Principal’s Insights 2013
31 October 2013 - ‘Walking the Risk Tightrope’
Michael Ungar, in his book ‘Too Safe for Their Own Good, How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive (2007) says this, 'In our mania to provide emotional life jackets around our kids, helmets and seatbelts, approved playground equipment, after-school supervision, and an endless stream of structured activities we parents are accidentally creating a generation of youth who are not ready for life. Our children are too safe for their own good.' It is an interesting perspective upon which to ponder, isn’t it?
My own reflections on this topic were prompted by a chance conversation with a Fairholme dad at the Spring Fair which led me to the somewhat dichotomous area of risk and adolescents. His words went something like this, 'If there is to be growth, then there has to be risk'. And that statement posed a plethora of questions for me. Who chooses the risk? Who monitors it? How much risk are your prepared to allow your daughter to experience in her quest for growth and independence? Professor Erica McWilliam often says ‘good learning is risky'.We simply can’t grow without venturing into the unknown and the unknown invariably contains stumbling blocks upon which we will skin our knees. Our learning will occur best when the bandaids aren’t applied in too much haste.
And the seat belts are certainly there, aren’t they? In almost everything, it seems, except for cyberspace. Here is an uncertain world where we sometimes hover on the edges and shrug our shoulders saying ‘What can I do?’ A lot I think, beginning with ourselves. David Bennett, in his book, Growing Pains (1987), captures it this way: 'We need to work on ourselves ahead of our teenagers.' We need to demonstrate our own respectful use of technology, we need to demonstrate and articulate our expectations of our children and we need to work towards solutions rather than blame, when things go wrong. In speaking with our Year 6 cohort and their parents recently I suggested that a family that hasn’t reached an agreement about how technology works in their home needs to do so. It is not a responsibility that can be outsourced and the ability to have a respectful conversation around this makes walking the risk tightrope a lot safer. Start now!
Adolescents will experiment with new activities, test their limits, explore new skills and revel in the exhilarating sense of freedom that comes with that (from David Bennett 1987, 'Growing Pains'). That is how they will grow. Of course their growth will be more robust and sustainable if the risks they have undertaken are real but not reckless, sanctioned but not micromanaged, remembering that 'we have an obligation to make healthy choices that will guide our daughters, to make them feel safe, valued and trusted and, above all, that you know where they are, who they are with and what they are doing. 'They need boundaries and rules if they are to learn right from wrong' (Michael Carr-Gregg). Here’s to the world of healthy risk taking and the confidence as parents to allow for the skinning of knees, the acceptance of responsibility, and the development of self-regulation; but let’s begin by modelling that behaviour, ourselves.
'To let go when you want to hold on takes utmost generosity and love. Only parents are capable of such painful greatness.' Haim Ginott, Between Parent and Teenager, 1969.
18 October 2013 - ‘Do your best
When Wayne Bennett was asked recently by a Sports journalist about the content of his half-time talk to the Newcastle Knights he replied, with his characteristic wry smile, 'I said - 'do your best'. A small added footnote provided by Bennett was, 'I can't ask for any more than that can I?'
And as parents and teachers we can't ask for any more than that, either. It is enough when children do their best. Yet what does ‘doing one’s best’ actually look like? Who defines it? It is one of those unanswerable questions but at its heart it raises a further interesting question: Do we expect too much or do we expect too little of our children? Do we set a high bar implicitly or explicitly, or do we intervene, manipulate and smooth the context so that their expectations or our expectations can be met. Goodwin & Miller, (2013, p.74) state it this way, 'Simply setting a high bar is inadequate; students also need the will to achieve goals.'
It is fair to say that to achieve one’s best, the bar needs to be set high. Age, ability and aptitude will also affect the height of the bar. Yet as Goodwin & Miller remind us, setting the bar high is not enough. Our children, our daughters, our students need the will to achieve goals. In psychological speak, they need intrinsic motivation in order to achieve their best. Recent research into the areas of resilience and grit has yielded somewhat unsurprising results, that is, 'in considering individuals of equal talent, the grittier ones do better' (Duckworth, 2013, p.16). Duckworth’s ‘grittier’ refers to those who persist in the face of setbacks, those with the ability to struggle and to fail in order to achieve goals and to reach the bar of expectation. Attributed to Churchill is the axiom, 'success is going from failure to failure with enthusiasm.'
I am sure that Wayne Bennett never views a loss as a failure, though I’m sure he places enormous credence upon grit and the associated enthusiasm required to persist in the face of disappointment. At times it seems that valuing grittiness is counterintuitive to a broad societal culture which seeks a blue ribbon experience for every participant and a removal of all obstacles towards the achievement of that ribbon. As we enter the final stretch of 2013, let’s keep Bennett’s words in mind – ‘do your best’ – remembering that one’s best is often crafted through grit, persistence and responding with enthusiasm to setbacks along the way. We can’t ask any more than that, can we?
Goodwin, B., & Miller, K., (2013). ‘Grit + Talent = Student Success’. Education Leadership, 71, no.1, September 2013, p. 74
Duckworth, A. L., (2013). Cited in Perkins –Gough, D., ‘The Significance of Grit: A conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth’. Education Leadership, 71, no.1, September 2013, p. 16
6 September 2013 - ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35)
At a recent Middle School Assembly there was a short DVD component focused on Random Acts of Kindness. The clip showed girls passing on compliments to their ‘RAK buddies’ – those thoughts that we often think of but fail to articulate; it showed gifts and positive messages being placed in lockers but mostly it showed that important human trait of thinking of others, before self. It is this trait that exists in abundance at Mizpah, the southern Indian orphanage that staff and students visit annually. How refreshing it is, therefore, to see those simple gestures in action at Fairholme’s own doorstep.
In fact, in the past fortnight, I have seen a wealth of examples of Fairholme as a community in action. I have witnessed confirmation over and over again of people giving, and people thinking of others before self. The mothers who baked and served and chatted to their daughters and others’ daughters at the half time mark of QCS on both days gave evidence of this. The RAK buddies have given evidence of this, as has the Boarder group that spends their Friday evening cooking for, and then running activities for primary aged disadvantaged students from around Toowoomba.
And when one of our Year 11 boarders, Katie Hough, was diagnosed with acute leukaemia recently there were concentrated examples of the best of humankind in action, and the giving, appropriately, continues. We remain actively prayerful for Katie’s swift and full recovery and, as a community, we also continue to seek ways to support her, and her family.
These are the moments, often the difficult ones, where one is privileged to see the best of humankind and to be heartened by the capacity of so many, to think of others before self and to actively pursue support of those who need it most. I particularly thank the staff, students and families for your on-going support of Katie and her family – amongst you there have been some simply extraordinary acts of kindness and selflessness.
6 September 2013 - Winning is never just about winning…
On Wednesday our Fairholme Middle/Senior School Athletics team won the Toowoomba Secondary Schools Sporting Association Athletics title; that constituted the 21st successive win for Fairholme College – an exceptional achievement for any sporting team or group. At one point during the day I remarked to Mr Sessarago, “It’s hard to keep winning”. And it is. And to do so for 21 years is in many ways a testimony to Mr Sessarago for his vision, passion and commitment – and the infectious quality of that.
Winning, is about so much more than winning. It is about those much important skills of culture-building; it is about harnessing ability, hard work, opportunity, enjoyment, expectation, support, commitment and sheer perseverance. I live just above the Fairholme oval, and thus watch the Athletics action often on a daily basis. It starts many mornings with a small group of girls who sprint-train before breakfast. It finishes as the sun sets most afternoons and it often occurs on weekends or holidays; it seems to happen all year round.
There are girls of impressive natural ability, girls who train above and beyond expectation and those who just enjoy the pleasure of running, jumping or throwing further, higher, faster. Some turn up once a week, some once a day but always I observe a palpable sense of enjoyment and energy. Winning for the 21st successive year is impressive, but so much more so is the spirit of the girls, the hard work of so many, the support of parents and the dedication and expertise of a wonderful coaching team. There are lessons learned in living up to expectation and the pressure attached to that, and there are also lessons about winning humbly, modestly and with good grace. Winning is never just about winning.
23 August 2013 - The perspective gift
Perspective is a gift, often earned through adversity and struggle rather than by smooth and flawless success. James Magnussen’s recent world title 100 metre swim attests to that. Remember last year when in less than one minute Magnussen moved from our ‘would-be London Olympic Games hero' to 'our greatest Olympic disappointment’ – or at least that’s how some journalists described it. No doubt his last twelve 12 months have been filled with perspective opportunities and a realisation that golden moments are inevitably wrought as much from struggle, disappointment, humility and missing out as they are from talent, opportunity and expectation.
Magnussen himself would say that last year he was too focused on the outcome. He had even practised post-race celebrations and speeches prior to the actual Olympics – pre-emptive script writing in the extreme. This year, he says ‘it’s all about the process'. The process matters because good processes set up good practices that can be repeated, reframed and applied in a diversity circumstances. Yet we are all guilty of too much focus on outcomes at times, too much focus on perfection and too little upon the richness of the journey. Hugh Mackay, in his latest book – ‘The Good Life’ writes of the Utopia complex which he believes is symptomatic of 21st century living. It is living characterised by ‘unprecedented material prosperity, mobility, convenience and comfort’, the type of living that Mackay believes we see as our entitlement – an entitlement to 100% happiness, success and … the good life.
Mackay believes that ‘the real victims of the Utopia complex are our children, those who have been so deeply conditioned to expect the best to be provided for them – admiration and rewards for everything they do and constant support and guidance from parents anxious to remove every obstacle from their path – expectations that may make their arrival on the threshold of adulthood quite a shock.’ He believes that in our quest to buoy our children’s self-esteem and make every experience positive, we have lost our perspective. According to Mackay, ‘good try has become a parental response to failure, even if the failure is the result of zero effort.’
A harsh perspective? Perhaps? Perhaps not? I think it is a wise reminder to us all to retain the gift of perspective; of taking a step back to observe, rather than a full body jump in to take over. Our responsibility as parents is to provide the circumstances by which our children can leave the nest with confidence but without an expectation of a permanent state of ‘the good life’. I think the saying ‘a bird must learn to fly in order to leave the nest’ is an apt analogy. Learning to ‘fly’, as in all life skills, inevitably attracts mistakes, errors and struggle. The process matters. Pre-emptive script writing should not be confused with goal-setting. Success is richer and sweeter when there is perspective, when ‘winning’ has been earned through struggle and hard work rather than that which is smooth and flawless. ‘Success’, as demonstrated in the spirit of EXO day, comes from our God-given gifts and opportunities.
We know the truths of hard work, and disappointment from our own childhoods; from scuffed shoes, hand-me-down clothes, spills off pushbikes and go-karts, waiting our turn – all of which led to an ability to delay gratification. So let us not become victims of the Utopia complex as parents seeking the best for our children. Sometimes being ‘the good enough parent’ as described by British psychoanalyst David Winnicott is indeed, good enough for a good life.
10 August 2013 - Things that matter…
'Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least' (Goethe)
Friday was a big Fairholme day - Interhouse Athletics, the inimitable Marchpast, Nine and Dine Golf event, Jeans for Genes, Eisteddfod and Volleyball Schools Cup. Somehow I managed to float between many of the events - and felt privileged to do so. From the dizzy heights of the Marchpast feast, to the sheer speed of our sprinters, to the enthusiasm of our Year 12 tug-of-war girls and the ear-splitting cheering throughout the relays … the Athletics carnival was quintessentially a Fairholme experience; a world-beater from my perspective.
Yet, for the first time in my 11 years of Fairholme Athletics carnivals, computer hitches meant that we walked away without an overall result, and I discovered, to my surprise, that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because there were other things that happened during the day that mattered more; participation to marvel at, marchpasts that never cease to delight, girls achieving beyond expectation, girls stepping up to events just to support their house, strong parent support, homebake par excellence and café-quality coffee. If relationships, inclusivity and connectedness are indicators of effective schools, or at least the bedrock of effective schools, then Friday mirrored that. That the weather constituted an almost perfect Toowoomba winters’ day was an added bonus.
That evening I leapt from the sporting arena to the serenity of the Empire Theatre where our orchestra and strings players took to the stage in crisp tartan and beribboned pony tails - who would have known that just hours before they were chanting at ridiculously high decibels, or sprinting the curves of the running track? As always I was quite awestruck by the discipline, the skill and the focus of our orchestra members as well as the vibrant enthusiasm and skill of Mr Egerton when he leads with his conductor’s baton. They do what I could never imagine doing and I delight in being a spectator.
That Fairholme girls accomplished a third placing and two firsts on Friday night was impressive but what mattered more was their enjoyment and that of those who formed the audience. What mattered was their demonstration of hours and hours of practice - sometimes enjoyable, sometimes not; their practised self-discipline was on display. Hugh Mackay reminds in his recent book, The Good Life, that 'it is self-discipline, not self-esteem that is more useful than IQ as a predictor of all-round school performance.'
Fast forward to the Queensland Schools Volleyball Cup, and two teams of Fairholme girls have won and lost matches this weekend; they have sprained ankles, bruised hips, laughed, scored impossible points and lost the easy ones. What matters is that they have done so with enormous enthusiasm, good grace and wonderful opportunities to learn, to improve and develop greater skill; they have exhibited that all important quality of self-discipline, repeatedly. Their parents have watched with equal levels of enthusiasm, good grace and, at times, as is required in spectating - self-discipline.
Perhaps it’s been just another Fairholme big day or big weekend out… perhaps not? Irrespective, it has been an opportunity to be reminded that 'the things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least'. Friday’s events and those of the weekend have mattered a great deal to the Fairholme community.
24 April 2013 - On grit, resilience and academic tenacity…
Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor published a test in 2007 to measure 'grit' - her term for a blend of purpose and persistence - qualities that she believes are relevant to educators and students because learning is not easy. According to Duckworth, learning is, like any other human endeavor, rife with failures, errors, missteps, and bad days (cited in Hochman, 2013).
When I think of failures, errors and missteps, I am often drawn to the skill of reading - that precious gift that underpins so much of our daily life, yet one that we take for granted, one that no doubt involved struggle we have long forgotten. In a recent article: ‘Forget test prep - students need to learn tenacity, self-control’, the author Hochman describes the skills of a kindergarten teacher at Wissahickon Charter School in Philadelphia, as she teaches resilience and reading, simultaneously. The teacher encourages her students when reading a text for the first time to ‘attack those words’. Further to this, she enquires of her students - ‘how did you solve the problem when you got stuck on a tricky word?’
Her choice of language matters. Implicit in her instruction and her question, are the notions that struggle and problem-solving are positive and crucial components of the learning process. Presenting difficult work is not the issue, the method used, is. Tony Ryan, educator and occasional ‘thinker in residence’ at Fairholme, places enormous value on teaching the metacognitive skills of problem-solving from an early age. He encourages students to develop a ‘green’ (positive) approach, rather than a ‘red’ (negative) approach to the resolution of difficult learning, and to silent self-talk. 'How can I solve this, this time?' 'If I try a different approach, I might be able to solve the problem.' 'How can I see this problem through a green lens, rather than a red one?' Wissahickon's Middle School Director, Rebecca Benarroch, believes that teachers build kids' resilience moment by moment.
Research into the development of resilience has more recently been cited in the literature of poverty, focused on children who deal daily with multiple dysfunction and adversity. Yet the skills of resilience, grit and academic tenacity belong with all learners, including Fairholme learners. To be an effective learner is to expect to be confused, to try and not succeed, to take risks, to engage with others in head-scratching and not knowing (McWilliam, 2005).
Yet researchers point to Western affluence where over-interest, the immediacy of communication and efforts to bubble wrap children restricts them from healthy opportunities for growth and psychological development. 'Children need families and communities who are watching, but not oversimplifying, their lives.' (Ungar, 2007, p.105). There is concern about students who have been too cushioned, and therefore need more experience with 'successful failure' - Hochman (2013) uses the example of Mariandl Hufford, director of the ‘Centre for the Advancement of Girls’ at the Agnes Irwin School, to illustrate this.
Hufford remembers when her own daughter, now 23, came home sobbing because she'd received a 'horrible' grade on a Spanish test. The score? An 80 out of 100. 'Sweetie, this is OK,' Hufford remembers telling her. 'You can survive an 80.' It's a message she tries to deliver to Agnes Irwin's female students. Hufford asks: 'How do we create a space where it's safe for girls to try things and risk things, to speak their minds, and if they fail, if they run up against disappointment, how do we help them adapt, move on, and learn?' How do we model resilience, grit, and academic tenacity in our own lives, so that our daughters who watch us so carefully, who follow our responses and example so closely, can learn to fail successfully, honorably, and with the optimism to rise and persist again, and again, and again, and again.
Hochman, A. (2013) ‘Forget test prep - students need to learn tenacity, self-control.’ The Inquirer. April 11 2013.
McWilliam, E. (2005) Bassett Oration (Australian College of Educators) ‘Schooling the Yuk/Wow Generation.’
Ungar, M. (2007). ‘Too Safe For Their Own Good - how risk and responsibility help teens thrive.’ Australia: Allen & Unwin.
21 March 2013 - A perspective to hold
It is Saturday and I find myself driving to the western suburbs of Brisbane. It is the Brisbane branch of the Fairholme Old Girls’ Association's annual luncheon. I feel a sense of anticipation and one of enormous privilege. Each year, I am delighted to join with these strong, independent women whose Fairholme friendships and memories span decades; women who prefer letters and thank you cards to emails and text messages, and women who value the practice of the RSVP. I admire their ease with social protocols, their respect for their school and their deep love of one another. Their spirit and camaraderie warm my heart.
I love their stories too - each rich with detail, perhaps embellished in the years, but full of enjoyment and delight. Some things about students, teachers, boarding and school life simply don’t change over time - despite a new world order filled with iPads, iPods, smart phones, wifi, email, and text messages. These ‘old’ girls still recall the sting of disappointing a teacher they respected, or the unexpected kindness of one of their peers, good meals and not so good dining room meals, or the harmless stretching of some truths to earn a moment more of boarding house leave. They refer to themselves as being ‘one of Miss Tassie’s girls’ or ‘one of Miss Shaw’s girls’ and they can recount stories that are important to pass on - even when things have changed, their stories will remain. It is these intangibles that fascinate me, as do the tangibles they bring to share.
They bring precious memorabilia to pass on to Fairholme’s future students - hand-written letters with details of a past that matters a great deal to them, and thus to us. There are sepia photographs with perfect quilled script on the back, badges and pockets, Art assignments, Speech Day book prizes and report cards - each with its own unique history. Their gifts are from the heart - and the parting with this special part of their own past is not always easy.
My drive back to Toowoomba gives me time for reflection about the many things that remain the same at Fairholme - decades onward; Christ-centred faith, collaboration, enjoyment, respect and the seeking of excellence (familiar values?). You can see it in evidence in these ‘old girls’ whose connection with one another and enjoyment of each other are precious gifts of their education. Sometimes … I am handed perspective to pick up, take hold of, and admire - today is such a day.
Linda Evans | Principal
7 March 2013 - We become what we repeatedly do
'We become what we repeatedly do.' (Sean Covey)
I sometimes muse that the two best habits my mother instilled in me, during childhood, were a love of reading and a love of water (drinking). Sound absurd? I point out that my enjoyment of water as a drink was born long before PUMP and Mount Franklin marketers were clever enough to bottle their product and sell it for exorbitant prices.
Whilst there was probably a financial motivation involved in our childhood drink of choice, my mother also steered us away from raspberry cordial and soft drink so simply, by her own example. I have memory after memory of arriving home from school to see my mother sitting on a stool in the kitchen, reading - she invariably had a glass of water nearby.
She was modelling behaviour - though unconsciously so. If I were brave enough to share this article with her, she would blush with embarrassment. Yet that is the truth of it. Her daily ritual was one I observed over and over again throughout childhood - and no doubt, if I could teleport to Sydney, I could catch her out in this ritual - still.
We are what we repeatedly do and we are what we repeatedly observe. I wonder what habits and rituals our children are learning from us; things more significant than drinking water and reading, no doubt. What lessons do we teach our children about how to deal with conflict, what to do when faced with disappointment, what to do in a crisis?
When I draw deeply from a childhood and adolescence that have long passed, I am grateful for deeper things learned beyond a love of reading and drinking water - no doubt you are too. I wonder what our own children are repeating in their own daily practices, through that which we model - and often so unconsciously.
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
21 February 2013 - Blue Ribbon Experiences
A chance conversation with a Fairholme dad on the sideline of Touch selection trials a weekend or two ago, has stayed with me. He was sharing an encounter at a friend's home in England. His friend's primary school son returned home from school after Athletics day, proudly clutching three blue ribbons. When congratulated on achieving three firsts, the boy’s mother cautioned somewhat apologetically, 'Everyone came first, all of the students received blue ribbons.'
Sometimes I peer nervously into a future where children never learn to come second, or last - a world where blowing out candles on birthday cakes has become a breach of National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines for Early Childhood Centres. I ponder on the effect of children who are so removed from missing out on their heart’s desires, or so protected from potential harm that they may leave school never having experienced a setback. Perhaps it is possible to navigate adult life without distress, disappointment or disillusionment? Perhaps it is possible to manufacture experiences so closely as to ensure that our children never feel pain or loss? Perhaps - perhaps not.
How heartening therefore, to watch our Laura Geitz Netballers in action on Sunday. They entered the grand final with a perfect record - undefeated in seven games - and the knowledge that they had fought back on a few occasions when they had been down at half-time. They were poised to win. They played hard, skilfully and with focus. Their sportsmanship was the stuff of praiseworthy newsletter articles. At fulltime they had lost by two goals, to a team they had beaten by seven, in a previous round. Disappointing. Difficult. Distressing, even.
Next time, next game, next opportunity, what wonderful learning they will take with them onto the Netball court. They know the meaning of playing harder, playing stronger and with even more focus. I admit to wishing them on to a win, and feeling some of their disappointment at the end of the match. Reflecting on the way home, I was reminded of the significance and importance of learning to lose with dignity. I even remembered the first time Taringa State School defeated the Ironside Primary School Netball team, and how the Goal Attack dealt with that loss! I was pleased to see how well our Fairholme Laura Geitz Netballers displayed dignity in losing - a blue ribbon lesson, after all.
So here’s to many such blue ribbon lessons in the future - particularly pertinent as we look forward to our Interhouse Swimming Carnivals this week.