Predicting the future is hard. Impossible even. Yet, for those in education, this impossible task often comes with the job description. They must anticipate what the future of the world will be in order to best prepare their students, arming them with the skills necessary to achieve flourishing lives.
At Loreto Normanhurst, a Sydney independent Catholic day and boarding school for girls, the educators meet this challenge and take it one step further. Instead of envisioning what the world may be, they take it upon themselves to craft the future of the world into what it should be by moulding students into what Principal Marina Ugonotti calls, “compassionate warriors”.
“The education of women is fundamental to achieving peace and justice in our families, in our society and in our world,” she says. “The multidisciplinary approach to learning that we have here assists our students in developing the skills and the disposition of heart they will need to go on and serve the world, making it a better place while leading long and flourishing lives.”
Building on foundations
Marina became principal in January 2019. As the school’s former deputy principal, she gained a deep understanding of Loreto Normanhurst, including its purpose, strengths, weaknesses and foundation. That meant, going forward, she knew just what to do to keep Loreto Normanhurst on the right track for its ongoing success, as well as the success of its students.
Then, 2020 struck with all of its COVID-19 uncertainty, and everything everyone once knew was basically obliterated. Strategic plans were put on hold and the future was mapped out hour-to-hour versus the long-term approach of the pre-pandemic period.
It’s so important for everyone to feel like they belong, to find their place in the community and culture. It’s what I, as a leader, must continue to cultivate, keep testing and ensure it enables growth.
It was enough to rattle even the most astute businessperson. However, Marina further proved how perfect she was for the job by acting as the calm within the storm, anchoring the uncertain community in faith and felicity. “A lot of things were turned upside down by the pandemic,” she admits.
“What helped navigate those challenges was a strong sense of community and an optimistic and hopeful frame of mind. I approached it with an open mind and an open heart, being considerate in decision-making, yet also appreciating the need to take critical, timely action.
“It was imperative to be able to respond to the changes that were thrust upon us. We were lucky to be able to draw upon the tools of our tradition and our spirituality. They allowed us to grow in gratitude, making sense of what was happening while still remaining strong and able to adapt and move forward.”
Loreto Normanhurst is under the care of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary – which was founded by Mary Ward – also known as the Loreto Sisters, making the school a part of a 400-plus year worldwide tradition of educating young women.
“Mother Gonzaga Barry founded Loreto Normanhurst in 1897, making us part of a long Loreto tradition based on the conviction that women are a reflection of the glory of God and equal to men, with the right to a broad education,” Marina says.
“Mary Ward, 400 years ago, gave us the maxim that ‘Women in time will come to do much’. Her legacy continues in our School’s values of freedom, justice, sincerity, verity and felicity. They form our culture and are completely interwoven into who we are, enabling a culture of strong, considered feminism.”
It’s a culture that is based on seeking truth and doing justice. And it’s stitched into the very patchwork of Loreto Normanhurst, from each student’s induction to each employee’s onboarding and the continual storytelling that permeates its every fibre.
“Our culture is also woven throughout our beautiful, expansive grounds with different places of importance and learning spaces meant to spark the students’ imaginations,” she says.
“Our girls from Year 5 through Year 12, as well as our staff, take part in what we call a Traditioning Day, where they’re introduced to the stories that have shaped us and where they’re empowered and challenged to contribute their own stories, adding to our legacy here. It’s so important for everyone to feel like they belong, to find their place in the community and culture. It’s what I, as a leader, must continue to cultivate, keep testing and ensure it enables growth.”
Women for our times
The pandemic also highlighted just how vital strategic partnerships are to the school’s continued success. From technology to facility management and enhancements, Marina says working in collaboration with others was and has always been key to the girls’ learning and growth.
“It’s critical to leverage expertise and breadth of experiences outside of our own. Leaders who think they have all the answers, either themselves or within the organisation, are being not only naive but also very short-sighted,” she states.
“For example, we highly value our relationships with PDFM and Carmichael Tompkins Property Group. They are critical to our strategic commitment of always remaining conscious of our role as custodians of our site and resources; our commitment to the sustainability and good stewardship of resources. They are relationships I personally value quite a lot as they’re working in critical areas that will have an impact on our school long after I’m gone.”
‘Women for Our Times’ is Loreto Normanhurst’s three-year strategy that focuses on the following commitments:
• Live at the edge of innovation in the pursuit of excellence.
• Actively amplify and expand the reach of Loreto’s vision for young women.
• Serve as global citizens, learning from and sharing with others.
Noting the COVID-19 pandemic’s ongoing effects, Marina helped devise a three-year strategic plan outlining the school’s future direction, which is called Women for Our Times.
“In the context of 2020, it became very apparent that, with rapid change, you need to ensure an organisational configuration that allows for adaptability,” she says.
“Women for Our Times addresses the need to always remain responsive and in tune with the context of the times in which we are living, while also nodding to tradition, the grounding of values, and where we’ve come from. It is a continuation of the three pathways of our previous strategy of being a faith-centred school, an ecology-centred school and a person-centred school.
It places an emphasis on outward-looking people, people who are for others, much like the visionary women who came before us. “The Loreto Sisters before us were dangerous innovators, and they remind us to always remain on the edge of innovation, to remain true to who we are,” Marina beams.
“Women for Our Times calls for us to frame the work we do so we can shape our girls and our young women into compassionate warriors – women of grit and resilience, who care and who are compassionate to the needs of others, who are creative in how they respond to the problems that they and society face, who have a sense of humour and don’t take themselves too seriously, and who are always seeking the truth.”
If these graduate attributes are the goal, then an emphasis on building a thriving community defined by its diversity is the means that are laid out by Loreto Normanhurst’s strategic plan. Diversity is valuable. Every aspect of human life relies on it – diversity of thought, diversity of culture, even diversity of the microbiome, so on and so forth.
Even though the concept is easily recognisable simply by looking around and appreciating how differently everything on this blue-green planet is made, some still need to be convinced with science. Well, science supports diversity too.
The Loreto sisters before us were dangerous innovators, and they remind us to always remain on the edge of innovation, to remain true to who we are.
Having a diverse workplace is associated with more innovative ideas and a better bottom line. Likewise, diversity in the classroom benefits students with stronger critical thinking skills, enhanced creativity and an appreciation for and an openness to a variety of perspectives. One thing is abundantly clear – diversity equals success.
“Diversity has always been important to us,” says Marina. “Even at the time of Mary Ward and later Mother Gonzaga Barry, who centuries ago both believed it to be important to the soundness of our school. They wanted a broad, active, holistic education to be available to all girls.
“For us today, preparing our students to be activists, advocates, professionals, captains of industry – people for others in the real world – means that they need to embrace the stories of others. We, as a school community, need to be able to reflect the diversity of the world at large.
“In doing so, we are then able to expose perspective and storytelling to our young people in a way that broadens their own outlook, growing their empathy and ultimately forming students who are global citizens.”
This value in diversity ties in with the school’s deep faith and values-based grounding. It sees the world as one. There’s an undeniable connectedness, tying everyone together simply by being social and emotional beings.
“We belong, and we make sense of ourselves and our place in the world when we’re in relationship with others. That’s ultimately what community is,” Marina stresses.
And the community at Loreto Normanhurst, from the staff to the students, is a world melting pot in its own right. Its boarding school alone has just under 200 students with over 80% coming from country New South Wales. The other 20% is roughly composed of students whose families are expats and live overseas or are from somewhere along the Sydney basin.
And the staff bring a harmonious display of diversity, not only in cultural background but also in age and breadth of experience. “Loreto Normanhurst is quite diverse, culturally as well as demographically,” Marina says.
“Our whole school is strengthened by the layers of community within it. We have boarders who come from such different backgrounds and they bring beautiful perspectives to the entire community. Here, you get to know other people’s stories and that helps you get to know yourself even more authentically.”
The school’s diversity also makes the girls feel right at home. They feel welcomed and free to be unapologetically themselves in a safe and supportive environment. It’s an endeavour the school actively threads throughout each day, and its message is heard loud and clear by the students.
“I had a student say to me, ‘Our school isn’t a princess factory or a cookie-cutter approach.’ You get to work out who you are and become your own natural, truest selves here,” Marina shares. An added bonus is the level of achievement facilitated by this freedom of thinking and diversity of perspective, seen in the consistently high HSC results in recent years and the success of alumnae.
“I believe it’s due to our diversity and the scale of boarding in relation to the day school. It’s our broad, liberal, holistic educational model that places equal weight on faith, academic, community and extracurricular – what we call our FACE Curriculum.
“This is really important for getting a balanced approach to life and a balanced approach to learning so that achievements are seen from that perspective. Of course, that’s the whole point. We’re trying to work out the bigger meaning and purpose of life and grow as good people.”
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