Principally Speaking

Principally Speaking: Servant leadership in action at St Margaret’s

Ros Curtis, Principal at St Margaret’s, discusses the school’s history, philosophy and fostering a culture of philanthropy.

Can you provide an overview of St Margaret’s, its location, campus life, teachers, and students?

St Margaret’s Anglican Girls School, in the leafy Brisbane inner-northern suburb of Ascot, is an independent day and boarding school for girls from Pre-Prep to Year 12, with boys welcome in Pre-Prep. Today there are 1380 enrolments – 450 primary and 930 secondary – with 190 boarders from Years 6 to 12 living in the heart of the campus. St Margaret’s proudly partners with Yalari to educate Indigenous students. The school’s rich extracurricular program encompasses extensive sports, music, and arts programs as well as additional clubs and activities to cater for girls’ varied interests so they can explore their passions, with a focus on enriching the student experience for all students.

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

St Margaret’s was established by the Sisters of the Society of the Sacred Advent (SSA) in 1895. The work of the Sisters began in Brisbane in 1892 with the arrival of its founder, Sister Caroline Amy Balguy, from England. She came to Brisbane to do welfare work for the young women and girls, and soon after recognised a need for schooling for girls, noting that, “to have a progressive and tolerant community, educated women are a pre-requisite”.

The Sisters’ educational philosophy actively sought to educate “the whole personality, physical, mental and spiritual that the girls may live to their fullest capacity”. The Sisters believed that one of the best gifts that society could give young women – for an empowered future and to contribute to the common good – was an education. This enduring vision is as true now as it was in the early 1900’s. This philosophy informed each of today’s SSA schools: St Margaret’s (established in 1895) and St Aidan’s (established in 1929).

Thus, the school is forever guided by the Sisters’ philosophy, together with its stated core values, which are born from our Christian faith through our Anglican tradition – spirit, inclusivity, integrity, courage, respect, and passion. These are embedded in every endeavour that the students undertake.

What are the main highlights in your own career, and what attracted you the role of principal at St Margaret’s?

While being appointed Principal is naturally one of the most significant highlights of my education career, all my teaching roles and leadership positions have been highlights. From my teaching beginnings, it’s been a natural progression to be able to share my passion for Ancient History with my students, before going on to be involved in the curriculum design and delivery. I am particularly passionate about being able to mentor other teachers and aspiring leaders, both at St Margaret’s and across the wider educational community.

Before taking the role at St Margaret’s, I was Deputy Principal at St Aidan’s – our sister school – for seven years. During that time, I was inspired by the legacy of the SSA and what they achieved for the education of girls throughout Queensland. It was an honour to be able to step into a Principal role and contribute to their wonderful legacy.

Image: St Margaret’s Anglican Girls School

What extracurricular activities do students participate in, both on campus, and within the wider community?

The school is focused on strengthening the St Margaret’s experience for all students. What this looks like in practice is providing a very rich and broad range of programs across all areas – academic, the visual and performing arts, sports, and a wide range of clubs and activities. Clubs and activities on offer range from astronomy, dance and debating through to philanthropy, art club, a podcast and an environmental committee.

Students can also participate in 21 different sports in secondary school and 10 in the primary school. Musically, we offer a wide range of string, band, and choral ensembles across both primary and secondary schools as well as primary and secondary rock bands.  We produce a musical every two years and hold an arts festival on the alternate year.

For students in Years 10 to 12, we offer a program called ‘Beyond the Panama’ – the Panama being our signature uniform hat. This program tackles the practical issues of life not covered in the curriculum, from financial literacy (superannuation, banking, applying for a tax file number etc), building a personal brand through LinkedIn, through to issues of consent and concern, helping to set students up for life beyond the school gates.

Community service and philanthropy are very important to St Margaret’s. Our mission states we are “preparing confident, compassionate, capable women able to contribute to a global community.” Part of this is developing a mindset of ‘giving back,’ with the intent to inspire students to begin a lifelong commitment to service through activities that have a positive impact on the communities in which they live and will one day work. The culture of philanthropy at St Margaret’s prepares students for a life of compassion and giving back to those less fortunate, not just through donating money, but through giving of their time. Students have a community service passport where they log hours of service initiatives and activities undertaken outside of school, such as helping an elderly neighbour, visiting an aged care home, or participating in the Smith Family student to student reading program.

The school is immensely proud of its Ponytail Project initiative, now in its ninth year. This year, 109 students and four teachers will snip off their ponytails to raise funds to support those affected by cancer while also donating their hair to make wigs for patients suffering hair loss due to cancer or a medical condition. Over its lifetime, the St Margaret’s Ponytail Project has raised over half a million dollars in financial donations to the Cancer Council Queensland and the Minotti Trust. In 2019, the Ponytail Project was adopted by Cancer Council Queensland, encouraging schools state-wide to become involved in the movement.

What are the school’s main priorities for the 2023 school year? Please elaborate on what core values you are focusing on currently.

Last year, the school adopted a new value of ‘inclusivity’. This was a very natural fit for our school, given that we are a boarding school that attracts a wide range of students from regional and rural Australia and overseas. We run a global exchange program for Year 10 students where they spend a term at a school in another country and we welcome reciprocal visits from students from those schools. The boarding house holds the annual ‘See My Difference, See My Worth’ weekend festival every year, which celebrates the many cultures that call the boarding house home, through dance, food, art and other activities. We constantly aim to ‘enrich the student experience’ across a range of different areas so girls can explore their passions and interests.

One such example is our work in the eSports arena, where girls keen to explore their passion for online gaming can do so in a safe space and also participate in and benefit from a team sport and represent their school. We developed a custom digital lab for this purpose and introduced the first Queensland interschool all girls gaming invitational in 2022, with 45 students from schools around Brisbane participating.

We are continuing to expand our work in the career space with the second year of our award-winning Mentoring Program. This program matches Years 11 and 12 students with appropriate early to mid-careers mentors from an outstanding pool of St Margaret’s alumni in the students’ areas of interest.

We are also embracing the advances in AI technology this year and teaching students to use the tools productively and appropriately. Currently, we are in the early stages of developing a pastoral care program with a working title ‘On being human’ where students will learn to engage with AI tools, while gaining an understanding of what AI is not.

You recently received the 2023 Queensland Reconciliation in Education Award. Can you share the story behind this?

Our Reconciliation Action Plan also very much aligns with the value of inclusivity. We are very pleased with our activities in the reconciliation space which led to the school being awarded a 2023 Queensland Reconciliation Award in the Education category in recognition of its inspiring initiatives committed to reconciliation. As a school, we have a responsibility to educate and foster an environment of respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, culture, and knowledge, particularly given we have proudly partnered with Yalari for many years, and we continue to focus on initiatives we can adopt to continue this reconciliation journey.

In 2021, after significant planning, the school launched a formal Reconciliation Action Plan providing a framework to drive important change in the classroom, around the school and within the community, based on the model of relationships, respect and opportunities. Along with expanded celebrations of larger events – such as National Reconciliation Week, NAIDOC Week, Sorry Day, Mabo Day – the school has shaped its own form of Reconciliation through such initiatives as First Nation themed Prayer Spaces, specific boarding house activities, and two significant anthologies authored by the school’s First Nations students. These anthologies were funded by the school’s own Leading Innovations Award grants. The first, launched in 2020, was Gidhal – a collection of stories and artworks from St Margaret’s First Nations students and their families. The second, Mulu Maguydan, was launched in NAIDOC Week 2022 and focuses on the stories of our Indigenous students’ Elders.

Image: St Margaret’s Anglican Girls School

The researching and writing process uncovered so many interesting stories, and the learnings gleaned from these First Nations stories were more accessible as they were shared by members from our school community. First Nations students have felt empowered, saying the projects allowed them to have a greater voice, and to share their stories and teach others. Students were afforded dedicated time to explore the lives of their relatives, strengthening their ties with their homes when they are so far away geographically and strengthening the bond between the First Nations students at the school.  Both magazines are used across the entire school, acting as a rich repository of stories and testament to our commitment to retaining and supporting First Nations knowledge of country.   

In 2023, a third anthology is underway, this time focusing more on the students’ own stories.

More than ever before in our community, our First Nations historic and contemporary stories are being told and their culture is being experienced and not only by school students and staff. Through projects like Gidhal and Mulu Maguydan, these stories are resonating out towards the school’s wider community and all the way to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities where the families whose stories were shared live. These families were so pleased to be asked and were abundantly willing to share their lives and those of their Elders. Even the First Nations students themselves were not aware of some aspects of their Elders’ stories, which included stories of children of the Stolen Generation, who had overcome adversity, going on to make significant achievements in their lives. Some of the families were able to attend the launch and were extremely pleased that their stories – both triumphant and tragic – were being told.

How has your time as Principal at St Margaret’s influenced your leadership style?

I think my time at St Margaret’s has really highlighted for me the strength in bringing a community together. There are diverse stakeholders in a school with various bodies that represent them – such as a P&F Association, Foundation, Old Girls’ Association, even a past staff association – all with a collective passion for the school. I think the most important thing for me has been to see how powerfully these bodies can serve the school and therefore the students when they are working together and united in their trust of the school’s leadership.

St Margaret’s has a strong and vibrant community who are positively engaged in all aspects of the school and are staunch advocates of the school and I have no doubt this is one of the reasons the school is in the strong position that it is today.

What leadership strategies do you employ day-to-day in your role?

Key to my leadership is being able to clearly articulate a vision for where we are going and how I believe we can get there and inspiring staff to buy into that vision and giving them the tools and support to bring that vision to fruition. I believe that my role as Principal is to be the chief storyteller in the school and, through story, build a positive and productive school culture.

One of the most effective leadership strategies I believe is to develop the leadership capabilities of your team, allowing them to bring their passions to the table and affording them the latitude to try new things as well, even if that means, on occasions, failing forward and growing from the experience, which is what we teach our girls every day.

Image: St Margaret’s Anglican Girls School

It’s vitally important for the future of our students that we have strong leadership across all our educational institutions, and I am passionate about giving back what I have learned across my career to help advance that cause.

I also believe that schools are intensely human places and that good relationships are the key to bringing out the best in everyone and getting the most out of any programs we have in place. My vision for my leadership is that of a servant leadership model, whereby my role is to provide a well-run school across all areas so that staff can focus on teaching and learning and not be distracted by poor resourcing or facilities, or an unconstructive workplace culture, but rather, enjoy a supportive and collegial environment where they are motivated to carry out their roles to the best of their abilities. I am driven to provide the best learning experience to our students and need to pay attention to all relationships for that to occur.

I encourage aspiration in all teachers and support staff, and this creates an environment where every member of the community strives to learn and grow. Importantly, staff know that I know them and that I care about their professional journey at the school; they know I care about building their professional capacity which can sometimes mean that they will successfully seek a promotion beyond the school when they are ready.

What advice do you have for those aspiring to move into school leadership roles?

Focus on the students and, importantly, find the joy every day.

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