The Power of School Spirit

through student ownership of Student Leaders

Ms Jan O’Sullivan, Head of Griffith House

Open Day heralds the beginning of the Year 11 students’ journey towards leadership of the School in 2017.

Several years ago, when I was Acting Dean of Students for a term, I was invited by the Assistant Principal of another Brisbane girls’ high school to speak to her senior staff about our Student Care/House System at Brisbane Girls Grammar School. This invitation came about because the Assistant Principal had a daughter in Griffith House in Year 11 at Girls Grammar and she had repeatedly made comments to her mother, since the middle of Year 8, about ‘the amazing school spirit’ at the School. This mother wanted me to outline details of the House system to her senior staff in an attempt to promote the same kind of school spirit at the private school where she worked.

As well as outlining our House system with its fostering of House and School spirit, I spoke to the senior staff about the Girls Grammar Student Leadership programme under which girls nominate for specific positions and their peers take full responsibility for voting, with no input from staff in the voting process. I emphasised the fact that this ownership of School leaders begins in Semester 1 in Year 8 (now Year 7) and continues through to the very serious voting process at the end of Year 11 to determine the leaders of the School and of each House in Year 12.

Our current Year 11 girls will have assumed responsibility for the nine House Stalls at Open Day, 2016, followed in early Term IV by the serious voting process for Year 12 leadership positions in 2017. The girls who nominate for these positions will need to be both resilient and tough as they will have to face the possibility of not being voted into the position they want. It is a big responsibility for them but they have been learning to lead for the last four years. Practising leadership and therefore learning to lead are so important for teenagers, elevating their thinking above the self, away and beyond the petty obsessions of day-to-day teenage life involving friendship groups and associated disputes, school dances, boys and clothes. Some girls seem to be born leaders but most are made through practising leadership.

In relation to the philosophy of leadership, some people believe that the ‘heroic’ model which espouses the notion that leaders are ‘born’ rather than ‘made’, is out-of-date in the complex modern world where leadership often involves a process of consultation whereby one person is able to enlist the help and support of others to accomplish a common goal or task. Both models of leadership focus strongly on the idea that girls need to develop their own personal leadership potential. The Heads of House are crucial in facilitating the School’s commitment to developing self-leadership qualities in all girls from their first day in Year 7.

The School prides itself, from the beginning of Year 7, in fostering the capacity of its girls to learn to be leaders by providing clearly articulated leadership structures and myriad learning experiences that are designed to develop leadership skills within a caring, supportive environment. This is achieved by means of formal programmes, the House system and co-curricular activities. There are in fact, 360 leadership positions across all Houses each calendar year from Years 7 to 11, and over 150 official leadership positions in Year 12. We also acknowledge and promote the concept that every girl in Year 12 is a leader who will be asked to exhibit her leadership skills and, as a leader, behave as a role model for younger students. Very few Year 12 students fail to rise to the occasion.

The fact that the student leaders are elected by the students is a key principle in ensuring the ultimate success of the leadership structure at the School because students are empowered by the selection process. Students know that the teachers trust them to vote for the most appropriate and effective leader for the specific group rather than the most ‘popular’ student. Most importantly, a collaborative approach to leadership is promoted by means of a co-captains model, thus encouraging shared responsibility for leadership tasks and the capacity to teach others and learn from others at the same time. The election of student leaders by their peers is also a key principle in building House and School spirit. From Year 7, students accept ownership of programmes and events throughout the school year, ensuring their full support, commitment and advocacy.

Why do parents send their daughters to Brisbane Girls Grammar School?

In our Head of House interviews with families just before their daughters begin Year 7, we ask the question: ‘What are the main reasons for your decision to come to Girls Grammar?’. The most frequent responses are: ‘Its academic reputation’ and ‘Knowing or meeting Grammar girls who attend or have attended the School’. Incoming girls and parents often make specific mention of the girls who volunteer as Student Ambassadors at official functions throughout the year such as the Year 12 girls who meet and greet families at the gates on Open Night or the Year 10 Tour Leaders on Open Night, commenting that these girls are ‘articulate and confident but polite and friendly, with their enthusiasm for, and love of the School being so apparent and so genuine.’

As we move from Open Day towards the final term of another year, the now famous motto, ‘Blue Unity is Opportunity’, will become part of the history of 2016, replaced by another motto to build connections and inspire commitment, enthusiasm and school spirit in 2017. Best wishes Year 11!