Features, K-12, Principally Speaking, VIC

Principally Speaking: Dr Mark Merry

Research shows a principal needs to model the values of their school community to be an effective leader. It’s a theory Yarra Valley Grammar Principal Dr Mark Merry strives to live out, everyday.

What is the school’s philosophy and how does it guide you and your staff?

Yarra Valley Grammar is a school founded in the Anglican tradition. The Gospel values of respect, care for one’s neighbours and the dignity of every individual are all concepts which inform how we teach and how students learn.

How does the school differ from other schools?

Yarra combines a high level of care with high expectations around education and educational outcomes. Our students are very aspirational and we as teachers need to nurture a love of learning and importantly encourage the very best outcomes for them. The Yarra experience can be an enjoyable one for our students and achieving high academic standards ensures greater choice in pathways after school.

What is the history of the school?

Yarra was founded in 1966 originally as a school for boys. During the 1970s and 1980s this began to change and now the school from years K-12 is wholly coeducational.

Yarra Valley Grammar is wholly coeducational from pre-school to Year 12. Image: Yarra Valley Grammar

In what ways has the school evolved since it was established?

Yarra originally began as a school catering for the surrounding community. Over time, the school’s reputation has grown and we see enrolments from all over Melbourne and beyond. This means that the very modest enrolment of about 150 students in 1966 has grown substantially to the present day with over 1,800 students attending the school. In the same way, as the student population has grown, so too have the facilities we offer for teaching and learning. Yarra is a beautiful campus with outstanding facilities and resources for our students.

What are the main highlights in your own career, and what attracted you to the role of Principal at Yarra Valley Grammar?

I have always been passionate about the study of history. I have been fortunate to pursue this passion working as a history teacher over the years. During my time working as a teacher, I found that leadership was also of great interest to me and I began the path toward becoming a School Principal. I have served in two appointments; one as Deputy Principal and later as Principal of a large boys’ school in Melbourne.

Sport is an important part of the school’s culture. Image: Yarra Valley Grammar

I was drawn to the role at Yarra due to the diversity of the role. Co-education was a change for me and I had never worked with primary aged children before. Now, after 15 years working here at Yarra Valley Grammar, I can honestly say that this has been my best career move of my life.

The other dimensions of my work have occurred outside of the school. I achieved my Doctorate performing research into student performance versus underperformance and I also served as the National Chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) which gave me a great insight into Australia-wide educational issues. Education has been a wonderful choice for me, and it has certainly never been a boring career pathway.

How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?

The first and most important step is recruiting the right people. To attract the right people, the work environment needs to be a very positive one with a great work culture, positive, professional relationships between those who work here and a feeling that one is valued and respected. Once here, colleagues need the opportunity for professional growth and our ongoing professional learning programs are exceptional. Colleagues feel supported here and that’s why they give their best. Our role as leaders is to appoint great people and help create a work environment which allows them to succeed.

How do you encourage wellbeing among your staff and students?

Yarra is a very relational school community. The quality of relationships between colleagues and the students means that members of our school community feel that they belong and feel good about being there. Just this week I asked a Year 7 class what they liked most about Yarra. One of the girls in the class answered: “I like that people here are so kind.” This answer was met by nods of agreement from the other students in the class.

What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of your students?

I often get asked what is the most important job of the principal. The answer in my view is presence. The principal ought to be seen. They need to engage with the school community often and as positively as possible. This helps to set the tone of the school. School culture is so important. The principal’s job in role modelling the principles of that culture is so important. People won’t remember how good you have been with answering emails but they will remember how you made them feel.

What are some of the challenges faced by teachers in the secondary sector?

“Let teachers teach!” Teachers out of necessity today are burdened by administrative tasks such as compliance, risk management, child safety, OH&S, curriculum changes and all of the complexities around actually getting to the classroom and teaching. All these things are necessary, but they do become overwhelming at times. School leaders do what they can to lighten the load but this is not always possible.

Dr Mark Merry says serving as Principal at Yarra Valley Grammar is one of the highlights of his career in education. Image: Yarra Valley Grammar

What has been your most memorable moment either as a teacher or in the role of principal?

The most memorable moment(s) for me at school was seeing my own two sons graduate from secondary school. I could see the effects of a very good education and high level of care had had upon them. I could see too how the many opportunities they had during school had allowed them to participate in many things and to form great friendships. I was fortunate enough that they had attended my school and I could see how this had impacted their growth as young people; given them the opportunity to pursue their interests after school and to have the confidence and the inclination to contribute to the broader community in a meaningful way. As principal of their school, I had played a part in creating a culture where all this could happen.

What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?

NAPLAN as a tool to assist individual students to improve over time works very well. It provides a snapshot of where they are at a given time and provides evidence of improvement at different stages of their education. When it was introduced, we were all promised that it would not be abused by using it to compare and make value judgment about individual schools because this would be unfair. Of course, this is exactly what has happened.

Yarra Valley Grammar offers Early Childhood programs to children aged 3-5 years. Image: Yarra Valley Grammar

What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?

In a recent research paper I cowrote (Corrigan and Merry 2022), we asked this very question. Students and teachers from nine schools told us the same things: A principal needs to model the values of their school community and to work with others to further the mission of their schools. In our context, it is to model hard work, respect, care for others and kindness. These are the things a school leader will be remembered for.

What activities does your school participate in? Are there any programs within the wider school community?

Yarra Valley Grammar is a member of the Associated Grammar Schools of Victoria (AGSV), so sport is an important part of our school culture. All students play sport in some capacity for their school.

In the same way, the performing arts is a very significant part of who we are. The music and drama programs, based in the magnificent George Wood Performing Arts Centre are a highlight of school life. At some point, every student will be involved in the performing arts in their time at Yarra Valley Grammar. 

Another wonderful insight into the culture of our school is the community service program. Yarra students feature prominently in community outreach programs here in Melbourne.

Music and drama programs are brought to life in the George Wood Performing Arts Centre. Image: Yarra Valley Grammar

What lessons could other Principals learn from your experience?

Never forget that the School Principal is a role model. If the school ethos includes kindness, hard work, connecting with people; then that’s the role description.

People are more attentive to what you do, than what you say.

It’s all about the quality of the relationships, not the paperwork. Where possible, be out and about and treat everyone with equal attention and respect.

Surround yourself with leaders who make you look good.

Think of the Principal as the ‘Head Teacher.’ So, it is good to demonstrate teaching prowess in a classroom now and again.

Decision making should be timely. In a crisis, it is critical to keep calm, take charge and make a call.

Any final comments or thoughts you would like to add?

It’s about the students. 

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