Lessons from a high school principal

Regional Roadshow

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed some of UQ’s Regional Roadshow plans for Toowoomba, Contact is still bringing you stories from our graduates in the region.

For most of his 19 years as a high school principal, UQ graduate Tony Kennedy (Bachelor of Arts ’92) has called the Darling Downs home.

The retiring Toowoomba State High School Principal has supported thousands of local kids through the region’s schools during his career, but Tony didn’t always want to be a teacher.

As he looks back on his career, Tony told Contact about his start in the Defence Force, his advice for young educators, and what it’s like to watch Queensland’s kids grow up.

After finishing high school in 1979, Tony started an electrical apprenticeship. From there, he took up work as an aircraft maintenance engineer with the Australian Defence Force.

He stayed with the Defence Force for 10 years before deciding it was time for a change in 1990.

“I was fairly young when I made the decision to work in the Defence Force,” Tony said.

“At the time, it was the right decision; I had no regrets. But I also didn’t regret deciding to leave.”

Tony had already been studying his Bachelor of Arts part-time at UQ while in the Defence Force and said the transition into teaching came almost by accident.

“When I left the Defence Force, I had intended to study full-time and really just see what happened,” Tony said.

“My majors were in mathematics and economics, and at the time, I had this view that I’d be a successful economist or businessperson – that was sort of the trend back in the 1980s.

“But one night, I saw an advertisement for teaching scholarships at Griffith University, and I thought I’d apply.

“I ended up getting it, so I started teaching – I found I really enjoyed it and stuck with it.”

Image: razihusin/Adobe Stock

Tony’s first teaching appointment was at Corinda State High School in the early 1990s. Around three or four years into teaching, he decide to pursue leadership roles, and has now been working as a principal for the past 19 years.

“I started as Principal at Toowoomba State High School in 2016,” Tony said.

“I’d been Principal at Pittsworth State High School for nine years prior to that, and I’d taken a year as an Assistant Regional Director for the Darling Downs [through the Department of Education].

“After that year, I decided to go back to working as a principal, because for me, it’s where I felt I had the most influence in the most rewarding job.,"

Tony Kennedy wears a grey shirt and tie and black work pants. He is in an office surrounded by coloured balloons and is holding a pink balloon, smiling.

While the good days were many, Tony said being a principal was a role sometimes marred by tragedy. These were the days where you needed to have the strength not only for yourself, but for the whole school community.

“A colleague of mine used to say that being a high school principal was the best job in the world, with some of the worst days of your life,” Tony said.

“There’s nothing more gut-wrenching than finding out one of your students has passed away in a car accident over the weekend, and then having to tell a thousand people the next day what’s occurred and trying to lead the community through that.

“You have to attend funerals of people who you know had great potential to make contributions in life, and their lives have been taken from them.

“How do you console a parent who’s lost their child? Those times are really tough.”

But for every tragedy, there are the moments and the students he will never forget.

“It’s always thrilling to watch the Year 12 students graduate and see how excited they are, and see how excited their parents are and how proud they are of them,” Tony said.

“There’s a few students that really stick in my mind for who they are and what they’ve done – there was one in particular from Pittsworth who passed away several years after she left school.

“We’d been looking to employ her as a teacher in the school, so that was particularly tough, as she had such a future ahead of her. She’s always on my mind.

“There’s a few from Toowoomba, but there’s one young man in particular who’s had an impact on me with his maturity and drive to succeed – I think he’ll go a long way.

“It’s nice to look back across the past 20-odd years and remember the kids I’ve coached in various sporting teams, and to see them go on to play for the NRL, or represent Australia at the Olympic Games.

“Not that I think I had a great contribution, but maybe I helped them a little on their way.”

When asked if his shift into the education field was the right decision, Tony Kennedy has no hesitation.

“Absolutely – I don’t regret anything. As a young person, you’re not always sure whether you’re fully aware of what you’re choosing to do, it’s just important to leave yourself with as many options as possible,” he said.

“There’s more than one way to enter things. At the end of the day, teaching is about the relationships you form with the students, and I found that coming in with some experience outside of school was a good thing.

“Experience helps form a more balanced view of life – don’t be in a rush to do everything.

“Pursue your goals, pursue what you want to do.”

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