IAN McDonald is 65 and spent his adult life teaching – but don’t mention the “R” word.
Principal at Brisbane’s St Laurence’s College for the last 15-and-a-half years, he will finish up at the Edmund Rice Education boys’ school at the end of this year, and will take barely a pause to reflect on his long and successful tenure.
He intends to turn his attention to international education projects.
“Moving to other things is the way I put it. It’s not retirement. I’m too energetic to do nothing,” Mr McDonald said with a chuckle, flashing his trademark affable smile.
Mr McDonald has teaching in the blood.
He said he loves the “vibrancy” of the work and the notion that he comes to work every day “with not a clue what will happen on the day.”
That would be a daunting task for many, considering the size of a school like St Laurence’s with 2000 students and 250 teachers.
Mr McDonald joined the Marist Brothers immediately after leaving school, and within a few years was back in a classroom teaching.
“I was one of the ones who did a couple of years training and then started teaching at 19. And then went back and did some part-time and full time uni.”
Mr McDonald rose quickly through the teaching ranks.
From 1986-91 he was deputy principal at Marist College, Ashgrove before leaving the Marist Brothers order.
“There are a lot of people who made a contribution when they were young to various congregations,” he said.
“I think the world changes and time changes and people’s perspective on their life changes – people want to do different things.”
Mr McDonald moved to Sydney and spent five years as principal at Parramatta Marist High, Westmead.
He married Ros, a TAFE teacher and has four adult daughters, and six grandchildren.
“The grandkids are spread about – in Melbourne, Sydney and Townsville – so that’s something we’ll do now – spending a bit more time with all of them,” he said.
However, Mr McDonald has other projects close to his heart.
He’s just returned from Vietnam, where St Laurence’s community regularly sends students on two-week immersion programs.
Currently the students travel to the Mekong delta diocese of My Tho, working closely with the Church to build houses.
“The Catholic Church is thriving there. I have a strong relationship with the Bishop and the priests,” Mr McDonald said.
While St Laurence students undertake a two-week program in My Tho, Mr McDonald has also developed another, innovative project to help a local school for the deaf.
“We have a partnership with the Mater Hospital and we take one or two audiologists with us every year. They work with the kids and give them hearing aids,” he said.
Mr McDonald now intends using the relationships he has already built in Vietnam to extend programs for tertiary students.
“There’s a big movement in the unis now to get the students out of their ivory towers and into practical situations – whether it be engineering or nursing or teaching,” he said.
“International experience is the go. It is great to globalise the kids. It’s a gift.”
Mr McDonald has always aimed to extend St Laurence’s outreach programs to the disadvantaged, and he sees that work as one of his achievements at the school.
He has tried to embed community activities such as Special Olympics, refugee homework help and visits to aged care facilities into the St Laurence’s’ curriculum.
“I’m of a view that the way to the boys’ souls is through action and doing,” Mr McDonald said.
“It’s the way to connect with faith in the 21st century. It’s my thesis if you like.”
Mr McDonald can point to an impressive building program during his time as principal, in particular a $100 million partnership with the Mater Hospital – a lease payment deal that included the building of a multi-level car park with a sports field on top, together with an auditorium.
“There are very few schools in the world that have a project like that on their land,” he said.
“We are very pleased to share it with the whole community.”
And Mr McDonald said his “swansong project” was the construction of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths building and a multi-function sports complex due for completion for the start of 2017.
During his tenure as principal there have also been dark moments.
Mr McDonald remembers with trepidation a school invasion in 2008, during which two schoolboys were slashed with a meat cleaver as a group of hooded and bandana-wearing youths stormed the college during a lunch break.
One boy was left with a seven centimetre-long gash to his left cheek which required 60 stitches, while the other required nine stitches after he was slashed across his back as he tried to run away.
Mr McDonald praised the quick action and bravery shown on that day.
A teacher at the school stepped between his students and the meat cleaver attacker in a brave bid to stop the violence.
“The two students – Year 10 boys – were innocent victims. I am just pleased they healed, and went on to complete Year 12 at the school,” Mr McDonald said.
“The police response was amazing, they were here within about two minutes. They received special awards.”
Four teachers also received bravery awards.
“That was the most physically and emotionally challenging situation I’ve had to deal with,” Mr McDonald said.
“Every school has its issues, and when you have 2000 students and 250 teachers, there are issues all the time.”
St Laurence’s will start 2017 with a new principal, Chris Leadbetter, the principal at St Edmund’s College, Ipswich and who was deputy at St Laurence’s from 2004-2008.
Mr McDonald warmly welcomes passing the principal’s baton.
“I’m really chuffed he got the job. I want someone who will pick up the ball and keep it going.”
By Mark Bowling