St Philip`s Christian College Cessnock Principal Darren Cox was told many times during his teaching career that he would never enjoy being a principal because he smiles too much and has too much fun.
But after being nominated for Principal of the Year in the primary division for non-governmental schools across Australia in a prestigous national competition, Mr Cox is beaming even more.
"Completely blown away," was Mr Cox's initial reaction.
"To think you go from being a mischievous kid at school who started teaching 27 years ago in Western Sydney to now leading a school like St Philip's Christian College Cessnock and being nominated for a national award - it's a massive honour and responsibility, and also a bit surreal.
"I guess it just shows that there is a positive joyful way you can lead a school, enjoy life and hold everyone accountable with a smile on your face."
St Philip's has come a long way in six years under Mr Cox's leadership, growing from a small campus at South Cessnock to now catering to over 1100 students from Kindergarten to Year 12 on a 100-acre campus at Nulkaba.
"We started as a greenfield site and it's been a unique experience to grow the school from paddock to what it is today," Mr Cox said.
"It's been exciting as a school leader and for the community too because it brings hope and excitement to the school as to where we've come from and where we go next."
St Philip's Christian College Cessnock is a non-denominational Christian school and draws students from both the Upper and Lower Hunter areas.
"I think people would describe the school as innovative," Deputy Principal Marty Telfer said.
"That's certainly been Darren's style and it's been making a big difference to the lives of the children who attend and their families."
Starting off Mr Cox was aware of issues with literacy and numeracy that needed attention and he has championed a range of innovative educational approaches.
"We have open plan classrooms with one large teaching space accommodating multiple classes; team teaching where we can group kids according to ability for individual tasks; and we use direct instruction methods to increase engagement and improve foundational skills," Mr Telfer explained.
"The direct instruction is kind of like the warm-up you might do before a game of sport, but in the classroom context it's teacher-centred with drills that help children engage in what they are learning. Rather than being passive, it gets them active.
"Team teaching is great from the teachers point of view because they can teach to their strengths working alongside colleagues, inspiring each other".
For Mr Cox, developing an engaged school culture is critical.
"We work hard to identify and recognise individual student strengths," he said.
"We don't all have to be the same, and parents appreciate that and students flourish, which doesn't just help the individual, it also builds the family unit.
"We create culture where everyone feels loved and valued and school is a fun place to be. And school should be an enjoyable, engaging and interactive place."
The same philosophy flows through to staff development.
"We take a strengths-based approach and put a lot of time into nurturing and developing our staff," Mr Cox said.
Lisa Schillert, Kindergarten teacher, echoes this sentiment, 'Darren has provided the staff with training to ensure that we as educators understand our own strengths and the strengths of each team member. This style of leadership has supported teamwork on a deeper level and helped build a stronger culture to positively collaborate with others.'
"Feedback from parents is typically along the lines of 'school wasn't like this back in their day and they wish it was'.
"We're drawing students from a wide area and that shows the good news is spreading."
The school layout has evolved over the last six years and educational innovations have been incorporated into new school buildings.
"We designed a building with an internal slide which is a real talking point," Mr Telfer said. "It underlies that unified approach we take to education and community.
"And we've just completed the Activate Centre which is a state-of-the-art fitness centre, with basketball court, gymnasium, weights room and learning areas.
"It's part of our approach to ensure the kids get active one hour each day.
"Families that come, love the place and want to be part of the junior school.
"Darren has driven all this with his innovative leadership and it's great to see it's earned recognition."
The winners will be announced at a gala finals night in Sydney on Friday, August 16.