Athens, Florence, Cambridge … Spring Hill

Ms Rita Jajjo, English Teacher

There are rare places and times across history where there appears to be a great upwelling of talent — a concentration of creativity, and even genius. A flowering of ideas and innovation results, and these places, through their collective output and impact, earn a place in our collective understanding. Athens in the Classical period — Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and the birth of Western philosophy and political thought; and Bell Laboratories in the 1970s — the creation of programming languages, fibre-optics and graphic interfaces are two well-known examples of this in action. Understanding what brings great minds together, and what stimulates them, is at the heart of what we seek to do at Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

It was in the spirit of this lofty goal that I attended the Cambridge Teacher Seminar this past June. This week-long seminar program, led by distinguished scholars, provides teachers with access to university resources, innovative approaches and the opportunity to explore new educational possibilities.

As we picked our way through Cambridge’s cobbled streets on the first day of the seminar, our tour guide gave us a glimpse into the lives of famous writers who had attended its university colleges, including William Chaucer, Thomas Gray, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Virginia Woolf and Xu Zhimo. Apparently, students of Thomas Gray, a well-known poet, discovered his phobia of fire and subsequently tormented him, often shrieking ‘fire’ in the middle of the night, leading to his having an iron ladder built outside his window (a ladder still present today).

We visited Isaac Newton’s original Principia, viewed first edition copies of Shakespeare and walked the halls of Trinity College. Anecdotes, memorials, artefacts: all evidence of the drawing power Cambridge has exerted across the centuries. Faced with this monumental scholarship, I contemplated how and why Cambridge had attracted, and continues to entice, so many brilliant minds.

I had the same thought on an earlier trip to Florence, with its streets lined with art studios, museums and galleries. The House of Medici helped establish the preeminence of the Florentine art schools by purchasing art, funding artist’s academies and workshops, and even transforming one of their family palaces into a gallery. Their patronage supported illustrious names such as Caravaggio, Donatello, Michelangelo, da Vinci and Botticelli.

Brisbane Girls Grammar School may be a world away from Florence, Cambridge or Classical Athens, but when observing the campus, there are similarities. First: courageous, determined patrons; Cambridge had Henry III and Florence had the Medici. Brisbane Girls Grammar School was brought into the world by passionate patron, Sir Charles Lilley. At a time when girls’ education was nonexistent, Sir Charles opened an all-girls school. Today our Girls Grammar community — parents, School leaders and Board of Trustees — act as tireless advocates and patrons in their own right, helping build an environment that attracts greatness —a place of intellectual openness imbued with a love of learning, where the desire to grow and learn flows through everything.

However, patrons are not the only ingredient. Cambridge has attracted students for hundreds of years against the backdrop of revolutions, wars, political upheaval and social transformation. What has drawn bright and motivated students across the ebb and flow of centuries? Teachers.

Creativity, innovation and scholarship are all attributes of which we are capable of not only holding, but inspiring in those around us. Greatness and growth however, must be purposely nurtured in a careful and diligent manner. Socrates taught Plato, who taught Aristotle, who then taught Alexander. The key to the success and longevity of an educational institution — and what differentiates a creative hub from a school — are teachers, the torch-bearers who breathe life into their lessons and help refine the raw talent inherent in their students. Henry III established Cambridge, but Cambridge would not have established its identity had teachers not flocked from the continent, lured by a promise of intellectual freedom.

Our students are our greatest achievement, and our raison d’être. Donatello was an apprentice of Ghiberti, Salman Rushdie refined his skills under Arthur Hibbert, and Gwen Harwood was mentored by our very own Mary Macmillan.

Walking through the corridors of Brisbane Girls Grammar School, one will find teachers working closely with students to constantly refine and improve. In classrooms, in the Research Learning Centre or sprawled under the trees, our students are collaborating, sharing and creating.

As a beginning teacher, nothing has accelerated my professional growth more than the consistent opportunity to observe experienced teachers, discuss pedagogical methods and to work with motivated, talented students. Just like the students here, I too have my mentors. Brisbane Girls Grammar School has built an enviable reputation as a world-class school, as well as a true hub of creativity.