By Kate Pierson
It has been quite a while since I have been in the company of a principal, but any pre-jitters are imminently abandoned as I sit down with a forthcoming Gillian Simpson, executive principal at Christchurch’s St Margaret’s College, to discuss her role at the school.
Upon meeting Simpson, it takes me no time at all to see why she was offered the role in early 2008.
While there is no generic stereotype attached to the disposition of principals, Simpson is every bit the part.
Perhaps what intrigues and inspires the most about Simpson is her ability to see the bigger picture. It may come down to personal belief, her experiences in other first class educational institutions, her exposure to international cultures, or a combination of all three; but Simpson instinctively resists what is often a natural inclination to become inwardly focused on one’s immediate surroundings or vocation.
She understands that the art of providing first class education is preparation; of the girls and of the school system itself.
And in this process of preparation, Simpson is aware that external influences need consideration and the application of relative educational methodologies are essential, to ensure pupils are educated not only in mind, but in body and spirit, for their journey through life.
We start our conversation in the most logical place; the beginning, as I ask Simpson how her tenure as principal of the college began. “I have known former principal, Claudia Wysocki, for a long time. She was always a mentor for me as I was coming through the system,” she says.
“I attended teachers college in Christchurch and having been overseas for a long time, Christchurch represented everything that my husband and I love. It’s a small city, the arts are fabulous and we ski, fish and walk. To find a school with a culture that I love, in that place – it just all came together at once.”
As the former deputy principal of Kings College in Auckland – an Anglican school for boys, at the time of this employment, Simpson was the only female in a leadership team in the country.
“That was a huge experience for me. It gave me a feeling of yes, I can actually do this and that I would love to be able to have the privilege of running a school myself. From there, I was given an opportunity at Waikato Diocesan in Hamilton. That was my first role as principal and the training I’d had at Kings for the 10 years before that really set me up for it.
“It was a huge transformational change I had to go through at Waikato, because it was really about taking a school that was just sitting and comfortable to the next level.
“This opportunity came up at St Margaret’s and it was yet another step up. I couldn’t turn it down, but I did feel sad because you get to love a community; you love the students and their families, the town and community and you feel a bit guilty leaving.
“Then you embrace a whole new community and in the first month you are meeting past pupils, past parents, current pupils and current parents and then suddenly you are interviewing future pupils and future parents, so you actually meet several thousand people all in one hit and on top of that are supporting 130 staff; it really is a big business.”
Modest in temperament, Simpson is humble in regalements of her professional achievements. But, as we chat, more details of her impressive career are revealed. Beyond her New Zealand career in teaching, Simpson has worked in Switzerland and London and has studied French at a tertiary level.
She has taken the knowledge derived from these experiences with her to St Margaret’s, where she strives to create a “workplace of choice” for her staff and promote the feeling of a “big family” within the school grounds.
“It is the modelling influence that you get within a family between the little sister and big sister, which is quite unique and then you underpin that with Christian values – it’s a good example of faith in action. Because only through serving others, do you learn about yourself,” she says of the relationships formed between the pupils.
When I ask Simpson what she loves most about her job at St Margaret’s, she responds intently to my question and her appreciation of what she does is never more evident.
“It’s about making a difference in peoples’ lives – I just love that. I love empowering staff and watching them grow and often the disappointment of that, is you have to lose them if they move on. It is the same with young people, boys, or girls in my case now; just watching them prepared to take risks and then grow. And what is really surprising and so exciting is, they all keep in touch. I still keep in touch with students I taught 15 years ago, ” she says.
Simpson is clearly a loyal supporter of the youth of today and tomorrow and her realistic acknowledgement of modern issues affecting women is refreshing.
“Young women will be business providers and leaders, but they also have to be really good mothers. I’m really happy talking about both, because of course women can do everything but they don’t have to do it all at once. At St Margaret’s we do talk about establishing balance in a woman’s life and in a girl’s school you can do that well,” she says.
Aside from her pragmatic approach to addressing key youth issues and formulating relative ideas for her school, I am particularly inspired by one of many insightful comments Simpson makes during our meeting. She says to me, “As the principal you have to be everything to everybody and I don’t know if there is any job like it”.
I reflect on this statement and she’s quite right, there is no job like it. And as for being everything to everybody, Simpson is right again. With her ability to create a nurturing and academically and professionally inspiring environment for pupils, parents and staff, it is evident Simpson is the perfect woman for the job as she fulfils and exceeds this expectation.
As the St Margaret’s principal leads the school in its 100 year anniversary and into the next 100 years of operation, needless to say, Simpson will be contributing to a more secure global future, through the empowerment and enrichment of every girl that passes through her gates.