Learning from Leaders Past and Present

Learning from Leaders Past and Present

When Dr Toni Meath arrived at Melbourne Girls Grammar at the beginning of 2019 as the twelfth principal, she didn’t expect to lead this community into the next stage of its history during quite such a turbulent time.

While researching the history of Melbourne Girls Grammar, Professor Erica McWilliam, an academic author and now an Academic Scholar in Residence, was able to look to the past leaders of the School and all the uncertainty they similarly had to overcome over the years.

No matter in what situation our long line of intelligent and strong women led the community, all of them brought the School through to the other side with our history, reputation and the delivery of a quality education for girls still intact.

From the scarlet fever rife in the late nineteenth century when the School was founded, to the 1900 measles epidemic, then the 1919 Spanish flu, and the infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis) epidemic that raged for more than a decade from the late 1930s – the School has survived them all.

At this unprecedented time, our high expectations and capacity for learning together allow us to be well placed to design the learning for our Grammarians in their ‘home classrooms’. We will continue to learn together. 

Infectious disease in its many guises has been a frequent and unwelcome visitor to the School since its inception. In 1907, for example, a case of diphtheria at the School created so much anxiety about moving the patient (no public conveyance would carry one suffering from infectious disease) that is was thought advisable by some to build a cottage on the School grounds where sick cases could be isolated. What is distinctive about the present ugly visitation is that, in former times, children were always the most vulnerable. It is the aged now who are in most need of protection, and that includes many of our long-term and highly valued alumnae and staff members.

To borrow from Charles Dickens, we find ourselves living in the best of times and in the worst of times(1). We have the best of technology, of medical science, of educational opportunity, of respect for diversity but the worst of contagion, climate change, instability and uncertainty.

The wisdom of our past leaders brings us consolation and reassurance today as we reflect on the challenges they faced and their capacity to steer around the shoals. The School will be changed by this moment in our history for, as headmistress DJ Ross reminds us, “life does not stand still, social changes occur whether we will or not, new and unforeseen situations have to be met, and it would be a pity if schools did remain exactly as they were.” (2)

While change will occur, however, disruption will be kept to a minimum. Today’s school leaders take heart from the words of previous headmistresses. Kathleen Gilman Jones reflected on the School’s resilience during the Depression years. She was greatly encouraged that “in this time of stress, when all classes in the community are reviewing their expenditure…education is not interrupted until all other avenues…have been explored.” (3)

Headmistress Edith Mountain noted how willing parents were to avail their girls of an educational experience that values “a consideration for others, ability to take the rough with the smooth, and an attention to duties.” (4) Principal Nina Crone reminded us: “The School [is]…expected to prepare students to live in a ‘difficult’ world.” In such a world, she says of the MGGS community, “the ‘power of place’ and the ‘hand of history’ should not be under-estimated.” (5)

The current challenge of retaining the best of learning at a time when ‘physical distancing’ is mandatory is one that has its parallels in the wholesale evacuation of the School to make way for its occupation by military authorities in 1942. 

School Captain in 1944, Pat Gwillim said of the evacuation effort: “Every member of staff, every girl had her own allotted job both moving in and out. No one failed. There were no passengers on that journey. It was a tiny unrecorded epic of complete and wholehearted co-operation under the shadow of the great events of history”. (6)

The whole-hearted “no passengers” co-operation of the entire school is now very much on display. From its peak body for curriculum, pedagogy and assessment at Merton Hall, to its Heads of Departments, its teachers, students and alumnae, all are unanimous in their high expectations and high support of our Grammarians as learners across the whole school. This is crucial at such a time, according to organisational strategist Peter Senge, who insists that systems, or organisations like Melbourne Girls Grammar, will learn because individuals within them have done so (7). At this unprecedented time, our high expectations and capacity for learning together allow us to be well placed to design the learning for our Grammarians in their ‘home classrooms’. We will continue to learn together. Why together? Because, leadership guru Tom Sergiovanni tells us, “the greatest asset a school has is its collective intelligence.” “Schools get smarter”, he says, “when individual intelligences are aggregated.” (8)

The unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic has united us as it has united Australians more generally. As a purposeful group of intelligent individuals, we are working collaboratively to meet the needs of our Grammarians. We stand on the shoulders of the work of former Principals, Christine Briggs and Catherine Misson who both understood the importance of technology and implemented significant programs in the School resulting in a well-placed positioning of Melbourne Girls Grammar in the domain of digital learning technologies. We are ahead of the curve in the provisioning of remote learning because of one vital and key dynamic – teacher knowledge. For those in our community who are keen to know more about teacher knowledge as a domain of research, and how it is being applied at MGGS, please refer to ‘Learning in the time of COVID-19’.

In these our worst and best of times, we now reflect, plan, and act in the service of our learning community. We do so to meet a profound challenge but one that was not unknown to our predecessors. Like them we will endure, learn and grow. Drawing on their strength and wisdom, we will be productive in new and different ways.


1. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

2. The John Smythe Memorial Lecture delivered at the University of Melbourne on 17 Aug 1954, Circular to Schools No.85, Oct 1954, p.3.

3. Melbourne Girls Grammar Centenary Essays 1893-1993 eds Rosslyn McCarthy and Marjorie R. Theobald, Hyland House 1993, p.60.

4. ibid, page 156.

5. ibid, p.185.

6. in Epstein, June (1981) “A Golden String: The Story of Dorothy J. Ross”, Collingwood: Greenhouse, p.67. 

7. “The Fifth Discipline”, London: Random House. Peter Senge 2006

8. “Strengthening the heartbeat: Leading and learning together in schools”. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 177“

Co-authored by Dr Toni E. Meath (Principal) and Professor Erica McWilliam (Academic Scholar in Virtual MGGS Residence)