Open Letter: In Support of Rod Whelan

By September 6, 2019 Latest

Open Letter in Support of Rod Whelan

There are so many people that have been impacted – both directly and indirectly – by the sudden dismissal of Rod Whelan as principal of Kildare Catholic College. This sudden and ‘behind closed doors’ decision has left a community of teachers, parents and, most importantly, students, reeling.  And sadly for the Year 12 students, at such a critical time in the academic calendar.


I don’t know if I can add anything new to the discussion of this turn of events; a week on, and, like many, I am still experiencing a range of emotions, from sadness to anger to disbelief. While my experiences of Rod are limited compared to those who worked alongside him, he still left an impression; I’m sure that’s a sentiment that many among us share. I’m sure I also speak for many others in saying that Rod should be reinstated to his rightful position as principal of KCC.


One of my first encounters with Rod’s leadership came when I was working as the Head of Department for Educational Pathways (formerly General Studies) at the Wagga TAFE campus. At the time, we had a refugee student who had completed his course in studying English as a foreign language (EFL) with us, with a goal of continuing on to university and ultimately pursuing a career in a medical field.  During his time at TAFE, he had shown himself to be a very bright, capable and motivated student; he had already overcome huge life and personal obstacles, the likes of which the average Australian-born person can only begin to imagine.


However, we no longer ran the HSC at TAFE. And, while we had a pathway to university course he could have enrolled in, it did not include the option of studying the hard sciences (chemistry, bio or physics) which he wanted and needed for his future plans and uni entry.  Whether due to his age (he was about 19 at the time) or other issues related to governance or providing support for EFL students, the local public high school for which he was zoned said they could not offer him a place.  As a last hope for this student, Rod Whelan was approached and told about the extenuating circumstances of this student. Rod went on to offer him a place at KCC so he could pursue his science subjects and obtain his HSC.


As part of the teaching staff at TAFE at the time, we were overjoyed with this decision, and overwhelmed by the generosity of this offer. This is just one small example of Rod’s leadership, of him walking the walk and of living the spirit of the Gospel message – something which should be a cornerstone of a Catholic education.


It was not long after this when it was time for my eldest child to begin thinking about her choice of high school. As part of the Mater Dei Primary school community, we thought her choice of Mater Dei Catholic College was a matter of fait accompli – it would be where most of her year group would be going. But, as the eldest child, we decided to look at all the options and went to KCC’s Open Night.


That evening, listening to Rod talk to the students and address the parents, outlining his approach to education, his focus on teaching and learning, created an impression on me (no easy task, as a long-time and somewhat jaded teacher myself!). I left there with a fist-pumping enthusiasm for both him and education generally – not something I expected from an Open Night. What impressed me was Rod’s directness – this was not a spruik about how great the school was, or a speech filled with stats and riddled with edu-speak jargon. He made his message for everyone. This was a leader with a vision he was implementing, and he was explaining his approach in plain language, and inviting us to join in if we chose KCC. Period. But most importantly for me was the impression he created on my then 12-year-old. What 12-year-old comes out of those events impressed? And that was one of the big takeaways. When we talked about it after and started to compare the options, she always tacked on ‘…and I really liked what Mr Whelan had to say.’


Rod’s leadership and approach was the major impetus behind our decision to buck the trend (for Mater Dei primary students) and choose KCC. And while KCC might have been the more obvious choice for others, I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment in saying Rod and his approach were a major deciding factor.


At a subsequent Open Night we attended with another of our children, Rod openly addressed the ongoing abuse scandals that were impacting upon and marring the reputation of the Catholic Church. He briefly mentioned the the wrongdoings, and with empathy, acknowledged the pain it has caused survivors and the countless others who have been impacted in some way. Although this part of the evening lasted no more than a minute or two, this to me was another positive indicator of his leadership style. True leaders don’t try and ignore – or worse, close ranks and cover up – failures and shortcomings. His willingness to address this often taboo subject spoke volumes. It was refreshing to see someone in a leadership capacity in a Catholic organisation finally openly acknowledge the devastating impacts of this issue, instead of just choosing to ignore the metaphorical elephant in the room.


During my time as a parent at the school, I have observed Rod’s leadership through the filter of ‘parental distance’ – but he continues to stay true to himself, through both his approach to teaching and learning (with the results to prove it), and perhaps more importantly, through his leadership style. I have seen his continued approach to being on the front foot when addressing situations and incidents, both to parents and to the student body. He takes action when he needs to and moves on. He has made hard decisions, ones that not everyone may have agreed with, and that can be a lonely place for anyone in a leadership capacity. But it’s part of the job. Being a leader is not about always making the ‘safe’ choices.


I know he has many more skills that I did not even begin to address. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, he has not forgotten that the roots of his leadership started in the classroom. While other principals are content to stay sitting behind the desk, he is out and amongst it. And I think that’s part of why he is so well loved and respected by both his staff and by the students. Trust me: no one is better at spotting a hypocrite than a teenager.


This is part of what makes his leaving all the more difficult to swallow: this is not a man who hides, or tells euphemised versions of stories to his school community. I, like countless others, can only assume that Rod was under a tremendous amount of pressure to ‘resign’ – but resigning without explanation seems completely out of character for him.  This must be the darkest hour of his long and esteemed career.


The school community needs – and deserves – answers from CEDWW at the loss of such a great educationalist and leader. The way this matter has been handled is unacceptable. People – society – are tired of back-room decisions being made by the select few to the exclusion of all others. Of being just glibly told of an outcome (at 3pm on a Friday afternoon). What hubris on the part of the decision-makers. It’s patronising and, quite simply, it is not good enough.  ‘Leadership’ with no transparency around the decision-making process, or the causes behind such a huge decision, is antediluvian and no longer without impunity. And, unless this man has committed a serious felony (highly unlikely), as far as I’m concerned, everything else is fixable. Consequently, CEDWW should be held accountable for this outcome.


Rod Whelan must be reinstated. He may not want to return given how he may have been treated, but he needs to at the very least be given the option to do so.


Let the CEDWW stand behind the school’s motto: Live the Truth.


Kelly Shaw

Kildare Catholic College Parent