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In a class of her own

6 April 2017
From the wrong side of the tracks you can still find the road to success

Donna Loughran is a school principal and one of the most successful and respected teachers in NSW. An unlikely outcome for someone who used to habitually skip school to work in a shop, and failed her year 10 exams.

When Donna Loughran (BEd(Hum) ’97) failed Year 10, it came as no surprise. She had always showed up for roll call at Shalvey High School in Sydney’s west, but most days she’d “bunk off” early to work at a local milk bar.

“I envisioned I would work at the fish and chip shop and start my own business,” Loughran says. “I was just cruising, living for the moment, not thinking about my future.”

No one, least of all Loughran herself, imagined that one day she would become an innovative school principal and one of the most respected teachers in the state.

The young Donna Loughran, could never have imagined that she would one day have a career in education and help others reach their potential

The young Donna Loughran, could never have imagined that she would one day have a career in education and help others reach their potential.

Failing the school certificate was a “kick up the pants”, forcing Loughran to rethink her ambitions. She decided she wanted to do the Higher School Certificate but didn’t want to repeat year 10 to do it. She eventually landed at Cambridge Park High School at the foot of the Blue Mountains.

Arriving at school at seven each morning and staying late into the afternoon, she spent Years 11 and 12 improving her writing skills. 

A turning point came when her legal studies teacher, Steve Duclos, took her under his wing. He pushed her to reach her full potential and, ultimately, win a scholarship to the University of Sydney. He became a key figure in her life as his mentorship continued through Loughran’s training as a teacher.

This was the early 1990s, when going to university was a big deal for a girl from Shalvey. Most of Loughran’s school friends headed straight into work and quickly started families. Like its neighbour, Mt Druitt, Shalvey was seen by many in Sydney as disadvantaged and undesirable. Loughran’s mother worked in a supermarket and her father was a security guard, so her education sent her down a very different path. She was the only one of her four siblings to finish high school.

“It felt my world was becoming a lot bigger,” Loughran says of her arrival at university. Previously, she’d been to central Sydney only about half a dozen times.

Of the two university friends she remains in touch with, one was from Brisbane (“she opened my world up to inner city life”) and the other was from Sutherland, south of Sydney (“a completely different part of the world”). “I gave them an education too – I changed their perceptions of a Mt Druitt girl. I probably challenged a few people in my tutorials when they learned where I was from.”

After doing her practical teacher training at Doonside Technology High School (DTHS), Loughran held permanent roles at various other high schools in western Sydney. She was deputy principal at Campbelltown Performing Arts High School for three years before finding herself back at DTHS in 2016, as principal.

Having a natural warmth and enthusiasm, Loughran engages easily with the students, making a point of mixing with them in the school yard every day. Going against some perceptions, the students themselves are engaged, articulate and eager to learn and participate. There is a lively sense of community at the school.

Loughran is part of a new generation of educators showing kids how best to learn from the information that inundates their daily lives. “It’s far more about how to get kids learning and excited in a world saturated with information,” she says. “How do they unpack the information around them?”

Her forward-looking ethos and drive have earned her Lead Teacher accreditation by the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES). Put simply, Lead Teachers are the cream of the crop.  

At a ceremony celebrating the awards in August 2016, BOSTES President Tom Alegounarias said, “Every day, they are leading by example within their schools, communities and professional networks, actively working to better understand, identify and share strategies that work to improve student outcomes.” This is all very true of Loughran.

Returning to lead a school in an area where she grew up was a thrill, Loughran says. “I felt like I was back at home. I knew the streets. I knew the suburbs the kids came from.”

She bursts with pride when discussing the school’s celebration of diversity. “The tolerance and the acceptance level – whether it’s your culture, race or sexuality – it’s beautiful. The students just embrace it.”  

I felt like I was back at home. I knew the streets. I knew the suburbs the kids came from.
Donna Loughran

Loughran says many of the families are very aspirational, but for a few students, there are challenges at home around mental health, poverty and English as a second language; some parents and even grandparents have never had a job. For Loughran, one of the standout issues when she arrived was the high suspension rate, particularly of Year 7 students.

“It’s so sad at such a young age,” Loughran says with concern. “When kids feel invisible, it usually results in them disconnecting quietly – or overtly in the case of incidents that can lead to suspensions. Students need to feel that their teachers know them and care about them, so they don’t fall through the cracks.”

To support these at-risk students, Loughran is initiating a new program for 2017 in which each Year 7 class will have four teachers and a maximum of 20 students, so the student/ teacher relationship has greater connection. Teachers will also use their other capabilities in class: a science teacher who plays in a band will also teach his students performing arts.  

Loughran wants to stay connected to her students. Every day she makes a point of mixing with them in the Doonside Technology High School

Loughran wants to stay connected to her students. Every day she makes a point of mixing with them in the Doonside Technology High School.

The youngest in her family, Loughran was the first to go to university but not the last. Of her two sisters, Jackie is now a Clinical Nurse Specialist in mental health at Cumberland Hospital and Kath is a teacher’s aide at Chifley College Mt Druitt, and six months out from graduating as a high school mathematics teacher. Loughran also forged a path for an older generation in her family, encouraging her aunt to become a teacher and her Dad, at 53, to enrol in librarianship studies.

As she tells her students, “There are a thousand ways to get from A to B in a career plan, but your postcode never has to determine your destiny.”

Help more students go to university  

If you’d like to learn more about our student support programs, or help more people like Donna receive scholarships, please phone (02) 8627 8818 or email development.fund@sydney.edu.au

Listen in to learn more  

You’ll find a Sydney Ideas podcast about what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century at https://soundcloud.com/sydney-ideas/sets/education


Written by Jocelyn Prasad
Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim

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