February 2016

Passionate about education

Sister Ann-Maree Nicholls is something of a rare species. She laughs at the idea, but agrees. Ann-Maree is the only Sister of the Good Samaritan working as a school principal in Australia. She’s also one of only two religious principals in the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Sister Ann-Maree Nicholls is something of a rare species. She laughs at the idea, but agrees. Ann-Maree is the only Sister of the Good Samaritan working as a school principal in Australia. She’s also one of only two religious principals in the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

This scenario contrasts sharply to the pre- and post-Vatican II days when the majority of Catholic schools in Australia were led and staffed, for the most part, by religious congregations such as the Good Samaritan Sisters. (In those days lay staff were the ‘rare species’). It’s also a strong reminder of how much Catholic education and the Catholic community in Australia has evolved in a relatively short time.

Ann-Maree is principal of Sts Peter and Paul’s Primary School in the inner Brisbane suburb of Bulimba. It’s her tenth year in the role – a role she thoroughly enjoys.

“I love it! I couldn’t think of doing anything else,” she says.

“I’m passionate about education and I love being a principal. I love my job. I’ve got lots of energy for it and I just love the relational part of it. I love the teaching part of it. I love seeing the growth in the kids, be it social or emotional or academic. It’s just such a rewarding job. It’s great.”

For Ann-Maree, working with parents and building community is also an important part of her role.

“Something that I’ve worked hard at here is developing a strong relationship between the parish and the school so that we are one community, and I think that that’s very strong and very prominent in our school,” she says.

This year Sts Peter and Paul’s Primary School is celebrating a significant milestone – 100 years since it was established by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

On February 7, 1916, in the midst of World War I and just weeks after the Good Samaritan Sisters first arrived in Brisbane from Sydney at the invitation of Archbishop Robert Dunne, the school was opened to cater for the needs of the local Catholic community, which was in those days quite poor.

What’s remarkable is that the small band of 14 sisters who’d arrived in early January 1916 had also opened two other schools nearby in as many weeks – namely, Lourdes Hill College on January 24 and St James Primary School, Coorparoo on January 31.

“When the school year started [Sts Peter and Paul’s] was not quite ready – though the wooden structure was built in just five months – so classes were held in the sacristy and underneath the original parish church,” says Ann-Maree.

“By the end of 1916, the school was well established with 200 pupils.”

Fast forward 100 years and Sts Peter and Paul’s Primary School is a flourishing community with an enrolment of 632 students (Prep to Year 6) and some 65 staff, and according to Ann-Maree, student enrolments will continue to grow.

“What we are doing at the moment is that we are growing to a four-stream school from Prep to Year 4, then three streams of Year 5 and Year 6, so that will take us through to about 720.”

To accommodate this growth, Ann-Maree says a “significant” building program will begin in June this year.

“It’s a young area; it’s a medium to high socio-economic area close to the city, so the enrolment demand is very high. We’ve got families here who have one child here and one child waiting to get here… So once we get to the four streams that’ll enable us to cater for the enrolment demand a little bit better,” she explains.

As she reflects on the centenary of the arrival of her sisters in Queensland and the centenary of the school she now leads, Ann-Maree feels an overwhelming sense of pride.

“I suppose it’s being proud of the history and the emphasis that the Good Sams had in providing quality education in schools,” she says. That emphasis on providing quality education is something Ann-Maree and her staff continue to strive for.

Ann-Maree is also conscious that she follows in a long line of Good Samaritan Sisters who have served as principals at Sts Peter and Paul’s. “I’m the twentieth Good Sam principal and there was just one lay principal from 1997 to 2006,” she says.

Leadership roles loom large in Ann-Maree’s 26-years as an educator and they have all been in Queensland.

“I didn’t teach for very long. I was put into leadership fairly quickly,” she says. “I only had six years as a teacher and then I’ve been in leadership ever since.”

After joining the Good Sams in 1985 as a 21-year-old (she spent four years working in a law firm after school), Ann-Maree moved to Sydney for her novitiate before heading to Melbourne in 1988 to continue her formation as a religious sister and begin teacher training. This was her first time living outside Queensland.

“My first teaching appointment was at Our Lady’s at Craigieburn [in Melbourne], where I had Year 3,” she says.

“I just had 12 months at Craigieburn, because at that stage my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so I moved up to support my father in Townsville and there I took an appointment at Ryan Catholic College, which is a Prep to Year 12 school.”

Ann-Maree spent five years at Ryan Catholic College, teaching mostly primary but also secondary classes. An appointment as education officer, a newly created role in the Townsville Catholic Education Office, followed.

“That appointment had me assisting schools in the western part of the diocese, so I did the schools out to Mount Isa. It was very much an on-the-road type of position, but certainly a leadership position supporting schools with curriculum initiatives and learning and teaching,” she says.

“I loved it, but I found that I was having too much travel time and needed to be home to support Dad in the care of Mum. So I then looked for a leadership position in one of the schools and I was appointed to Holy Spirit School at Cranbrook in Townsville.”

After three years as deputy principal at Cranbrook, Ann-Maree moved to Brisbane where she served for five years as principal of St Columba’s Primary School, Wilston.

“When I started at that school the enrolment was 257. It was only a small school, but when I left it was in excess of 450. So it was in a growth period – in a period of lots of change and a significant building program, and just a wonderful place to be a part of,” she says.

In 2006 when the principal position came up at Sts Peter and Paul’s, Bulimba, Ann-Maree applied “and I’m still here 10 years later”.

In all of her leadership positions Ann-Maree has never had a classroom teaching load. So does she miss classroom teaching?

“I love teaching,” she says, “but [as principal] you’re with the kids every day, so there’s teaching moments every day. It’s great. And I suppose the professional development that you do with your teachers is really teaching the teacher for the kids, so all of it’s a ripple effect.”

Beyond her role as principal, Ann-Maree has also contributed to the development of Good Samaritan Education, the ecclesial community established in 2011 to oversee the ethos, mission and stewardship of the ten incorporated Good Samaritan Colleges in Australia.

“I’m in my second term on the governing council,” says Ann-Maree. “That’s something that I certainly enjoy and have certainly loved the experience of understanding the governance and being proactive in our colleges throughout Australia.”

At this stage in her life (she’s 52), Ann-Maree is very content in her role as principal of Sts Peter and Paul’s – “I couldn’t do anything else but it at this stage” – and is energised by the joys and the challenges that come her way on a daily basis.

She admits to being a glass-half full person and believes in embracing change.

“I do, because I think you’ve got to go forward, you can’t go backwards, particularly in education. It’s changing all the time and you don’t get the achievements if you’re going to fight it,” she explains.

“You’ve got to go with it and you’ve got to put in place things that need to be put in place to support the change, be it additional staff or additional resources or additional funding, so that you take everyone with you and you’ve got a positive staff group instead of some being against and not working with you.

“I’ve got a wonderful staff who work very hard and who are very committed; it’s just a wonderful place to be!”

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