Big Picture School Leader is Principal of the Year

Bronwyn Harcourt is Victorian Principal of the Year.

“It’s a huge honour”, says Bronwyn Harcourt from Croydon as she is awarded Secondary Principal of the Year in the Victorian Education Excellence Awards at Crown Palladium in Melbourne. 

Of all the principals in Victoria, this principal from a small Big Picture school stood out and has been awarded as the best. So, how did she do it?

Big Picture eNews asked Bronwyn about her award, her career and her hopes for the future.

Q: How do you feel about winning such a prestigious award?

A: It’s a huge honour. I think it’s still sinking in just how huge it actually is. I’m just starting to realise the range of opportunities it gives me and how others are feeling it as a sign of greater good too. Coming from a small alternative school and winning it is something that others are commenting on quite a bit to me. How it may wake up ‘the system’ that thinks big is best and that there’s only one way to do things. The opportunity to complete further study or professional learning through use of the award money is quite exciting too. I’m hoping to head off to the USA and visit some Big Picture schools there to learn more about embedding practices at my school.

Q: What do you think has been the key to your success?

A: Persistence … accepting responsibility for the success of every student in my school and setting only the highest of expectations for myself and those around me. I make no apologies for any of that either. Why aim for half measures? I have worked very hard to find the best staff to work in my school but I still expect them to build their skills every year and to always ‘do better’. There’s no way anyone can achieve sustained success and cultural change without the passionate support of the entire staff. But to me, all this must be done under an umbrella of respect, kindness and compassion - lose those values and the rest falls apart pretty quickly.

Q: Tell us a little about your teaching career. Why did you become a teacher?

A: Teaching was not my first choice for career but going to college to play sport seemed like a good idea at the time.  I made some bad choices in subject selection that stopped me getting in to the things I’d originally planned on doing. My first choice was to be a paediatrician. My second choice was forestry and my third was to be a hermit and live in a cave on the beach. I still think about that one some days! I’d always played sport so doing PE seemed like a good idea. I got a Commonwealth Teaching Service Scholarship so I spent my final teaching round on Groote Eylandt and as part of that, worked in the Aboriginal settlement school. I didn’t understand a word of the language and felt pretty useless as a teacher there but it did cement my desire to teach. The people around me say that I’ve been teaching since I went to kinder and they can’t imagine me ever doing something else. When I look back at my family tree I think I should just acknowledge that it’s genetic. My paternal great grandfather was Principal at the first ‘industrial school’ in Victoria, my maternal grandmother was a teacher in rural Victoria, my mother tried teaching for a short time and my great-great grandfather ran the first home for inebriates and the mentally ill in Melbourne.

Q: Has Big Picture assisted your teaching, or with student learning? If so, how?

A: Big Picture gives a framework to philosophies and strategies I’ve believed in and lived by in my teaching long before I’d ever heard of Big Picture itself. It creates networks of like-minded people so together you can do more than you could ever do apart. It has a social justice base that I love and it acknowledges people as individuals. It celebrates their diversity and those are things that I felt were missing for me as I was growing up and going to school. It legitimises effective practice and promotes it as the way forward for all schools.

Q: Tell us how the school changed as it explored Big Picture ideas?

A: Our school now has a structure to hold itself against and this has given it increased discipline and form. I mean this in an artistic way, not in a negative way. We are able to dream bigger and achieve more for and with our students, their families and the community. In a data sense we have improved attendance, improved literacy and numeracy attainment, seen a decrease in suspensions and damage to school property, and seen an increase in the respect that students hold for themselves and show towards others. I think staff has even bettered the expectations they hold for themselves and for student achievement.

Q: Can you tell us about any powerful examples you have witnessed with students?

A: When we first introduced Big Picture and the ILPs the kids loved it, spending more time in class working productively. The school got quieter and the yard got emptier during class time. These were huge changes for our school. Then one student came up to me and said, “You tricked us”. I asked her what she meant and she elaborated, “You tricked us into learning”. I just laughed. That’s a pretty good trick! There are many other stories too, like a Year 10 boy who comes to my office every now and then and asks me if he can read to me. He’s been doing the same thing to Mark Heuston, our Campus Principal for a while now so I’m happy to be included too. I’ve seen one boy go from the saddest of sad and completing a disappointing exhibition in term 2 Year 9; to measuring, cutting and building a model plane with Mark; to baking and icing multi-tier cakes with our Youth Worker Aimee Denbesten; to going on work experience organised by his Advisor; to now working in a school-based apprenticeship organised by our VCAL Coordinator, Pauline McNamara.

This term I challenged the school to complete 10,000 acts of kindness in 10 weeks and every Friday in Ciao (last thing we do before the weekend) they write up examples of kind acts they saw during the week. It’s not the end of term yet but we’ve met the challenge already. 

Q: What would you say to other teachers and principals about re-engaging students with learning?

A: There’s an old saying, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care”. That sums up engagement and re-engagement for me … build the relationship; develop an understanding of student interests. “Seek first to understand” as Covey puts it. It might take a while but without doing this you will never move to the next step. We expect it will take 2-4 years for us to achieve significant change with each of our students because they have faced multiple challenges and been failed by the system over many years, but the same thing applies in every school with every child. It has always amazed me that teachers understand this when it applies to them (“The Principal doesn’t listen to us”, “Staff meetings are boring – they should make them more interesting”) but these people are often the last ones to consider doing things differently in their classrooms to engage students or build positive relationships. Engage with the individual first, then build that to engage them with learning and then the whole world opens up!


This is a big award for a Big Picture Principal. Congratulations Bronwyn. We all wish you well.