Our monthly spotlight on the women carving out their own spaces on the Rock, and how they did it.

The “sunken” playground, the dodgy PA system, hilarious Christmas concerts, tikka rolls at break time, that awful maroon kilt, and the dreaded wait for your exam to begin in the lunch hall are all memories I hold from Westside School. Every Gibraltarian girl who has gone through the ranks has their own; fond memories, stressful ones, difficult teenage moments, and of course the memories of the teachers that guided you through those years. 

Michelle Barabich has had what she would call the privilege of shaping the school careers of a large sum of the last 40 years’ intake across both Westside and Bayside. Starting her career as an English teacher at Bayside in 1978, she then moved to the senior management team at Westside in 2005. Always known to students as a force to be reckoned with, but equally a friendly, approachable teacher in her various pastoral roles, Barabich became headteacher to over 1000 teenage girls three years ago.

Michelle Barabich

I visited her office (and tried not to call her “Miss”) this month, to find out what managing the majority of the teenage female population of Gibraltar is like.

I chose this career because… 

I qualified as a teacher in 1978, and for me there was never an option really, that was always what I wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily aspire to become head teacher, but I think I’ve always had healthy ambition. From very early on what I did realise was that I enjoyed the pastoral side of being a teacher. For me at the end of the day it’s always about whether I made a difference, made progress in supporting, leading, and guiding students.

A typical day looks like…

I don’t have one, and that’s why I still get a buzz. At school I cannot expect to come in and close the door and just get on with what I need to do, and anyway what I really enjoy is the interaction of people coming in, students coming in. I like to be proactive, but a lot of my job is also reactive, because we are really the first port of call. For me it’s always important to be surrounded by students, so if they’re coming to see me I give them priority.

Then I have to go back to the work that I need to do, which is maybe the boring stuff, and I get that done at whatever hour. I sleep very little so in the quiet, early hours of the morning I usually get a lot of the work and writing side done.

My career-defining moment is…

I suppose the most defining moment is when you start to come up the leadership ladder and you think you’ve got the job, it’s awesome. But it’s always at every stage that you get a job that you say, so now this is it, I’ve got to make it happen, I’ve got to be successful, I’ve got to prove myself, I’ve got to rise up to those expectations. I suppose at every stage I’ve always set myself challenges, so as you go up and as you’re given more responsibility you think I’ve done it, this is me, this is what I’ve achieved. And I suppose the epitome of that would be getting the headteacher job.

The best part of my job is…

My comfort zone is the pastoral side of being a teacher. Unless you get the pastoral support right, you cannot begin to work primarily on the academic side effectively. That is how I feel that students make most progress.

At the beginning of my career there was a very clear divide between the pastoral and academic routes in schools and of course you have to have your subject leaders, but I think that people in senior leadership and management roles need to have that balance between the pastoral and the academic side of how the organisation functions and the needs of students. To be able to support them in a way in which you can be influential and to get them to perform you’ve got to know about their problems or their anxieties. I had very good pastoral mentors and through their guidance and with them I think we made good teams.

That was always my preference and it’s definitely a big priority of the headteacher role. Sometimes students will say, “Miss, you’re not scary at all”, and I think thank God! Because for me that is what makes a difference. If they can come to me and I can be productive and I can help them. And if I can listen to them and I can be that person who can facilitate, that’s how I see my role for them.

The worst part of my job is…

The challenging side is that there’s nearly 1,100 students in the school, and the responsibility lies with the leaders who have to take the right decision that is going to influence the lives of those students. So whether it be an academic decision or a pastoral decision, you need to make the right call. You don’t want to take a decision or put in place something that will have a detrimental effect on the students and the weight of that responsibility, that is always the pressure that one has. We really can’t get it wrong because it will influence the future of so many young people who are not in a position to take those decisions, we have to take them for them.

If I could be anything else I would be…

It was always teaching for me. You see, I come from a line of teachers, my mum was a teacher, my uncle was a teacher. I didn’t even think to be honest, I never considered anything else.

My advice for anyone looking to go into a similar career…

One of the most significant things that still gives me a buzz is learning from young people and young teachers, because they’re teaching me every day. My advice is to listen, to always be part of a team, to know who you can trust in your work environment, to always be open to ideas, you have to be prepared that it is a learning curve.

When we are dealing with young people they challenge you every day, they have different needs so what you’ve got to be is empathetic, you have to relate to them, you have to sometimes fit yourself in their shoes, and look at it from their perspective. I started with my degree, and then I became an advanced skills teacher for dyslexia, then I did my masters, and having to work and study also gave me an insight to the pressure that young people have when they’re working; when they have to submit work electronically, if you lose work – which I’ve done! – it’s the worst feeling, and you can empathise. So learning and studying and being a mum, and now a grandma, and trying to do all of that makes me understand the pressure that many other young people go through.

You’ve also got to like what you do because if you don’t like young people, if you’re not ready to listen to them, you’re not ready to put yourself in a situation where you can have a positive influence on them where they can look up to you and you can look up to them too.