Principally Speaking

Principally Speaking: The principal as a role model

Principally Speaking Yarra Valley Grammar

Principal of Yarra Valley Grammar School Dr Mark Merry discusses his dynamic career pathway in education and explores the relationship between great role models and fostering positive relationships within a school community.

Can you provide an overview of Yarra Valley Grammar School, and its location, campus life, teachers, and students?

Yarra Valley Grammar School is a co-educational school with 1800 students from ELC to Year 12. The school is set on a beautiful 30-hectare campus in Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs, central to one of Australia’s premier wine districts, the Yarra Valley. Students come to our school from all over Melbourne and there is a very dynamic international students’ program that attracts many students from overseas.

Yarra Valley Grammar is a coeducational school with 1800 students from ELC to Year 12, located on a 30-hectare campus in Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs. Image: Yarra Valley Grammar

What is the history of the school and its philosophy to guide staff and students?

The school was founded in 1966 as a school in the Anglican Tradition. Even so, we have families from all faith and cultural backgrounds who find a place in our community. The school achieves outstanding academic results, but I believe that it is the care which students receive here that truly characterises our school culture. Positive and productive relationships between all members of our community is critical to the success of the school. We believe that a safe, affirming, and engaging school environment gives both students and teachers a positive school experience.

Our aim is to find what our students are passionate about and what they are good at. There are a wide range of opportunities here in the arts, sports, public speaking, leadership and community service that capture the diverse range of interests of our students. Above all else, our students have a genuine affection for their school. Once this genuine affection is established in a school community, everything else follows.

After 14 years working at Yarra Valley Grammar, Principal Merry says it is one of the highlights of his career in education. Image: Yarra Valley Grammar

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

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 that is located here in Melbourne.

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 14 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 given 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.

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 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.

“Positive and productive relationships between all members of our community is critical to the success of the school. We believe that a safe, affirming, and engaging school environment gives both students and teachers a positive school experience.” – Dr Mark Merry, Principal at Yarra Valley Grammar School

What are the school’s main priorities for the 2023 school year? Please elaborate on what core values you are focussing on currently. After a period of time with remote learning, all schools are working to restore the rituals, symbols and interactions of school life. This has been a priority for us here at Yarra Valley Grammar where we work to re-establish an affirming and engaging school day. We have a building program going on at the school; but our main focus is on the people here. This is rightly where most of our energies go.

Principal Dr Mark Merry believes that a safe, affirming, and engaging school environment gives both students and teachers a positive school experience. Image: Yarra Valley Grammar

What measures and leadership strategies do you employ day to day?

What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today? Our teachers and students would agree on the importance of the School Principal as role model. This finding gives rise to an interesting question: What does it mean to be a ‘role model’ in the context of 21st century education?

Another key element of a Principal’s role is a shared vision for the school and a Principal should have a vision for the school to be shared and developed with colleagues. This element speaks to the collaborative nature of the role in that the school’s vision ought to be shared and developed with colleagues.

In your opinion, how important are schools to their communities?

One great unintended consequence of lockdown during COVID was that in the absence of being physically at school, students realised how important school as experience and as place is to them.

On their return to school, they bounded off the buses and out of cars with a great sense of optimism and enthusiasm. School is important to them. This is where they connect in the real world with friends and their teachers. As other community institutions begin to fade, schools will continue to be an important community hub for parents, colleagues and of course our students themselves.

How has your time at Yarra Valley Grammar School, influenced your leadership style?

After more than 22 years as a School Principal, I hope that I have become more reflective over time and perhaps, a little wiser. I am better at keeping things in perspective and not overreacting and I am better at accepting that everyone has their own perspective on things, and they don’t need correcting. My style has become requisitely collaborative, involving all those who are impacted by given decisions in the decision-making process.

What lessons could other Principals learn from your experience?

  1. Never forget that the School Principal is a role model.
  2. If the school ethos includes kindness, hard work, connecting with people; then that’s the role description.
  3. People are more attentive to what you do, than what you say.
  4. Its all about the quality of the relationships, not the paperwork. Where possible, be out and about and treat everyone with equal attention and respect.
  5. Surround yourself with leaders who make you look good.
  6. Think of the Principal as the ‘Head Teacher.’ So, it is good to demonstrate teaching prowess in a classroom now and again.
  7. 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.

To learn more about Yarra Valley Grammar, visit: www.yvg.vic.edu.au

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