Times of transition invite reflection

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4 November 2019

Principals of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Melbourne gathered on Wednesday 30 October to celebrate their achievements in 2019, welcome new principals and farewell some of their colleagues.

Following Mass celebrated by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, principals enjoyed dinner and performances by Stomp from St Mary’s School, Mount Evelyn, and Paris Leveque from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College, Bentleigh.

Principal of Siena College, Camberwell, Mrs Gaynor Robson-Garth was invited to share her thoughts on behalf of all principals who are moving on from their roles.

Over the past 13 years as principal of Siena College, the educational landscape has changed radically and, along with it, the role of principal. There is growing complexity and intensification, and less and less time to spend with students and staff. It is not a role to be carried out alone and increasingly reliant on collaboration at all levels: within schools, at system level and within networks, such as those represented this evening. There is much expertise assembled here and I have been so grateful over the years for the support and collegiality of all of you, my fellow principals both primary and secondary, and those of you who work to support us and our schools at Catholic Education Melbourne.

I am inspired by the extraordinary work done by all principals in very different contexts across Melbourne and beyond, by your courageous leadership, the pastoral care, the faith journeys, the shared stories and conversations, and the unwavering support in times of crisis. Our communities welcome the marginalised and the vulnerable, refugees, those in our schools who are challenged by disability, mental illness or depression, by difficult family circumstances or illness, poverty or exclusion. Principals hold a very privileged position. We are invited to share in people’s lives, their vulnerabilities, their times of deep sorrow, and times of joy and celebration. We practise reconciliation and right relationships through restorative conversations, and we prepare our students for the journey through life.

As I look back, the challenging times are receding into faded memories and the joys of the role are featuring more prominently. There is much that I will miss and I have a growing appreciation of how much I have loved my job. Being a principal has given me moral purpose and commitment to a goal we all share: to work for the full flourishing of every child and young person in our schools.

I am sure all of us could share our challenges in volumes: encounters with the media, waking up to early morning television and my name being mentioned in less than favourable circumstances on Channel 9 at 5.00 am, the wars with parents over debutante balls or the phasing-out of T-bar shoes, the visits to lawyers or VCAT, uncertain funding and the demands of industrial relations, technology and managing risk. Amid all the research on principal wellbeing and lack of work/life balance, there is regular reference to principals loving their jobs.

What will I miss? There have been many highlights of these past years, some tangible and some less easily measured. I have come to work each day to be part of a vibrant, innovative and caring community. No two weeks have ever been the same. My days unfold in surprising ways and I have learned much.

The Siena community has become my primary faith community. I know that I will need to find new connections and forge new relationships next year when I am no longer a part of this community or of the principals’ network that has also played a very significant role in nurturing and enriching my personal faith. I have been sustained and enriched by exposure to ideas and theology from visiting presenters at PAVCSS, Dominican Conferences and symposiums, and other opportunities offered within the context of Catholic education.

At Siena College, I have loved the opportunities for shared prayer and celebration, the gracious start to each Thursday morning as a small group of staff, occasionally some students and parents, and a few of the local Dominican sisters celebrate Eucharist in the college chapel.

Our college chapel and cloister is a beautiful place and I have loved our Catholic tradition and its valuing of beauty as a way to God. I have loved the way other school communities have created places of beauty that reflect God’s grace, and warm welcome and hospitality.

On three mornings a week at Siena, we come together as a staff at the start of the day to pray. The prayers and reflections of my colleagues are sometimes uplifting, sometimes humorous or deeply moving, as we share our challenges and joys or hold others in our thoughts and prayers at times of deep sorrow. I have been privileged to lead prayer and liturgy with college leaders, the college board, committees and students, and to work with new staff and committee members to share our Catholic identity and the charism, spirituality and traditions of the Dominican Order and the Dominican Sisters who founded Siena College.

My faith life has increasingly become intertwined with the Dominican charism, its ‘four pillars’ of prayer and contemplation, study, community, justice and service, and a framework of values that I have found to be deeply enriching.

A particular joy of being a principal has been to work with students and staff to share ideas, to try new approaches, and to enable projects and programs. I have loved being able to develop the capacity of staff, build students’ leadership skills, and enhance their voice and agency. It was wonderful to be part of a presentation late last year at the Catholic Leadership Centre by Year 10 students from St Joseph’s College in Geelong, to hear them talk about the forums they run within their school community and with students from other schools to counter discrimination. It was so good to observe their confidence as they facilitated and directed a workshop with principals and adults, suggesting we should walk around to see what others had written on their post-it notes so we could take ideas back to our own schools. It gave me new energy and commitment to empowering students in my own school.

As Catholic educators, we are invited to work with students, not only to prepare for an unknown future, but to envision a better future for all humanity, God’s kingdom. The students in our schools respond with creativity and energy and there are so many examples of how they give back. I see this in the Siena women who return to share their stories. The paths their lives have taken endorse the work we do and the holistic Catholic education we offer. The students of Siena and of all our schools allow me to have hope in the power of education, to continue to hope for peace in our world and in the future care of our ecology and environment, to be hopeful that education can fulfil its role in creating a better world for generations to come, who will in turn educate communities of their own to thrive.

I have shared immersion experiences with principal colleagues to places like El Salvador, Bolivia and Peru, and with Siena students both in Central Australia to learn more about Indigenous spirituality and culture, and in South Africa to live with families impacted by endemic poverty and HIV/AIDS. These have probably been the most educative and transformative experiences of my professional career.

In these places, we rediscovered the Church of the poor, the Church of Pope Francis and St Catherine of Siena. We met ordinary people doing extraordinary things to bring hope to others: people preaching a gospel of accompaniment and incarnation, of finding God in others and of God as our friend and sister or brother who walks with us, of Scripture that tells us that each and every human being has dignity and is loved and cherished by God, and that it is in our deepest humanity and in ‘walking with’ the poor and the marginalised that we encounter the divine.

Students returned from these immersion experiences with new conviction that we are privileged beyond measure compared with most of the world, and that we have even greater responsibility to others because of that and because of our gospel imperative. We are all responsible for one another, those with a voice to power, and most especially, those who are vulnerable. We learned that we should cherish our freedoms: religious, political, our voice, and that we must invest in the political process to bring about change.

Like many, I often feel guilty because of my privilege and all I have. I heard the words of a fellow traveller: that we should not feel guilty, that everyone deserves to have the best.

Brendan Spillane, a speaker at a recent Dominican Conference, cautioned that we should be mindful about what we pay attention to as it becomes our life. It is now time for me to pay more attention to my family and friends. I could not have held this role without the support of my family and my husband Philip, who frequently describes himself as the janitor.

We in Catholic education have a special story. It is ageless and strong, it is old and new, it is the story of Jesus, and of the ‘Catherines’ of Siena and ‘Theresas’ of Avila, and the religious orders and congregations who came to Australia and established our schools. It is the story of each of you.

Our schools were not set up to offer graduates a privileged life, a high ATAR, status, or personal opportunity. They were set up to equip and empower young people to make a difference in the world, to make the world a more just place for all. We all share responsibility to ensure the continuation of Catholic education, its traditions, its core values, its commitment to the gospel, to justice and to truth, and to being people who will speak out.

As we move to new governance models, I do not fear the loss of our Catholic identity. The Holy Spirit is at work in our schools and Catholic principals and leaders have never been more learned, more focused or more invested in our Catholic identity.

My time as principal has been graced and privileged.

May God bless each of you, your families and your school communities and, especially, the work you do in Catholic education. It has been a privilege to be one of you.