Two journeys

| March 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Fiona de Villiers

Two men named Paul. Two of our best traditional schools. One arrival, one departure.

They may not be on the road to Damascus, but Paul Edey and Paul Guthrie have both had epiphanies on their life and school leadership journeys.

Edey has just bid farewell to St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, to take on an equally momentous role at St John’s College in Johannesburg, Gauteng.

Does a man with such experience (at, for example, St David’s Marist Brothers in Johannesburg), who wears the role of traditional headmaster like a second skin (Edey is famous for his unfailing panache) get nervous at the prospect of taking the reins at yet another prestigious school, I ask? His well-known rich laugh booms around his plush St Andrew’s office.

What’s it all about, Mr Edey?

Just as suddenly, he’s serious. He knows the importance of both the task at hand – saying goodbye – and the task ahead (stepping into the well-respected shoes of Roger Cameron, who has just left St John’s). “I know St Andrew’s extremely well,” says Edey. “After all, I was at school here myself. I know the culture. But I’m really fortunate to have been offered this important new challenge.”

Edey’s the first to agree that any fine, old school is much more than the one who leads it. “It is carried along by its own momentum,” he explains aptly. Still, he’s justifiably proud of what has been achieved on his watch. “We’ve revamped the way our dining halls operate, for one,” he says. At a boarding school full of hungry boys, that’s crucial. “The dining halls have been centralised whilst retaining their individual house identities. We have also added a fully equipped gym and rowing ergometer machines on the ground floor.”

The hostels themselves, home to generations of Andreans, have all been upgraded too. “In this day and age, boys and their parents demand a certain level of comfort. Why shouldn’t they?”

Of course, it’s never plain sailing all the way at any school. There have been uncomfortable moments. A situation between a prefect and a younger boy could have ended badly. Every now and then there’s the threat of ‘poaching’ (of boys and teachers) to and from other schools to deal with, and Grahamstown’s ageing infrastructure presents some challenges. But it’s all in a day’s work, says Edey, who knows he’s had some of best administrative, academic, support and technical teams working alongside him. “They’re prepared to deal with anything,” reports Edey proudly.

One Paul’s passions Because St Andrew’s runs so well, it’s often the seemingly small things that catch Edey’s eye. “I’m absolutely fanatical about manners. I insist that our boys acknowledge drivers who wait for them to cross the road at our major zebra crossing. Good manners are part of our heritage.” He’s equally passionate about rooting out bullying, which can mushroom via social media, particularly at boarding schools. “We want our state-of-the-art technology facilities to be used for learning, not bullying. Likewise, our prefects are mentors. They’re not there to terrorise younger boys. “We work hard to build on our boys’ self-esteem. Our research conducted with organisations like the International Boy’s School Coalition1 helps us with that.”

Nurture and nature

Nurturing young men is complex, but having sister school Diocesan School for Girls (DSG) next door helps. “It’s a totally unique kind of co-education model of which we’re all extremely proud,” says Edey.

The two schools are cleverly intertwined, particularly when it comes to outreach work. “Our involvement in the surrounding communities continues to grow, as does our interaction with Rhodes University.

“Additionally, for St Andrew’s, our focuses on social welfare, superb academics, strong sportsmanship, an innovative arts education and outward bound programmes that enable us to explore the fantastic Eastern Cape coastal area, continue to attract high-calibre teachers and some of the best students in the country.”

How to grow a great garden

Edey’s keen to pass on to his successor the best advice he’s ever received. “It’s deceptively simple,” he grins. “See the school as a garden. Observe the four seasons first before you make changes (but if you see something that’s just plain wrong, do something about it.) Then don’t uproot the grand old trees, but do root out the weeds.”

It’s advice he’s taking with him to Johannesburg. “I know I am going to tend a garden that’s been expertly cared for.

“I’m going to miss the Eastern Cape good-neighbourliness, but I’m ready for some big city buzz. I am going from one happy, busy school to another.”

Guthrie’s skills gamut

Across Grahamstown is yet another happy, busy, famous independent school, Kingswood College; steeped in history and housed on a beautiful campus. Here, Paul Guthrie is contemplating his first year of headship. It’s been busy, but he’s still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

While it’s his first turn at the rudder, he’s had a wealth of experience that got him here. Service as a maths teacher, a sports coach, head of the exchange programme, housemaster, director and head of marketing at Hilton College in KwaZulu-Natal have equipped him with a wide gamut of impressive skills.

“I’ve had experience in dealing with a range of stakeholders, from students, to parents (both current and prospective), alumni, communities and the media. I know that today’s principal has got to be approachable and knowledgeable.”

Despite his experience, it was a bold move. “I knew it was time to step out of my comfort zone. I was thrilled at the prospect of leading a traditional school. I firmly believe in the ‘right fit’, and I don’t know that a new school would have been the place for me.”

Getting to know you

A year on, Guthrie’s more than pleased that he’s made the right decision. Given his open and outgoing nature, getting to know the Kingswood boys and girls as soon as possible was part of his recipe for success. “Ever y week there’s an opportunity for tea and buns with one or other group of students. Now they know they matter as individuals to me and they can come and see me whenever they need to.”

Guthrie’s also a believer in informal class visits. There’s no ‘nogo’ area on campus. “ I’ve been so impressed with what I’ve seen,” he smiles. “ Interactions with staff also help me draw on their impressive collective experience and expertise.”

Simple observation can c arry a ne w head a long way, he adds. “I’ve been able to see just how beautiful the grounds are, which in turn enables me to remind students how fortunate they are to have these facilities.”

Why Kingswood’s special

Watching the Kingswood students interact with visitors has been particularl y valuable. “How they engage with people reveals the essence of who we are. It ’s only now and then I have to remind them about not slouching and the importance of greeting appropriately. We’re big on retaining our reputation for good manners.”

Kingswood is also famous for its hospitality. It ’s one of the reasons why 75% of the student cohort comprises boarders from as far afield as central Africa, Germany, Indonesia and Malaysia. “The power of the internet brings us to the attention of many prospective parents,” say s Guthr ie. The canny marketer in him, however, knows that word of mouth is equally powerful. “If you’re going to invest serious money into your child ’s education, come and visit us. Walk around the c ampus and talk to people. Find out for yourself what makes us special.”

Sharing and caring

That ’s something Guthr ie has the pleasure of doing over the last year. He’s impressed with the school ’s multiple ties with var ious communities in Grahamstown, and with Rhodes University. “I want to start a new tradition: an annual academic dinner where our top five students (one from each senior grade) will sit down to a three-course dinner with Rhodes academics to share ideas.”

Sharing is high on Guthrie’s prior ity list. He visits lessfortunate schools in the district frequently and says he ’s learned an inestimable amount from the way they problem-solve. “ That’s something we’ve all got to do going forward, as national challenges such as loadshedding change the way we operate. Kingswood’s ready and willing to jump in and serve side-by-side with organisations looking to effect positive change in our communities. We want all our students to leave here with the desire to help others imprinted on their hearts.”

Positive change is what Guthrie’s all about. His open approach means he’s been able to have honest dialogue with both staff and students about a range of issues. “I love the servant leadership model we have in place here for students,” he says. “We try to grow it all the time, through, for instance, the multischool Leadership Summit we hosted in the first week of the December 2014 holiday s.

“I ’m also glad I can talk to ever yone about traditions – which ones are still appropriate and which ones are past their sell-by date – and that everyone is open to change.”

Whilst he’s not had to deal with any extraordinary discipline problems, Guthrie has won over hear ts and minds by suggesting the implementation of an extended small-group, timetabled tutoring system. More pastoral care means that tutor teachers can join meetings with parents and get to know the students on a much more intimate level. “It ’s what’s needed in boarding schools today,” says Guthrie firmly, knowing that children away from family need the extra support.

He’s not had to change anything about Kingswood’s wellknown co-educational model, however. “ To my mind, boys and girls just get on with it, and there’s a lot of support one for the other. We minimise the sensationalism that can go with romance.

“Our message to all our students is whilst you’re here at Kingswood, let us work with you to help you learn to make good decisions; a habit that will equip you for a successful life, where ver you are and whate ver you choose to do.”

Adding flavour

With year one behind him, Guthrie’s able to relax a little. “There’s no manual for this job,” he reminds himself. He’s excited by the prospect of all the new adventures ahead, like the expanded exchange programme he’s building with schools around the world.

“I’ve taken the excellent advice I’ve been given and which I’d like in turn to pass on to other new heads,” he concludes. “Listen as much as possible, empathise, engage and be visible. Remember that while the buck stops with you, you have this incredible opportunity to inspire others. Learn to laugh at yourself. The world is so much bigger than you and your school.

“A school succeeds because it ’s run well by a multitude of people. As a head, you should tweak here and there and add your own distinct flavour, but if it ’s not broken, then don’t try and fix it!

“I love talking about this school and I love every second of whatever it is I am doing. Most of all, I’ve learned that I don’t have all the answers, but I’m learning all the time.”

Category: Autumn 2015

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