This time last year I felt compelled to send cards to about 30 young people who were completing their Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) year. I had been their primary school principal and had seen them joyously graduating from our school in 2014. I wanted to reassure each and every one of these brilliant young people how much I was thinking of them as they endured such a devastated, pandemic impacted final year of secondary education.

Little did I know that some twelve months later I would be doing exactly the same thing for another wonderful group of young people whose entire two year VCE journey has been so adversely impacted by COVID and repeated lockdowns.

The graduating class of 2015 from Emmaus Catholic Primary School, Mt Clear were a fun loving, often mischievous, yet always respectful group of young people. They constantly made me, and their teachers laugh. Sure, there were times when they challenged the status quo, but let’s be honest, that’s their ‘job’ as pre-adolescents! The week before last I trawled through heaps of old photos and found the 2015 graduation photo in order to begin the task of tracking them all down and sending each of these dear young women and men a card to assure them of my care and love.

In 2015 a number of the girls would make a point of making a beeline towards me each and every time I was on yard duty to try to stir me up; they loved it and so did I! Many of the boys were obsessed with their footy and played all year round in our paddock. Others just liked to hang out with their mates. All were brilliantly engaged by their teachers and were enthusiastic learners. I can say in all honesty that these magnificent young people loved coming to school, and if they were struggling, they would talk to us about it. The level of mutual trust and respect between staff and students was evident to all who witnessed it.

Emmaus was only opened in 2008 and many of these children had seen the school grow from very small numbers to being in the high 200’s at the time of their graduation. Each and every student in my photo has left a powerful legacy at Emmaus Catholic Primary School, the school community, Catholic Education and the broader Ballarat community. We are all collectively indebted to each of them!

In 2008 our school adopted a mantra, “We are the Authors of our Own Future.” I stole these words from the head of the faculty of Education at the University of Glasgow, James Conroy. I had the good fortune to meet James in 2007 and in his presentation to a group of educational leaders he stated that the single most important thing we can do in education is to inspire children to believe that they can author their own future. His point, and that which we adopted at Emmaus, was that by encouraging empowerment and nurturing independence and interdependence within students, whilst providing the basic building blocks of life, we were leading them to achieve a rich and fulfilled future.

As, over the course of the past few days, I wrote to these beautiful young people I needed to reach out to a number of their parents to chase addresses and other details. One mum told me how sad it was to see her beautiful, vibrant daughter so flat. She was the ‘social butterfly’ of the family who felt trapped in her bedroom, trying to study as effectively as she could and having missed the 18th birthday party that she was so looking forward to. Another told me of her child who had been in tears wondering, “When all of this s__ will end?”

I’ve heard countless reports of anxiety and depression being an ever-present reality in the lives of not just VCE students, but many, many kids, primary and secondary alike. Interestingly, a couple of the 2015 graduates have now commenced trades and fortunately have been able to work. In doing so they have been able to retain some degree of social connection in their respective workplaces, a luxury that school students simply don’t have.

‘Alana’ wants to travel next year but now feels that is an impossibility. ‘Rohan’ had his heart set on being at uni. and loving life on campus. Unlikely. ‘Tim’ just wants something, anything, to look forward to! It will happen, eventually.

Having reached out to over twenty different primary school principals in recent days, many of whom are former colleagues and friends, they all talk about growing numbers of students coming to school each day simply because their parents are at breaking point, and so are the kids. The children are safer and finding a degree of ‘normality’ at school. This is deeply concerning.

The class of 2015 are such a wonderful group and I’m certain there are countless school leaders all over Victoria and in Sydney who find themselves wondering and reminiscing about the many, many young people whose lives have been touched by their primary or secondary school years. Like me, many are probably asking themselves questions about the potential long-term implications, not just for the graduating year six students of 2015, but all children, of the repeated lockdowns in Victoria.

I find myself wondering what the average Melbourne based year one student, having just begun her/his time in primary education, thinks about school life today? Let’s consider that of the approximate 340 days our year one students could have been at school over the course of 2020 / 2021, some 130 days have been spent at home, learning remotely. A further 85 have been spent locked down at home on weekends and during school holidays. Surely there must be significant levels of uncertainty and confusion in the minds of these five- and six-year-olds?

My work now reaffirms the crucial need to ensure that leadership is distributed. My work now further clarifies that the truly effective leader is ‘at the front of the pack’ to clear a safe and smooth as possible pathway forward for her / his team. The same leader is always prepared to walk amongst the team, checking in to ensure that all are ok. And the great leader is always willing to lead from the rear of the pack so that the least abled, the most at risk, is never left behind. Thank goodness for the wonderful school leaders we have right across our state and country doing their level best to lead their school communities in such challenging times!  

To all VCE graduates from the Emmaus school community, to all VCE graduates everywhere, my heartfelt hope is that you all find it in yourselves to believe that you are the author of your future. Despite COVID, despite repeated lockdowns, despite the normal stresses and strains that come with the VCE year, you can still author great lives! You will travel! You will get to face-to-face classes at university! You will find joy and countless reasons to be optimistic. Life is good!

You will author your own wonderful future and in doing so make your communities, your state, your country, and world a better place for all. Stay well and stay strong.

Brendan Maher

Brendan Maher

Before joining Leading Teams I taught and led in eight schools across Victoria during a 40-year career in the Catholic education sector.
Learn more about Brendan.