“Help the individual find themselves in a community, national or global context” – Interview with Ms Judith Poole, Headmistress of Abbotsleigh Girls School

By Luke Hughes

 

Headmistress Judith Poole with students
Headmistress Judith Poole with students

 

“Where you get the impact is when you actually have students identify social issues in the community that they feel they might have a place to help solve or make better. Then we try to provide an opportunity for them to partner or work with an element of the community.”
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-Ms Judith Poole

From its humble beginnings in a small terrace house at the top of Mount Street North Sydney in 1885, Abbotsleigh Girls School has developed into an elite school for girls with a reputation for educational excellence, occupying two state of the art campuses on Sydney’s Upper North Shore and ranking as the top independent school in NSW for Higher School Certificate, 2015.

Despite its extensive grounds and facilities – the school boasts an aquatic centre, gymnasium, world class tennis courts, concert hall, early learning centre, boarding houses, drama studio, environmental and research centres and a chapel complete with a stunning baroque organ – it is the principles at the core of Abbotsleigh’s educational ethos that make such facilities truly valuable.

This ethos can be traced back to the school’s first headmistress, Marian Clarke, who founded Abbotsleigh Girls School based upon her own advanced ideas on education: a balance between physical and mental education, a wide ranging curriculum, strict discipline and the encouragement of charitable works.

Abbotsleigh Girls School
Abbotsleigh Girls School

For current headmistress Judith Poole who took on the role 12 years ago, teaching was a profession she had not initially intended to pursue. In fact her passion for teaching emerged whilst volunteering for the Peace Corps in Africa. She recalls being stationed on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in a small village in Botswana consisting of mud huts, no running water and only a generator for electricity.

“I was a physics and maths undergraduate major. We were in a village called Serowe where they said, ‘With your background you might be able to teach mathematics, would you like to do that?’ I had never really thought about teaching’ however that’s where I fell in love with it. Generally you do a two year placement but we stayed for six. It was transformational on every level.”

Abbotsleigh Girls School
Abbotsleigh Girls School

When Abbotsleigh Girls School moved to Wahroonga in 1898, it became the first girls school in Australia to have a sports field. The sporting life of the school draws on a long tradition of physical exercise, team spirit and fair play.

A sportswoman herself, Judith fully appreciates the value of the girls being actively engaged in physical activity. She coaches a school softball team as well as playing softball in a local competition.

Her philosophy on being actively engaged also extends to the service learning programs that are an equally important part of Abbotsleigh’s curriculum.

Abbotsleigh Girls School
Abbotsleigh Girls School

“We have about 15 of these various programs in year 10 that the girls themselves generate and run. Experiential and enquiry based learning are essential aspects of our pedagogy, so that students learn by doing”

Judith describes the service learning programs as having a far deeper educational impact on the girls than just community service. She enthusiastically told the story of a group of year 10 students who arranged to teach young refugee girls from a school in western Sydney to swim. In return the young Muslim girls taught their Abbotsleigh counterparts the art of belly dance.

“That’s where I would say real learning takes place. There are a whole lot of skills that are being learnt that go beyond just community service. Really, schools are about building social capital.”

“Where you get the impact is when you actually have students identify social issues in the community that they feel they might have a place to help solve or make better. Then we try to provide an opportunity for them to partner or work with an element of the community.”

“So I guess yes, just like doing volunteer work in Africa, I feel like I took away far more from my experience there than I ever gave.”

“Here we try to help the individual find themselves in a community, national or global context.”

This article is also available in: Chinese traditional

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