Retiring Principal Frank Pitt’s love of teaching children and young people has been the motivation behind his vocation in Catholic education, writes Debra Vermeer, now he’s pondering what do to after he leaves school.
BY Debra Vermeer
Frank Pitt always wanted to be a teacher, and as he prepares to retire as Principal of St Mary Star of the Sea College in Wollongong later this year, he says not only did that commitment never leave him, but it has given him a life rich in blessings and opportunities.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Frank and his family emigrated to Australia when he was eight years old and settled in Wollongong where his father was a steelworker.
“My grandparents had come across a year earlier, so we already had family here. We arrived with four little boys, and then fairly shortly after, a fifth was born,” he says.
“We were Irish Catholics, second generation Scots, so we had the usual Irish Catholic upbringing I think. We went to the Catholic primary school with the Sisters of Charity and of course Mass every Sunday.”
Frank attended the local state high school, Oak Flats High and had his eyes set on a teaching career.
“From a very young age I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” he says. “I don’t really know why, but it was something I’d wanted to do since I was a little kid.”
He studied at Wollongong University on a state teaching scholarship, but with a glut of teachers in the state system when he graduated and few jobs available, he answered a job advertisement for a position at St Paul’s Catholic Primary School at Albion Park, a Josephite school.
“I got the job and I loved every aspect of it,” he says. “It was a wonderful first teaching experience, with opportunities beyond what you normally receive.”
After six years, Frank moved to St Brigid’s Catholic Primary School at Gwyneville, which was run by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
“I already knew of the Good Sams through some study I’d been doing at the Good Samaritan Teachers’ College because I’d become very interested in special education, and along with my studies I did a period of practicum at the Good Sams’ Mater Dei School for children with special needs in Camden.
“I had already developed a real soft spot for the Good Sams by the time I arrived at St Brigid’s.”
Frank says that period of study, during which he gained a Graduate Diploma in Religious Studies, was “absolutely transforming”.
“It gave me an adult way of viewing faith and peeled away a lot of presumptions, taking me from the faith of a child to the faith of an adult.”
He worked as Deputy Principal/Coordinator at St Brigid’s for three years before taking on the Deputy Principal’s position at Stella Maris Catholic Primary school, Shellharbour with the Sisters of Charity and then back to the Good Sams with an appointment at St Therese’s Catholic School in West Wollongong, where he was also Deputy Principal.
A few years later, he found himself back at St Brigid’s at Gwyneville, this time as Principal.
“I found that a tremendously exciting time,” he says. “It was my first Principal position and when it’s your first time, it’s a case of you don’t know what you don’t know. So it was quite liberating!”
Another six years as Principal of St Therese’s in Wollongong followed before Frank was approached and asked to apply for the position of Principal at Mater Dei.
“I’d done a lot of work in my career up to that point in bringing kids with special needs into mainstream education and I think that’s probably why they approached me, because they knew of my strong interest in the field,” he says.
Frank describes his nine years at Mater Dei as “life-changing, personally and professionally”.
“You are working with people for whom every day is a struggle, the kids and their families. And they did it all so bravely and with such love. It was humbling,” he says.
“To see parents smile through it all and love so generously, to sit and listen to their stories, with all their difficulties and challenges, but also their ambitions and their hopes for their child, it would bring you to tears. It will never leave me.”
As he approached a decade in the job, Frank felt it was time to move back into mainstream education.
“In special education there is a time when you can really charge at it with great energy and a time when you need to step back and allow someone with fresh energy to have a go,” he says.
“I had been thinking that I needed to re-engage with mainstream education and I was very privileged to be appointed as Principal down here at Star of the Sea. It was the start of another adventure for me.”
With his teaching career taking him around the Illawarra over the years, Frank says he has deep roots in the area.
“Wollongong is really a big country town,” he says. “And when you’re Catholic, you get to know a lot of people and I’ve been very lucky over the years to have had very good relationships with the people, the clergy and the local bishops.”
Frank and his wife remain parishioners at St Paul’s Parish in Albion Park, where they have worshipped for 40 years. He has been a member and Chair of the Diocesan Finance Council and was also a member of the former Council for People with Intellectual Disabilities, as well as various pastoral councils.
“I try to help where I can,” he says.
Asked what he has loved most about his career, Frank doesn’t hesitate: “The kids.”
“I’ve loved interacting with children and young people. All their hope and positivity. It’s fantastic. It was the best part of the job when I started and it remains the best part.”
Frank says it’s fitting that he finishes his career at a Good Samaritan Education school, because of his long and warm association with the Good Sams.
“The Good Sams are absolutely brilliant. They have wonderful intellects and a focus on what church means that resonates very comfortably with me,” he says.
“I’ve always admired them and it was through them that I came into contact with the Rule of Benedict, which has had a big impact on the way I live my life.
“The Rule is a rule book for a happy life, successful leadership and humility across all areas of life. It’s a wonderful lens through which to view the Gospel.”
Frank says his interaction with young people tells him that the future is in good hands.
“I have great confidence that the students we are working with are fantastic young people, full of energy and vitality. They are intelligent, thoughtful, reflective and with great aspirations for the planet and their local community,” he says.
“For all the curriculum and the knowledge and the exams that are part of school life, I’ve always believed that the focus should be on developing well-rounded young adults.”
Frank says he’s looking forward to the next chapter of life, whatever it brings.
“Well, we have our first grandchild, a two-and-a-half year old grandson and we’ll be spending more time with him and doing some travelling,” he says.
“My wife, who is also a teacher, and I, always say that we’re trying to work out what we want to be when we grow up.
“We’ve both been teachers all our life, and in a sense we never left school, so I guess now we’ll see what it is that people do in the real world!”