November 2012

The “defining” influences of animals and Good Sams

Looking back on her life, Bern Nicholls can identify many people and experiences that have influenced her. But she recognises two “defining” influences: her animals and the Good Samaritan Sisters.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Looking back on her life, Bern Nicholls can identify many people and experiences that have influenced her. But she recognises two “defining” influences: her animals and the Good Samaritan Sisters.

That might seem an odd combination, but for Bern, they’re not dissimilar. “They represent the presence of soul and authenticity,” she says.

Growing up in country Queensland in the 1960s and 1970s provided Bern with many opportunities “to bond deeply with animals, ranging from a Siamese cat to a few beloved horses”. These animals, however, took on greater significance due to her family circumstances.

“In the early years, because of Dad’s job with the Department of Primary Industries, the family was transferred every four to six years to different country towns. I was born in Monto and we stayed there until I was five years old, then we were moved to Charters Towers for six years, then Emerald for four years, and finally Townsville,” explains Bern.

“I went to many schools during these formative years and the only consistency in my life were my companion animals.”

A quiet and reflective child, Bern says she didn’t enjoy school. To help her through the experience, each morning she’d visit Pikelet, her pony, “to talk about my fears and concerns about going to school”.

“Because we moved so much, I never established strong ‘best friends’,” she adds. “They were reserved for Pikelet, and Felix, my Siamese cat.”

Fast-forward several decades, Bern, 46, now lives and works in Melbourne. Having spent the last 24 years as a teacher (yes, she grew to love school!), this year she established an educational consultancy – Learning Labyrinth – with former teaching colleague, Annelies Hoogland. Together they offer tailored programs and professional support to school communities throughout Australia and internationally.

Animals continue to have an important place in Bern’s life, but it is Gus, an English Springer Spaniel, who’s been most influential.

“[Gus] literally transformed my adult life, both professionally and personally,” reflects Bern.

Gus, a trained educational therapy dog, was the focus of eight years of research that culminated in Bern’s doctoral thesis. For six of those years, Gus faithfully accompanied Bern into the classrooms of St Monica’s College, Epping, where she was then teaching. What she witnessed during that time was fascinating. There were also echoes of her childhood encounters with animals.

Gus was “a gentle presence” for students, says Bern, but particularly those “who were anxious about school, had been bullied or were going through a tough emotional time”.

“Gus intentionally sat with those students experiencing some form of emotional difficulty,” she explains. But he was also able “to lighten the classroom with his endearing and timely antics”.

Over time, what became clear to Bern was the sense of safety companion animals bring to the lives of children. “That was what the students spoke about at length with me,” she says.

“They loved coming to class because it was relaxed, they felt safe, and they enjoyed the quality of relationships we subsequently shared with each other, often because of Gus’ presence.”

According to Bern, Gus’ presence “provided the students with a sense of stability and an increased ability to concentrate and deeply listen”.

But Bern’s research also revealed important findings for teachers. Just as students need safe and stable spaces to flourish in their learning, teachers need intentional times for reflection and renewal to remain professionally vital and able to be authentic in their professional lives.

Like her animals, Bern says the Good Samaritan Sisters have influenced her deeply. “My whole life has been totally threaded through with Good Samaritan Sisters,” she says.

Bern first encountered the Good Sams at St Columba’s Primary School, Charters Towers. “That was where Mum and Dad really got to know the Sisters… We had a lot to do with [them].”

When the family settled in Townsville, the Good Sam connection continued. Bern attended St Margaret Mary’s College, then run by the Sisters.

It seems the Good Sams made a strong impact on the whole family. “That school connection, that was the bond,” reflects Bern. “That was the thing that I guess created those relationships.”

After finishing school, Bern began an education degree at James Cook University. Also enrolled for the course was Good Samaritan Sister, Helen Anderson.

“We went to uni together. I used to pick her up and we’d troddle off to university,” laughs Bern.

“That was probably the best fours years of my life because we had an incredibly tight group… [Helen] was often the life of the party with her Irish sense of humour. We actually still maintain a very strong friendship to this day.”

Having graduated from uni at age 20, Bern felt she was too young to begin teaching secondary students, so she headed to Western Australia and worked with the Good Sams for a year at their school (now closed) in New Norcia. A role supporting Aboriginal youth followed, before she returned to the east and began teaching at Ignatius Park College in Townsville.

With all these Good Sam connections, along with a reflective nature and a desire for “purpose and meaning”, it’s not surprising that Bern, now 24, was interested in becoming a Good Samaritan Sister. However, she felt a little conflicted about the idea because Ann-Maree, her elder sister, had already joined the order.

“I really felt for my parents, you know; two daughters and both of them going into the order. And so there was a lot of pressure around that,” she explains.

But Bern decided to pursue what had been “nagging” at her from about age 20 and soon entered the Good Samaritan novitiate. She says she was drawn to the authenticity of the sisters and then “fell in love with the charism, the Benedictine spirituality”.

“I just had so much respect for so many of the sisters that I’d known prior to, and as I got to know [them], in the order.”

Bern says she put her “heart and soul into the journey”, but after seven years, decided to leave. For Bern, however, religious life has “continued in different forms”.

“You can’t but not be influenced by seven years of being immersed in Benedictine tradition. It just becomes a way of life. I know a lot of people would say the same thing who’ve left the order. You don’t leave; you just leave the institution, so to speak, but the charism and the spirituality just goes with you.”

Bern is grateful for her relationship with the Good Sams, both with individuals and the congregation. She describes their influence as “profound”. But there seems to be a fundamental legacy of the relationship.

“There’s something that you catch from people,” ponders Bern. “I think what I caught from the Good Samaritan Sisters was incredible commitment to education.”

And that commitment is palpable.

Postscript: Sadly, Gus died in June this year, aged nine. Brian Hanley, Principal of St Monica’s College, Epping, said at the time: “Gus was no ordinary canine; he was our College dog! We know that his presence and personality brought peace and happiness to thousands of Monicans”.

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