Interview with Dr Graeme Cross, SCEA’s new CEO

It is with great pleasure we welcomed Dr Graeme Cross as Swan Christian Education Association’s Chief Executive Officer on the 17th of June. With a strong background in education and a passion for ensuring students receive the best academic and spiritual nurturing, Dr Cross is Christ-minded and leads from a servant heart.

You have been in the role for a few weeks now. How are you settling in?
I’ve been made to feel very welcome and am enjoying the new role. Being back in the land of schools, I feel like I’ve come home in some ways. It’s what I know. It’s what I enjoy. Getting out into the schools, working with the leadership groups and getting amongst the action if you like…I’m looking forward to that very much.

What does the Dr stand for and have you always been a high achiever?
Have I always been a high achiever?

No, is the categorical answer to that. I was probably a bit lazy when I was at school. I had some extremely good teachers at times and, when I look back now as part of this profession, I had some poor teachers as well, particularly in my high school years. But even so, I probably didn’t have the right attitude to be honest.

What’s the doctorate all about?

It’s a PhD so it was a doctoral research project. My journey with higher education is an interesting one because it’s a very clear God thing that grew out of a tragedy in our family.

Back in 1992 I was teaching at John Willcock Senior High School in Geraldton. My wife and I had been wanting a family for a long time and it just wasn’t happening quickly for us. Kerry eventually fell pregnant, and we were very excited as was the extended family. This was the first grandchild on both sides, and we were just so delighted that God gave us this gift. The day Brendan was born was celebrated. I went back to work the next day and the boss said to me just after lunch time, ‘You should head back to the hospital and spend time with your wife and newborn child, and I’ll cover your class.’

I’d been back at the hospital a couple of hours when the doctor walked in with this kind of ghostish look on his face, threw an x-ray up on the window and said, “we’ve got some significant problems.” And, so, not going into all the detail, I ended up on a Royal Flying Doctors’ plane to Perth with the bub while Kerry was still in hospital. We only had him for three days.

That was a really tough period in our lives, and I can talk a lot about it in terms of, where is God in the midst of all this? And how do we make sense of it? Months went by and Kerry wasn’t falling pregnant. I can still remember the conversation to this day when I said to Kerry, ‘Maybe, just maybe, God’s plan for us is that we actually won’t have kids.’ We know some other people who have never had kids and they would say that God has allowed them to achieve what they’ve achieved simply because they had the freedom to be mobile.

So, we just came to this point… ‘If God’s plan for us is that we don’t have kids are we okay with that?’ And we decided that we were. So, we then asked ourselves the question, ‘If we weren’t going to have kids what would change? What would be different for us?’ And it was at that point that I realised I would like to do some more study. So, that was the impetus to starting a master’s degree. It started out in the management field, in leadership, and then part way through I realised that I was fundamentally an educator and schools were me. Consequently, I decided to transfer into the research stream of a Master of Educational Administration program. More recently, my journey in higher education led me to spend three and a half amazing years undertaking a doctoral research project. They were some of the best years of my life. For our family, for the age that our kids were at, it was just superb!

In terms of the topic of that research, when I was contemplating the possibility of entering a PhD program I had become aware that Professor Barry McGaw had just returned from working with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with the Directorate of Education and was questioning to what extent graduates of non-government religious schools in Australia can effectively engage relationally in post-school secular contexts, including workplaces. He was suggesting that if young Australians are educated in religious schools alongside those who share their views around life and faith, this may inhibit development of their capacity to engage relationally with those who are different from themselves.

The term that he used to describe that was ‘social capital’ – the relational networks that we’re a part of. One sub-set of social capital is what is referred to as ‘bridging social capital’ – the capacity, say, in a workplace or in the broader community such as in a sporting club, to be able to engage relationally with people who are different from ourselves. So that’s what I investigated. Do Christian school graduates contribute to social cohesion in Australian society, or undermine it because of some limited capacity to connect relationally in culturally and religiously diverse social contexts? If what Professor McGaw was asserting represented an accurate assessment of reality, then Christian schools would need to think about the extent to which their mandate to equip students to be salt and light in the world can be achieved.

“As a Christian, and as a leader in a Christian school, if our graduates aren’t able to engage relationally with people who are different from ourselves, we actually have a major issue on our hands, because if we’re called to be salt and light in the world and we can’t engage relationally, then we are unable to fulfil what it is that God has called us to.”

What has been your career to-date in a nutshell?
I’ve been all over WA to be honest. I taught for just short of ten years before being asked to be involved in leadership roles which included a time working in the Department of Education’s Mid-West Regional Office as a School Development Officer. I spent a couple of years doing that and then ended up working as a Deputy Principal for four years before becoming a Principal. My time as a Principal included five years with the Department of Education and eight years at Cornerstone Christian College.

At the conclusion of my tenure at Cornerstone we moved to Perth where I completed my doctorate and entered the world of higher education as a lecturer/tutor. I also did some work, during that period, with Vose Seminary as their Academic Dean which came about through my connection with Dr Brian Harris, the Principal at Vose. He and I had got to know each other when I was Principal at Cornerstone and so, when I moved to Perth and started my PhD, Brian was really interested in what I was doing and kept in touch. With about 18 months to go, he spoke to me and asked, “would you consider coming and working for us when you’ve finished?” There were two reasons he was keen for me to join his team. Firstly, he wanted me to mentor his lecturers and develop their teaching skills. He also had a vision to broaden what Vose was doing by moving into the education space and other disciplines.

So, I was responsible for introducing the ‘Master of Education’ and ‘Master of Education (Leadership)’ programs, which I still have some involvement in. The Board Chair from SCEA has allowed me to spend a little bit of time supporting this initiative as I have a passion for supporting aspirant leaders and preparing them to lead schools in the growing Christian education sector.

What attracted you to SCEA?
While working in higher education, I was always mindful of where God wanted me to be. I was really enjoying what I was doing. The lifestyle was sensational without the stress and pressure you feel when you’re involved in schools as schools are such dynamic places.

God’s not interested in comfort; He’s interested in the stretch.

We were on a retreat with our Vose executive team about two months before the advert came up for the SCEA job. After the evening meal on the first night, we were invited to talk about where we were at in terms of our career and what we thought we’d be doing in five- or ten-years’ time. When it came to my turn, I talked about the fact that I was enjoying what I was doing and spoke about this tension that I always live with about knowing God’s purpose. Someone asked if I would ever go back into a principal’s job. I responded that I had seen some principal jobs that had come up in the past couple of years but nothing really within me said ‘you know what, you should go after that’. My journey with God has always been about Him wanting to stretch me, which I think is fundamental for all of us. He’s not interested in comfort; He’s interested in the stretch. What is God going to do to bring more out of what He’s built in us – to realise our potential?

The team kept probing, “Is there anything in schools that would kind of draw you at any stage?” And I said to them, “Maybe, if a job came up where I was working with a network of schools…that would be a stretch, and I’ve not done it.” To be able to work with school leaders to support and encourage. I also see that the future of Christian schooling is about being able to work in networks as I believe we are going to get to a point that it will be more and more difficult for schools to be able to operate in isolation. And then they asked, “So does that mean you’d have to move interstate?” and I said, “Ah, well, I don’t know. Probably the only one in WA is SCEA and…who knows.”

A few short weeks later, on the Friday after the announcement of the CEO’s position was made, a former colleague of mine who was on staff at my last school, sent me a text saying, “Would love for you to apply for the CEO’s job at SCEA.”

There’s more that I can tell you in terms of why I’m here…suffice to say, God has made it really, really clear that this is what I needed to do.

Where do you see SCEA and the schools in 5 years’ time under your leadership?
My immediate job is to work with the Board, with the senior leadership group and ask ourselves exactly that question. What will we look like in five years’ time? What will we look like in ten years’ time? Essentially, we will establish a master plan for the Association and then plan how we work toward that.

I’ve been meeting with people who have had an impact on the Association in the past to gain understanding. It’s about understanding the foundation on which we’re building. What we need to hold on tight to and never move from, and where we need to release and bring about some change.

A gem from Andy Hargreaves…

“Sustainable development respects, protects, preserves and renews all that is valuable in the past, and learns from it to build a better future…Sustainable leadership and improvement is about the future and about the past.”

“While it should never blindingly endorse the past, sustainable leadership should always honour and learn from it.”  Andy Hargreaves.

Is Christian education still relevant today?
Absolutely! No question.

My favourite verse is John 10:10…

“Jesus said that I have come that you may have life and have it in all its fullness.”

There’s nothing that brings more delight to my heart and soul than seeing children and young people flourishing…in fact, seeing anyone flourish. My desire is always that my wife would flourish, that my kids would flourish and that anyone around me would experience what God intended for them in life.

I believe that the world needs to know the love of Christ. When I think specifically about Christian schools and the communities that form around them, there are three things that I hope will happen.

  1. When children and young people come into our schools and their families join our school communities, my hope is that they will get a glimpse of God. When we’re learning science and we look at the stars or we look at the intricacies of the human body we see the extraordinary and exquisite design of a God who loves us. So, no matter whether we are exploring literature, art, science or whatever, my hope is that our teachers can open the eyes of our children and young people so that they can discover more and more about God and this extraordinary and beautiful world.
  2. I also hope that those who enter our school communities experience God’s kingdom. This might be a lofty goal, but when Christian people come together and are inspired in life by the example of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, grace and love should abound. The communities of grace that form around our schools should allow those who enter them to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’.
  3. Finally, that the children and young people we serve will be prepared for life and recognise that God invites them to be a part of His creative and redemptive work in the world. Yes, we prepare and equip our students to enter vocations as all other schools will do, but our task in Christian schools is so much richer and larger. We are preparing students to fulfil the purposes that God has for each one of them. 

Tell us about your people – family and community, and what they mean to you?
I grew up in Bunbury and, if anyone is in Baptist circles, yes, I am part of the Crosses from Bunbury Baptist. My Pop and Nana Cross were some of the founding missionaries on the Roelands Aboriginal Mission. Pop was an accountant and had grown up on orchards down through the Byford area and my Nana was a nurse. They met out at the Mount Margaret Mission where Nana was working as a nurse and Pop had also gone out to assist in the work. During this time they saw firsthand the devastation that was happening in communities and felt that God wanted them to do something more for indigenous Australian’s. Working in partnership with some business people from Perth, Pop and Nana cared for children and established the orchards around the Roelands property that helped to sustain the ministry.

My mum is a Gillespie and her dad, my grandad, was a coal miner who finished his days as the superintendent with the Griffin Mining Group and was responsible for overseeing the Muja Coal Mine in College. A lot of my family are still in Bunbury and I have a brother who is up here in Perth with his wife and family.

In terms of ‘my people’, I have sisters, brothers, their kids and so on, from both sides of the family. But there have been four couples who have always been very close to us and these friendships established before we all had children and continue to this day. Despite the fact that we have all moved to different parts of the state and around the nation over the years, we have always continued to holiday together and stay connected. It has been very special for our kids to grow up having these close friends of our as uncles and aunties in their worlds.

In terms of church community, we are part of Riverview Church and have been there since we moved to Perth.

Kerry and I have been married for 32 years and have three kids – Natasha (24) who is a speech pathologist and works for the Health Department in Manjimup. She is married to Cameron, and they attend Warren Valley Community Church.

Our middle child Ben (21) is studying media and communication at University. He also works part-time at Kingdom City Church assisting in their media department. If anyone has noticed a tall, long-haired guy walking around with a camera at Kingdom City, the chances are that’s Ben.

And Anna is our youngest. She’s just finished year 12 and, this year, is studying nursing at Notre Dame. She is actively involved with us at Riverview with the youth and children’s ministries.

Who or what experience has been your greatest influence?
I don’t think I can answer that to be honest because there are so many influential voices that have spoken into my life at various stages. Having said that, I recall when I first started at Cornerstone and I was at my first Christian Schools Australia conference when the then CEO, Stephen O’Doherty, was speaking. I remember going home and saying to my wife, “Man, if I could work alongside Stephen O’Doherty, I could learn so much.” And then, low and behold, I end up getting involved with CSA and working quite closely with him on several projects – this was a wonderful joy and blessing. Similarly, when I first heard Dr Brian Harris (Principal – Vose Seminary) speak, I remember going home and saying to Kerry, “Man, if I could work closely with Brian for a while, I reckon I’d learn some things.” In fact, that was my main driver for working at Vose.

I recall one day, sitting in a meeting at Vose Seminary with both Stephen O’Doherty and Brian Harris and saying to them that I consider it a blessing that God had allowed me to work closely with both of them.

What is the one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess? Why?
It’s difficult to narrow that to one feature as I think there are a number that are critical. Humility is one that I think is imperative. That we recognise right from the word go, when we’re in leadership, that we’re frail and fallible humans. I’ve always been of the view that it’s a mistake for a leader to create a situation where they can’t be challenged. I think it’s a healthy thing to create structures where people can speak freely. Otherwise leaders just end up operating in an echo chamber and it’s not helpful for anyone.

I think the other one that is important comes back to the simplicity of the biblical narrative, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbour as yourself.” For me, a lot of the time, leadership is as simple as putting myself in the position of the other and asking myself, ‘How would I want to be treated in this particular circumstance?’ and allowing that to drive decision-making.

I think the other thing, is recognising that everything that everyone does, in terms of their roles, is of value. 

It’s not like what I do is any more valuable than what someone else contributes, it’s just that God’s equipped us to do different things. So, the work that I do and the work that someone else does will be different.

What do you regard as your leadership style?
It’s probably best for me to describe what I hear people say about me. A word that I hear people say often is that there is a passion about me and the way that I approach leadership – interestingly though, we don’t always see things like this in ourselves. Ultimately though, I don’t put myself in leadership positions where I am not 100% committed to what we are doing. If I believe in the vision and mission, then that becomes a driver for me. So, I think passion is something people would say about me in terms of leadership.

At the heart of what drives me is a desire to see people flourish, so leadership for me is about empowerment. It’s all about ‘fanning into flame the fire within’. Integral for me as a leader is that each individual is able to lead from their strengths and in roles where they can truly flourish in every way.

Passion, flourishing and empowerment.

People have said to me at different times that I am a ‘strategic thinker’, but I think that probably just comes from having an overactive brain that is always looking for a problem to solve or a ‘win-win’ solution to a challenging and complex issue. My wife and kids well know that my brain is never idle. The kids would say, ‘Dad, are you pondering again?’ and ‘what are you thinking about this time?’

I’ve been told a number of times that I have a creative edge and, because problem-solving is ultimately about being able to think outside of the box a lot of the time, I will find myself asking ‘is there a solution we haven’t thought of?’ I will go in brainstorming mode … thinking outside the box.

Tell us about your school years – did you have a favourite subject?
Certainly, in high school I did. On the school days when I had design and technology classes, were my best days. I loved it! I didn’t mind sport either. I certainly wasn’t an elite sportsman, but I enjoyed playing cricket, football and those sorts of things. I was never in the fairest and best ranks of sporting teams but was generally able to do okay. And, interestingly, I was never really a reader. If I had a choice between doing something active or reading a book, I would always go for the action – skateboarding, water skiing, fishing, football etc. It was in my adult years that I have developed a love or reading and learning.

As a young man, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I’m still wondering what I want to be when I grow up.

To be honest I’m not sure that I had much idea. At one stage, I was thinking about getting into a trade because my dad was a tradesman. I remember watching some of my mates who left school at year 10 and were into trades, earning money and driving cars and there was a bit of a ‘Gee, that looks pretty good.’ But Dad was keen for me to finish Year 11 and 12 and it was during those years, together with my enjoyment of design and technology, that I began to focus on teaching as a profession.

You grew up in a Christian home. When did it become personal for you?
I was probably about 14 or 15 when I thought ‘this is something I do want to do’. Having said that, I drifted a little bit as most of us do. When I look back, I am ashamed of the person that I was during my late teenage years. Fortunately, God never gave up on me, extended his grace and has continued to shape and form me.

If you could go back, what advice would you give the 10-year-old Graeme Cross?
Run your own race. I find myself apologising to people at times for what we have done as modern schools; where life has become this competition and we try and emulate others or be others. God says we are all individual, made in the image of God but unique. He has built things inside of each of us that makes us different from everyone else. The parable of the talents says that our task in life is to take what God has given us and to grow and develop it. We are all different.

It’s about running our own race and finding our own voice and we don’t have to be like everyone else.

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