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Diane Joseph: Privileged and proud

Alexandra Tolmie

In a follow-up to our series on Canberra’s high quality public, Catholic and independent schools, Alex Tolmie caught up with the Director-General of Education and Training, Diane Joseph, to hear about her career journey, why she loves Canberra, and what’s so great about our schools.

If you were asked to picture a strong headmistress who runs a tight ship you wouldn’t be alone if you thought of Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book Matilda. Yet although Diane Joseph is undeniably formidable, the highly experienced former principal is a lot more like Miss Honey than the aforementioned Miss Trunchbull. She’s warm, approachable and passionate about the strengths of our schools, and proud of her privileged position as the leader of such an outstanding system.

Diane is the head of the ACT’s Education and Training Directorate, a department of the ACT public service, which is responsible for the provision of early childhood education and care, school education and coordination of training and higher education in the ACT. Diane moved to Canberra from Melbourne five and a half years ago to take up the position of Deputy Director-General, and was appointed to her current role three years ago.

“I always wanted to be a teacher, even from kindergarten,” she explains.

“My career journey started from the motivation of really wanting to be a teacher and wanting to help other people develop and learn and grow.”

Diane’s first teaching position was in the Western suburbs of Melbourne and, coming from her upbringing in the leafy Eastern suburbs, this was quite a change and a challenge.

“It was tough,” she muses. “It really was hard. The school had lots of students from non-English speaking backgrounds and huge levels of disadvantage. And it was a boys’ school. But I just loved it. I had some wonderful experiences. The school was so innovative and there were these fantastic opportunities to think differently and do things differently, and it was those early years that really informed how I was going to be as an educator in the long-term.”

Gaining her first position as a principal at age 36, Diane (as a female and someone of her age) was pretty rare in the secondary school system at the time and particularly in the region in which she was working where most of her colleagues were male.

The opportunities she was given to do things differently — such as including Vocational Education and Training in the school’s curriculum and forming links with business, industry and the parent community — really sparked her enduring appetite for innovation. After moving out of the classroom and into an executive position at the Victorian education department, Diane continued to work in education policy and eventually ended up in the top job here in Canberra.

Although she no longer delivers learning experiences directly, Diane is adamant that she’s still a teacher helping to inform and influence what happens in the classroom.

“I’ll maintain my teacher registration until the end of my career,” she affirms. “I’ve never really left the classroom. I don’t teach students directly anymore, but when I sit in the audience at Step into the Limelight I like to think there’s something I have done in my role as Director-General that has helped those young people to show their talents at that level.”

One of the things Diane loves most is how accessible the ACT is as an education jurisdiction and she makes a concerted effort to visit every school community at least once a year to experience for herself the excitement of learning and the achievements of our students.

“I’ve been to visit three schools today [at the time of this interview] and some Year 10 boys made me a cappuccino on their new coffee machine. I’ve spoken to every single one of our principals this morning. That’s the beauty of Canberra — because it’s a small jurisdiction you can bring everybody together relatively quickly. I aspire to do my job better every year and I can only do that through learning, and I learn best through the teachers and the principals in our schools. I have to make sure I remember how it feels, and how it sounds, and what it looks like to be in a school, particularly by Friday afternoon.”

Diane feels privileged to be the head of a nation-leading jurisdiction. Before moving here she knew the ACT education system was good.

“But I didn’t know it was that good! When I see what’s happening in our schools—and the data reinforces it—when I see what our students and our teachers and our principals are doing, I’m just blown away,” she says proudly.

Diane’s strong passion for innovation is evident in her enthusiasm for the unique programs and initiatives being trialled in our system. One example is the use of Google Apps for Education, a suite of free productivity tools for classroom collaboration. The intention behind this is to give schools opportunities to do things differently and to open teachers’ minds to the limitless possibilities for using technology in the classroom.

“Our teachers and principals have a huge capacity to innovate within our system because we are a small jurisdiction so we can support them to try new things,” she says.

“For example at Richardson Primary School there’s a teacher there doing incredible things with Chromebooks and an electronic whiteboard. Or you can go to the new kitchen garden and café at Arawang Primary School. These things don’t just happen because the DG has a good idea; it happens because at the school level they knew what would make a difference to their students and their community.

“There’s nothing more wonderful than to sit at the national table as the ACT Director-General of Education, because I can say I know what’s happening in our schools, I’m proud of what’s happening in our schools, and I’ve got the evidence to say our schools are doing amazing things.”

Aside from her obvious passion for our education system, Diane is also a huge fan of our city. She’s a keen cyclist and runner and loves to share the big-sky beauty of our natural environment and stable climate with visiting family and friends. Some of her favourite haunts include the National Arboretum, the National Portrait Gallery and 38 Espresso on the Kingston Foreshore.

“Canberra has lots of surprises,” she muses. “Even in the five years I’ve been here I’ve seen an increasing level of confidence and sophistication. I mean, how great is The Hamlet? You can go there and have a bowl of soup at the communal tables and people are just having these open conversations with each other. I love the energy here.”

When asked about what exciting things lie ahead for her, unsurprisingly the talk happily returns to teaching and learning.

“One of the things I really like participating in and thinking about is growing the next generation of school leaders,” she says.

“We have a cohort of about 50 aspiring leaders, at all different levels and all different lengths of career journey and experiences, and we work with experts at the University of Melbourne in delivering a top of the class program that really challenges their thinking about teaching, learning and leadership.

“We also then use a coaching/mentoring model utilising the leaders currently in our system. I don’t believe you necessarily have to climb the ladder to get a good job or a promotion. It’s about your capability together with your experience, not simply the length of your experience.”

Given she believes capability is just as important as experience, Diane offers her 19 year old self the kind of timeless advice that a modern-day Miss Honey might give to some graduating Year 12 students.

“Early in my career there were some jobs I did not apply for because I thought I wasn’t experienced enough or qualified enough and so other people got the jobs that I could have done but I just never put my hand up,” she replies. “So to my 19 year old self I would say ‘believe in yourself, trust your experience, and know that you’re always going to continue to learn and grow.’”

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Alex Tolmie

Alex is the founder and co-chair of the Department of Education and Training Women's Network and a mum of two gorgeous little girls. She has overcome big challenges as a new mother and now loves to help others become confident, joyful mamas themselves. She blogs about her experience at draxela.com More about the Author

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