THE new executive director of Brisbane Catholic Education, Dr Sally Towns, sees Brisbane patron St Mary MacKillop as a perfect example of a courageous leader.
“Leadership is stewardship,” said Dr Towns, a highly experienced educator, as he stepped into the senior Catholic school role held for nine years by Pam Betts who retired late last year. .
With responsibility for running 146 Catholic schools – 75,000 pupils from prep to year 12 in the Archdiocese of Brisbane – she draws her strength from St Mary MacKillop, co-founder of the Josephites and who established schools and places of refuge in 19e century in Australia, a time when poverty was a crushing reality.
In a contemporary context, Dr Towns said, “making Jesus real” must be the anchor of Catholic schools – the challenge of keeping faith in Australian society “which is moving very rapidly towards secularism”.
She said Catholic educators must be “prepared to meet students” where they found them, to evangelize, and not to assume what students may or may not know about the gospel.
In the climate of public debate over religious freedom, Dr. Towns said Catholic schools must retain the ability to hire teachers who express Gospel values.
“We accept all students; however, we must keep in mind that Catholic schools must be Catholic,” she said.
“Growing up, I knew a close-knit Catholic community. Today we are witnessing a very rapid evolution towards secularism.
“We must ensure that the tradition of the Catholic faith is maintained.”
Watching his own children grow up and go to Catholic school, Dr Towns said “making Jesus real” was a framework that worked well.
Dr Towns grew up in the Hunter Valley, attended Catholic schools and later earned a teaching degree at the University of Sydney.
At first she taught at Tumut in the Diocese of Canberra-Goulburn, then moved to the North Coast of New South Wales.
She remembers her first big challenge outside of the classroom when she was appointed to set up a special project to help guide Indigenous students from elementary school through high school.
Working at John Paul College, Coffs Harbour, Dt Towns established and ran an annex of John Paul College for Aboriginal students in Bowraville, NSW.
“It was a small project – seven boys – but it was a real ‘yes moment’, to serve those who needed it most,” she said.
Each student received meals while at school as part of their general care.
Dr Towns worked as a high school teacher in Kempsey before accepting an offer as assistant principal at MacKillop Catholic College in Hobart.
Within a year of her reappointment, she was elevated to director and spent seven years in that position.
Dr. Towns then moved into system leadership as Director of School Effectiveness in the Catholic Education Office of the Diocese of Cairns.
In 2019, she was appointed Principal of Lismore Catholic Schools. The recent catastrophic flood that wreaked havoc in the Northern Rivers region is still fresh in his mind.
Makeshift classrooms had to be quickly found for the completely overwhelmed schools. Many flood-hit schools are expected to face years of disruption
“It directly impacted 100 employees and 250 families,” Dr Towns said.
“For many, it was a traumatic time.”
Dr Towns entered her new position leading the BCE in May and spent her early days visiting schools in the Archdiocese of Brisbane, learning about the diversity of educational needs.
“It’s a deep learning period for me,” she said.
Dr Towns said two years of pandemic disruption, coupled with advances in technology, have changed educational practices forever.
“COVID-19 has given us the ability to be nimble,” she said.
“[Education] systems across Australia were prepared and had the infrastructure in place. What we’ve done is speed it up.
“What this showed is that we can teach and learn in an online environment, while taking care of the students.”
Dr Towns said ‘checking in’ with students was always a priority and she was not advocating a shift to online learning as a substitute for classroom instruction.
“What we have is the best of this experience – a mix of student-paced virtual learning, as well as online learning, which means that students in some (smaller) schools will benefit from a greater choice of materials,” she said. .
Dr Towns said research conducted in the Diocese of Lismore “absolutely shows” that students have done well during COVID-19 closures when only limited face-to-face teaching was possible.
The new head of OEA recognized the challenges facing school staff today.
The latest annual report on school leaders – the Main Australian Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey 2021 – reveals that Australian school principals are suffering from the highest rates of burnout in a decade and are subject to physical threats at a rate five times that of the general population.
Teachers, Dr Towns said, needed “support to be able to teach” and nurture education as a career choice.
“We need to identify and reward accomplished teachers,” she said.
“We need to make teaching more attractive – we need high quality teachers.”
Dr Towns said she was impressed with ‘Living Laudato Si’, one of the Church’s innovative projects gaining momentum in the Archdiocese of Brisbane.
Taking to heart Pope Francis’ call to care for creation, Catholic schools in Brisbane are leading the way in assessing and improving energy use, switching to renewables for electricity and generating their own power renewable.
Dr. Towns said “Living Laudato Si” provides learning opportunities for school staff and students.