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Lessons from a headmistress: embracing change, growth, values and dogs


St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School chaplain The Rev’d Gillian Moses shares what she and her school community learnt from a former headmistress

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St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School recently farewelled one of its former headmistresses, Miss Marjorie Neil, who served our community between 1980 and 1991. Miss Neil was a remarkable woman, and in response to anglican focus’ request, I have described some of the key learnings gleaned from her example as a transformative leader, as they are salient for other parts of our Church community.

Embrace change

In 1990 Miss Neil wrote, “It is vitally important that we educate people not to fear change…I really hope we produce people who initiate change and who can look back on their lives and say ‘something or someone is better because of changes I made.’ ”

2020 has certainly been a year for embracing change and being brave, as students and staff have mastered online learning, COVID-safe choral singing and the new ATAR system, and generally developed greater resilience. It has not always been straightforward, but I like to think Miss Neil has been cheering us on and will agree that we have come a long way.

Build it and they will come

Marjorie’s commitment to building a school for the 20th century led to the nickname ‘Marj the Builder’. Her many building projects were strategic in creating the school she believed St Aidan’s could be – centred on the faith of the Society of the Sacred Advent, embracing new technologies and educating the whole person through academic, sporting and cultural pursuits.

St Aidan’s continues to build for the future structurally, as we embark on a master plan that facilitates greater community engagement, independent learning and the integration of technology into our studies. We have learned well the lesson of building for the school we will become.

Values are everything

In her introduction to the 1986 ‘Parents’ Handbook’, Marjorie wrote “Essential to an understanding of St Aidan’s are words and phrases like ‘family’, ‘concern’, ‘care’ and ‘love of dogs’ which…reflect the fundamental characteristics of the School.” Miss Neil understood that it would be the ethos and philosophy of the Society of the Sacred Advent which made St Aidan’s a “special, happy, unique place of learning”.

This year the leadership team has reflected that it is the Sisters’ values that have enabled us to respond to the challenges of COVID-19 confidently and smoothly. We know what to do, because we know who we are. Miss Neil grasped this truth 44 years ago.

Life is better with a dog

When Miss Neil first visited St Aidan’s, she was amazed to see the Sister-in-Charge with her dog at school. As headmistress she upheld this tradition with Penny the school dog who helped to break down barriers and win hearts.

Today, our Principal Toni Riordan’s dog Lenny has taken on the role of school dog, attending sports fixtures, welcoming students back from their online learning experience, welcoming pats and even attending Miss Neil’s Memorial Service to pay his respects to Penny and her mistress. Life at St Aidan’s is definitely better with a dog!

Transformative leaders leave a timeless legacy and we will continue to apply these insights from Miss Neil’s example in the future.

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