Striving for the Highest – Interview with Vicki Waters, the Principal of Pymble Ladies’ College

Vicki with the 2016-2017 student leaders
Vicki with the 2016-2017 student leaders

With 25 years of experience in senior leadership roles in education, Principal of Pymble Ladies’ College (Pymble), Vicki Waters spoke to New Land about the increasingly dynamic state of education and how it is impacting the learning environment at the prominent school for girls on Sydney’s North Shore.

Vicki’s interest in education is broad and diverse. With qualifications in English and History, her area of particular interest is ancient history, specifically ancient Greek and Roman history. She is passionate about the richness at the pinnacle of those ancient civilizations, and also understanding why they fall.  I asked her if she sees any comparisons between those civilizations and today’s world.

“What we’re seeing now are interesting times in America, we’re seeing the growth of China, similar growth in India, we’ve seen Brexit and that’s yet to play out. It’s a world of discontinuity and a world of instability which has a massive impact on education.”

“I think the old way of doing things is absolutely gone. The latest stats say that information will double every two days, now think of how much information there is in the world. Way back when I was at school, we learnt facts, some of them are still really important… your language rules and so on, there was a lot of rote learning some of which is foundational to how I operate. The way we’ve got to approach learning has to be different. The latest stats for our 15 year olds say they will have 17 different jobs and 5 different careers, and half of those jobs haven’t even been invented.  We can’t tell them what the world will be like; we can’t give them the facts. What we’ve got to do is to utilise our skills so that they can experience different ways of learning, different ways of questioning and challenging. The whole paradigm of education has actually been turned on its head and I don’t think it’s a transition, it’s a journey. The world is changing so quickly, technologies are changing so quickly, connectedness is different; we have to be continually evolving.”

In 2012 Pymble undertook the ambitious task of establishing focus group communities with past students, parents and business leaders working together to tackle the challenges that a changing world presents to the girls’ educations. The result of this exhaustive process was the establishment of the schools strategic vision Towards 2020 – Striving for the highest. One of the outcomes was a teachers retraining program. “The world that was perceived was one where every girl’s education needed to be unique to her. As soon as we were aware that was the view to the future, my job was to retrain our teachers.”

“We said if we expect our students to be great collaborators in their learning then our teachers have to be great collaborators as well. Project Zero from Harvard was the perfect vehicle that enabled that experience for our teachers.  It’s working with our teachers our parents and students in situ to actually embed the theory into practice. That model is the one we have adopted for all our professional learning. We bring experts here, they work with us, and then the teachers can translate what might be great theory into quite different practice.”

Four years after Towards 2020 was first implemented Vicki explains that the whole organisation now works on a goal driven approach. “Each student will identify her goals. She is able then to work with her teachers in progressing towards achieving that goal.”

“We realised that the old way of doing things was never going to deliver our 2020 vision. Because future employers were saying we want young people now to be innovators, to be problem solvers and to show initiative. We no longer want compliant workers. A lot of energy goes into working with our teachers to create a different experience that is going to put Pymble girls as first choice employees for the future.”

In contribution to the 2020 vision, staff at Pymble are encouraged to embark on their own learning journey. As part of her journey Vicki visited Finland last year. “I was in Helsinki at an international federation of principals’ conference there. The purpose was twofold; both I and a colleague were going to present strategic processes that we use here to college heads from around the world, but it was also trying to get Finland’s secret; what is it that makes it so successful there? There were a number of takes from that. But it’s a different world community there, its small; children still go home for lunch. Parents are heavily connected with their learning.”

Vicki with Li-Enn Koo, new Ex-Students' Union President 維琪(右)和新一任校友會主席 Li-Enn Koo女士
Vicki with Li-Enn Koo, new Ex-Students’ Union President


With many students coming from families who have recently moved to Australia, especially from China, I wondered what where some of the main challenges that these students face in settling into a new school. “One is the expectation from parents, which is really quite difficult. They are coming from a different cultural expectation and rote learned education is often the norm there. When you come to Pymble, education is about experiencing and doing, it’s about challenging, it’s about questioning and that doesn’t always align with the experience of parents coming from China. Sometimes parents have unrealistic expectations of their daughters.”

“The other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of students go through difficult times mentally; anxiety, depression, which are part of the world in which we live and for some Asian families that’s very difficult to accept. There is almost a sense of shame, whereas there is no need to be. So again I think it’s more about parent expectations as opposed to the girls and their expectations.”

“Four years ago now we established a Cultural Community Network (CCN). The reason we did it is because we found we weren’t connecting particularly with Asian families. There was a language barrier there and there was a sense perhaps because of that, that families weren’t welcome. We have a CCN lunch or event each term now. That has broken down so many barriers. We’ve also run English language classes for parents. I think that has built a network for families coming to our Pymble community.”

Vicki is acutely aware that we are now living in a global world and with that comes a responsibility to teach the girls to be global citizens. “It’s not just about living here in this beautiful environment and having people come to us, but our students have an opportunity to explore the world as well. We have and exchange schools programme and we are involved with 29 different schools around the world. Our girls now have an opportunity to go and attend a summer school at Cambridge University in England. So we are going out into the world as well, rather than expecting the world is going to come to Pymble.”

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This article is also available in: Chinese traditional

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