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The future of learning: Debbie Dunwoody

Camberwell Girls Grammar School turns 100 this year. And, as the old adage goes, ‘With age comes beauty.’ Here, it’s not the superficial kind that focuses on outward appearances; however, with two lovely campuses in Melbourne’s leafy little suburb of Canterbury, Camberwell Girls is certainly a top contender for attractiveness.

Debbie Dunwoody, Principal at Camberwell Girls Grammar School

In this case, it’s the simple beauty that runs deep. The beauty of connection and kindness. The kind of beauty that’s earned through decades of service, smiles and a commitment to purposeful work.

Founded in February 1920, the school began as a modest brick hall in St Mark’s Church, crafted by The Reverend Brooksbank. It opened with just eight students – boys and girls – and a dream. Fast-forward a century later and, while the school’s larger with some boys in the Early Learning Centre and roughly 800 girls, its ideals have remained the same – to foster a passion for learning and build a more just and sustainable world.

“It’s been important to have that clear vision to guide us because it means that we can always come back to it. It helps us to remember the direction we’re taking and why,” says Principal Debbie Dunwoody. “Our tagline is ‘Create Your Tomorrow’, because young people have the ability to positively influence their own lives and those around them.”

Arming its students with “learning that matters”, Camberwell Girls takes a holistic, hands-on approach to education. Far beyond basic maths, literacy, PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets, the learnings at this school are student-centred and future-focused.

“For us, it’s about learning – not just consuming information but about having a purpose in their learning,” explains Debbie. “It involves creating, building and networking. This is the learning that will permeate into the young person’s life long after they leave school.”

“For us, it’s about learning – not just consuming information but about having a purpose in their learning.”

Once these students graduate, who knows what the world will look like? With advances in technology creating a vastly different decade than the one before, the future is unknown. What is known though, is the power of flexibility and strength in an ever-changing landscape.

According to Debbie, this is where Camberwell Girls’ purpose-filled learning initiatives give its students an edge. “Young people have to be a lot more adaptable. They have to be more prepared to pivot or change because that’s the nature of the world we live in,” she says.

“For me, education is about helping young people discover and understand their own uniqueness. The professional landscape is changing so much and, nowadays, what you have to offer personally is becoming increasingly more important.”

Debbie Dunwoody, Principal at Camberwell Girls Grammar School

In this same-sex school, the students are given more chances than ever to find what makes them unique – and show it off. In another environment, this could feel daunting to a maturing woman. For the girls at Camberwell Girls, it’s empowering.

Here, they’re affirmed, valued and listened to. The staff work tirelessly to build their confidence and create a nurturing space. They know how to teach girls and they do it extremely well.

“One of the things we can really capitalise on in a girls’ school is giving girls the opportunity to learn about themselves in a way that minimises that unconscious bias. I’m very committed to really ensuring that our girls have the opportunity to try things – that they’re not limited by what they think they maybe should or shouldn’t be doing,” Debbie says.

This means that girls here are active in STEM, robotics, coding, snorkelling, surfing, leadership, art – everything. “In a girls’ school, every leadership position is held by a girl. In Performing Arts, we have a Drama Captain and a Technical Captain. The girls aren’t just the performers on the stage, they’re the technical crews behind the scenes too. It’s really, really powerful,” she says.

Mobile phones are kept in lockers for the duration of the day at Camberwell Girls. This initiative was implemented after lengthy research and focus groups, which showed the negative effects these devices can have on youth. Surprisingly, the result wasn’t a backlash. Instead, the girls were actually thrilled. Turns out they wanted a break from the constancy of having to check their phones all the time. They craved that human connection. And although the school is a lot noisier, it’s music to Debbie’s ears.

“And, every year we run physics classes, specialist maths classes, and we have coding and robotics programs. They provide really important problem-solving avenues that enable young people to engage more with computational thinking.”

In fact, when Debbie signed on with Camberwell Girls, one of the first things she implemented was a “MakerSpace”. As a former science teacher, tackling this initiative came as second nature. She had the room fitted out with laser cutters, 3D printers, sophisticated design technology and other state-of-the-art equipment.

The students use the space to prepare for Girls Invent competitions, National Premier and Enterprise competitions and for day-to-day classroom activities.

“It’s showing the skills that underpin the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. Innovation and creativity are really important,” she asserts. “You need to know how to use technology and understand its use to find solutions to different problems.”

Dabbling in a little bit of everything also helps to encourage these young thinkers to find what makes them tick – an essential component of success. “It’s so important to help our students find the things that energise them,” Debbie says.

“In turn, that helps them find their purpose. Ultimately in life, isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? We all want to find our purpose so we can contribute.”

Debbie Dunwoody, Principal at Camberwell Girls Grammar School

For Debbie, it’s clear she found her purpose. An educator for over 30 years, she identified her passion early on. “I was always a youth leader or involved in the Girl Guides as a leader and loved working with young people, even though I was quite young myself,” she reminisces.

“It was really my pathway to go into education. It sounds clichéd, but I truly believe this is the best profession. We’re in such a privileged position to teach, guide and support young people.

“Youth today often get a bit of a bad rap from some people in the community,” she continues, “but I find them to be so inspiring. They care about the world and each other. It’s an incredible privilege to work with our students every day.”

The school’s strong culture of service provides an avenue for its young women to make a difference in the lives of others. “Our school motto is the Latin phrase ‘Utilis in Ministerium’. It translates to ‘Useful in Service’,” explains Debbie.

“It’s not just about raising money, it’s actually about connecting with organisations. At River Nile, for instance, they teach refugee and new immigrant women how to speak English, and our staff members and students babysit the children of those women. We have a group who goes there every week. It’s not only about developing passionate learners – we also want to create a better world.”

“It’s not only about developing passionate learners – we also want to create a better world.”

This ambition goes far beyond the results of the ATAR, but getting everyone on board with that notion has been challenging for Debbie. “With the way people view our highly competitive world, they can think if you’re not number one then you might fall behind,” she shares.

“So it’s been quite a process reassuring parents that a good education is not just about a test or exam score. It’s about who you are as a person and what you can contribute.”

As for her contributions, Debbie gives her heart and soul to Camberwell Girls. It shows in the way she interacts with the young girls, in the way she works tirelessly towards the school’s vision and it shows in her dedication to her staff.

“As Principal, part of my commitment is to leave a legacy of innovators in education,” she shares. “If I can enable my staff to be really engaged and the best they can be, then not only am I giving our students the best opportunities, but we’re giving a real gift to education as well.”

This year marks a century of learning at Camberwell Girls Grammar School. To celebrate its centenary, the school plans to honour its past, look forward to the future and celebrate many wonderful occasions with its community. A highlight is the new Inspirational Women Program that the school will roll out to honour its inspiring female graduates who remain dedicated to the school’s values: integrity, commitment, respect, hope and courage. The school is also excited to be launching a Centenary Stories book, which will detail its 100-year history through stories.

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