St Mary’s head of school, Deanne King, and marketing head Kathy Mittendorf were interviewed by Derek Davey
Derek Davey (DD):What is St Mary’s formula for success that produces so many distinctions?
Deanne King (DK): It’s not a particular formula; it’s a combination of things. We have a history of girls who come here and are serious about wanting to achieve, and wanting to develop all their talents and abilities. We also have very good teachers: committed, hard-working teachers, who put a lot into what they do. They are all professional in terms of keeping up with curricula, trends and assessments. We put a lot of effort into ensuring that our assessments are relevant and valid. It’s a very long process that starts when the children are very young, and there are many, many factors involved.
DD: So there is no single, magical formula?
Kathy Mittendorf (KM): We instil in the girls from a very young age a love for learning, and a love to succeed in no matter what they do, whether it’s on the stage, on the sporting field, or in their academics … they want to achieve, and that seems to start right at our nursery school [Little Saints] … they want to do things, they want to get involved.
DD: Ok; what is it that distinguishes St Mary’s from other schools?
DK: I think it’s our character. Our school is very much about women. It’s a place for women, that advocates for women … and we really believe that women can achieve. We also have a very strong ethos, which centres on our [Anglican] religion. And then we have our history [founded in 1888, St Mary’s is Johannesburg’s oldest school], which is based upon strong traditions. We are really about quality, in everything we do. And we appreciate what is good, what is simple … it is a happy environment!
DD: What are the most important skills and qualities to try and instil in a child today, particularly, regarding girls?
DK: Self-belief and self-confidence … these really do translate later into achievement.
KM: I think our slogan of love, community and integrity is what we try and instil in our girls … a love for themselves, and of the world around them … a love for the community and wanting to give back to the community [the Ikusasa Lethu Programme, St Mary’s Saturday School, provides support to learners in Alexandra and surrounding communities] … and integrity is SO important these days!
DD: What is the best way to ensure a matriculant is able to obtain employment soon after leaving school?
DK: I think that they need skills that are relevant for the world in which we live. So we focus on skills that are needed in the 21st century workplace.
KM: This includes creativity, the ability to work in diverse environments, to communicate well …
DD: Soft skills?
DK: Yes, soft skills. The ability to communicate clearly is very, very important. We focus on teaching our girls to communicate their ideas clearly and confidently. And hard work and endeavour are also extremely important.
DD: You don’t think some girls might burn out because they are trying to achieve too much?
DK: If you are only working to get high marks, you may burn out, but if you are working for your own development and growth, if you have a love of learning, if you have that curiosity that drives you to extend your learning, then that keeps you going.
DD: So the girls just want to achieve themselves?
KM: Yes, and remember that it’s not only about academics. The girls have a passion for cultural activities, they’ve got their sport, they’ve got their community service that they go out and do, and they love doing these things. So they come to school, work hard, then carry on doing the things that interest them.
DD: There is a great demand for technical skills in South Africa at present: is your school addressing this in any way?
DK: We do have subjects that are more technical in nature, without a doubt. We have IT, coding, robotics … and we have consumer studies.
DD: And working with your hands?
DK: We offer technology in the lower grades, but consumer studies has a lot of that, too.
DK: Technical skills are essential, but you need a holistic sense, in terms of education. Maths and science are important, but so are the languages, and the humanities. Pupils today need breadth.
DD: What steps are you taking to address trauma in your pupils?
DK: We have a health centre, where we provide counselling; we provide career advice; and we have nurses on campus who provide healthcare. We also provide sessions for parents: we call them “muse mornings”, where we get guests to come and talk, such as psychologists, to address the issues that parents and families are facing, and how to deal with those at home.
KM: And we do have a school chaplain, who does get very involved, she is very hands-on; and we also have three psychologists.
DD: Three psychologists in one school? Wow!
DK: Remember, our school runs all the way from grade 000 to matric. The girls do encounter issues in life, which we deal with through life orientation, grade meetings and guest speakers who we invite to the school
DD: Some parents have to sacrifice a lot in order to pay your school fees. Do you think their children’s self-esteem is affected if they don’t get the expensive gadgets and outings that their peers do?
DK: I think we are very aware of that. We have a cross-section of families whose children come to our school, from different socioeconomic backgrounds, so we are very aware of not making things compulsory, and aware of extra charges on fee accounts, and we try to be quite circumspect about it, and flexible. The school will definitely step in and make resources available if there aren’t any. We are very aware of the backgrounds girls come from. [Visit the St Mary’s website “Foundation” section for more on this].
DD: Do you have a policy regarding social media and the hours that pupils spend online?
DK: Yes, we do have what we call “blackout time” for the senior school boarders. We also limit the time spent on social media through our servers.
KM: For me the important thing is teaching girls to use their devices responsibly. They do need to use them for their education, so it’s about teaching them responsible use.
DK: It’s about teachers and parents knowing how much time their kids are spending online, and being able to monitor that, and curb it where necessary.
DD: And social media: is there any education about that, about recognising what is fake news and what isn’t, for instance?
DK: Yes, a lot. We’ve brought in experts to address our girls, lawyers who specialise in social media law. We also educate the girls on how to differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t, to think critically. We call it “digital literacy”; we try to make the pupils aware of pertinent issues, and run different courses throughout their school careers.
For more information, visit stmarysschool.co.za