. It was a year after the Cronulla Riots. There was so much tension. A lot of the boys are from Middle Eastern backgrounds. Muslim kids. Arabic kids. They felt like they were under attack. There was no desire to create a sense of belonging.
How would you describe Punchbowl?
Punchbowl is in southwest Sydney and it has got a very high migrant mix. In our school itself, we have 33 different cultural groups. The largest are Arabic, Pacific Islander, African and South East Asian. A large percentage of Punchbowl’s residents are born overseas and it’s still a working- class area. It’s also an incredibly rich community. I love the diversity and the warmth. The suburb can get an unfortunate wrap, but you just walk down the street. People are welcoming. People are friendly.
You took over as principal when you were 33, how did that feel?
I never thought about my age. I think it came down to a bit of good luck, timing and being the right person in the right place. It’s a huge responsibility to take on a school. You take on the weight of everybody, the staff and students. You can’t be everyone’s friend. What you can do is get everyone to understand your reasons. I remember getting up in the staff room once and saying, “Look guys, this isn’t the direction that we, as a community, have agreed to. If you don’t want to be here, that’s fine, but please don’t undermine our work.” Rather than asking people to get out, I asked them to be on board. This was my approach.
What were your main challenges?
We had to change student and staff mentality and improve the school physically. The buildings had barbed wire and there were bars across every window. The school had been broken into. The year before I started, someone had driven a car through the gates and set it alight. There’d been a gun held to the former principal’s head. So we couldn’t just take all the bars off the windows. We also had a very tired-looking building. Lots of things were broken.
How did you address the problems?
We started with small things, like the garden out the front. We put in roses and fixed the lawn. We managed to get a bit of funding and replace some of the bars on the windows with security fly screens. We couldn’t afford to get the surfaces repainted, but we could afford the paint, so the teachers did the work together. When something broke we decided to fix it straight away. If a drain was blocked, one of us would unblock it. We started acknowledging teachers for doing great work. We developed school plans aimed at improving teaching across all staff. If we needed to employ more support teachers, we did.
How did you realistically make those changes, with a limited budget and resources?
Through the good will of our teaching community. We created a homework club and staff volunteered their time to run it. We had HSC tutoring and the teachers volunteered to assist. Teachers started to care, because they saw a change in the kids and they saw a principal who acknowledged their effort. Once we had some momentum, we focused on making sure lessons were presented in engaging ways. We put more time into preparing kids for exams and started getting better academic results. We now have 500 kids and good will is just part of our culture.
What did you do on a personal level?
I thought of our school as a family. I have a similar background to a lot of the kids. I’m Lebanese and I became a principal, so you can’t tell me it’s not possible to succeed. I tried to provide an example, standing up in assembly, I’d say, “Boys, we’re the best school in the country.” The first time I said it, they wouldn’t stop laughing, but I kept going. “Boys, that’s the problem. You are laughing at yourselves, so what do you think other people are doing?” It became a challenge to believe in the school, and boys love competition. We started talking about the school as our house, our family, our community I started standing out the front every morning, greeting the kids as they came in. I saw this happening once in Japan, and loved it. I tried to build relationships on all levels, with the “naughty” kids, the “good” kids, teachers, parents, the department of education, the funeral home bloke who was upset ’cause kids were throwing rocks at his fence. I did everything I could to lead in the school and in the community and, eventually, people did the same.
Tell us about the school’s community dinners.
Once a year we host a big dinner. I started this during my first year, as a way of bringing the school and wider community together. The first year we had around 50 people turn up. This year, nine years later, we got 700. We throw it to coincide with Ramadan, because a lot of the boys fast, but we invite and include everybody. You don’t have to be a Muslim to attend. Everybody brings a plate. People from our school, some of the local businesses, ex- students and kids from other schools come. Everyone is so generous. Families who are doing it really tough bring massive plates of food. It’s such a nice, beautiful night. This, to me, is what schools do. They bring people together.