Back 27 November, 2023

Principally Speaking with Pymble’s Dr Kate Hadwen

WhichSchool? magazine talks to Dr Kate Hadwen, Principal of Pymble Ladies’ College, about how the school equips its students to change the world in a positive and meaningful way.

What is the school’s philosophy?

We believe girls can do anything they put their minds to. This drives everything we do and underpins our strategic direction, ‘Watch us change the world’, which is built on four directional pillars for teaching and learning across K-12:

Academic intelligence: knowledge for a better world.

Emotional intelligence: empowered to be courageous.

Social intelligence: diversity as the path to unity.

Digital intelligence: technologies for an innovative future.

There still is great gender disparity in the world and we want to see girls positioned differently, not only in the workforce but in the way they think about themselves and their abilities, and in the way they approach their lives. We want our girls to be courageous, deep thinkers and adept users of technology. We want them to celebrate diversity in all its forms. We believe these attributes will equip Pymble girls to change the world in a positive and meaningful way.

How does Pymble differ from other schools?

Pymble is the largest girls’ school in the southern hemisphere and this scale enables us to offer more opportunities for our students. Our Robotics program, for example, has grown to accommodate 600 participants across Years 3 to 12. Students compete at their own level, which ranges from absolute beginners to teams who qualify to compete each year at the VEX Robotics World Championships. We have students who go on to become Olympians, those who compete at school carnivals purely for House spirit and girls whose ability levels sit anywhere in between.

A common assumption is that a large school is more impersonal than a smaller school, but the truth is the heart of Pymble grows with its size and scale. We are a proudly diverse and deeply connected family, in which every member is celebrated for who they are and what they bring to our College.

What is the history of the school?

We first opened our doors in 1916 as Presbyterian Ladies’ College, with 40 day girls and 20 Boarders. 

In 1977, following the amalgamation of most Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches into the Uniting Church in Australia, the College was renamed Pymble Ladies’ College. Today, Pymble has approximately 2,420 students and 133 Boarders (this includes 22 First Nations scholars).  

In what ways has the school evolved since it was established?

Pymble always has been and will continue to be a school for every girl. While we are proud of the excellence we achieve academically, we are an open entry school with a strong focus on co-curricular sport and activities.

From day one, the College has forged paths for women. One of our foundation students, Marie Byles, went on to become the first woman to qualify as a solicitor in NSW and open her own legal practice in 1929. 

A more recent graduate, Chloe Dalton OAM, has founded the Female Athlete Project and is the name and face of NSW Waratah’s Secondary School Girls Rugby Sevens Competition. We have educated scientists, artists, community leaders, politicians, doctors, lawyers, musicians, entrepreneurs, athletes and countless influential and compassionate women who have gone on to make a meaningful contribution to the world.  

Physically, our main campus has evolved from three main buildings to a world-class educational facility on 55 acres with distinct precincts for each learning stage; three Boarding Houses; a state-of-the-art Aquatic and Fitness Centre; performing arts centre and theatre; multiple sports fields and ovals; and an agriculture plot. Our second campus, Vision Valley at Arcadia, offers an additional 97 acres of space and facilities for Outdoor Education and Residential programs, including our four-week residential program for Year 9.

We are also about to commence construction of our new Grey House Precinct to provide an Early Learning Centre; additional Junior School classrooms; K-12 STEM Centre; dedicated Dance Studio and performance area; Health Centre for nursing and psychological services; and a larger Out of School Hours Care facility. 

How do you provide support and leadership to your staff?

Being consistent in how I show up every day, regardless of the challenges we’re working through. There’s strength in knowing how your leader will respond and that support structures will be put in place to help your community continue to move forward productively.

There’s a quote from Oprah Winfrey that guides me in all my interactions: “I see you. I hear you. And what you say means something to me.” You’re not always going to be able to give people the answer they are seeking or sort out their problem, but making everyone in your community feel seen, heard and valued is incredibly important.

How do you encourage wellbeing among your staff and students?

The best way you can encourage wellbeing in staff and students is to be a role model, showing up each day as the best of you, not what’s left of you.

Our whole-school, evidence-based Mind-Body-Spirit Framework is designed in alignment with our Strategic Direction to ensure student wellbeing sits firmly at the centre of all academic, social, emotional and digital learning at Pymble. 

Pymble also has a fabulous staff-led Wellbeing committee, which provides a range of events, resources and programs supporting the mental and physical health of our staff at all different life stages. 

What role do you play in the day-to-day activities of your students?

As Principal, there’s a genuine risk of being caught up in the business of running a school and not connecting with your students. I am intentional in setting aside time in my diary to be involved with the girls each day. This varies from meeting Year 7 students in small groups to discuss their transition into the secondary school, to dropping in on classrooms and teaching wellbeing lessons to year groups in the Junior School, mentoring Senior students, walking around the campus during breaks to chat with the girls, attending assemblies, events, carnivals and sports matches, and having our Boarders over for dinner in my home on Sunday nights. 

What are some of the challenges faced by teachers in the secondary sector?

All teachers face the challenge of being an educator and psychologist to the students in their care and that’s a huge pressure. 

Technology has also transformed education in some good and not-so-great ways. There is an expectation for teachers to always be available to answer emails and give feedback to students, for instance. How do we put in place those guardrails so that educators can accomplish the day-to-day demands of teaching and still find the time and space to grow professionally and personally? That’s another very real challenge.

What has been your most memorable moment at Pymble?

For me, it’s not a single moment or a big event, it’s the ability to impact on the lives of young people. As I reflect on my career as a teacher and Principal, I can name students in every year for whom I made a difference. They are the reasons why I became an educator in the first place.

What are your feelings about NAPLAN and its effectiveness?

Formative and summative assessment in education is important. If NAPLAN was a rigorous assessment tool, the results of which were delivered quickly so they could be used meaningfully by educators, then it may be an effective way of gathering data. The reality is we are a long way from that. 

I understand that summative assessment is necessary and useful, but it should never take the place of formative assessment. Ongoing feedback during the different stages of a learning journey is far more beneficial for all.

What traits make for an effective and successful leader in education today?

You need to be vulnerable and understand that you’re not the most important person in the room. Always remember that, while you might conduct the orchestra, without the players there is no orchestra. 

You also need to be adaptable, able to change or alter the way your organisation runs to best serve your community. Add to that a healthy dose of resilience. You’re never going to please everybody but that’s not what leadership in education is about. It’s about listening to students and using their voice to make informed and good decisions.  

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