GIVEN her evident passion for teaching and education it is something of a surprise to learn this wasn’t Wesley College principal Dr Helen Drennen’s first career choice.
“I was studying in neuro-physiology with the thought that I would pursue a research career,” Helen says.
“It was then that I decided I would like to teach; a very strong urge came to be a teacher. Most of the people working at ANU in the John Curtin School of Medical research were astounded when I decided to do that.
“It is clear to me when I think about myself in the upper-primary years that I was a natural to be a teacher. But I never vocalised that, I wasn’t conscious that I was heading in the direction of being a teacher. But I remember I loved calisthenics and I loved teaching and doing rehearsals and practice with the whole team. When I look back that must have been something to do with a natural disposition to teach.”
As Helen comes to the end of her time as principal at the independent Uniting Church school, the importance of continued, lifelong learning is at the forefront of her mind.
“One of the big changes – that wasn’t there 20 or so years ago – is the increased understanding about the process of learning,” she said.
“That manifests itself in all sorts of different ways. I think that is one of the wonderful developments.
“People might think that it is challenging keeping up with those changes, but the training of teachers is very different now from the old days. It’s recognised that learning just doesn’t start and stop at school, and it’s the same in the teaching profession.”
One of Helen’s great personal learning experience had been Wesley College’s partnering with Aboriginal community members in the Kimberley, Western Australia, to establish the Yiramalay/Wesley Studio School on Leopold Downs Cattle Station for year 10 to 12 students.
“I learnt the deepest lessons from Aboriginal women who were so supportive of me,” she said.
“They are very authentic and focused – and I learned a lot about the importance of tenacity and stubbornness.”
The success of the partnership is evident by the relationships formed among Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
As the students learn from each other, they are questioning long-held stereotypes and traditional thinking.
Helen has led Wesley College for the past 15 years after being appointed the first female head in the school’s 153-year history.
Some might be daunted to be such a trailblazer but Helen was well prepared. From her first teaching job at Altona North High School, Helen went on to become the inaugural academic director for the International Baccalaureate in Wales; director of the Asia Pacific Region.
“I’m very lucky because my whole life has been in a mixed environment,” Helen said.
“My schooling was co-ed, my parents very deliberately didn’t want their daughters in a single-sex school.
“I was one of three girls, the middle daughter, and my father was very clear that he wanted his girls to grow up in
an environment where they could mix naturally with men and women.
“Because of that I have always felt the diversity of the population was normal.
“When I came to Wesley, given that I was the first female principal, I could have faced some challenges.
“But I felt the majority of the community was very accepting and weren’t judging me by my gender.”
It come as no surprise that under Helen’s leadership, genuine respectful relationships have been fostered between boys and girls throughout the school.
“One of the things I’m proudest of is the wonderful, respectful, naturally inclusive culture at the school; gender is not an issue. Learning to naturally value others is important in preparing for the world,” she says.Helen’s commitment to education was recognised in the 2016 Australia Day Honours list. She was awarded as a Member (AM) in the General Division of the Order of Australia for “significant service to secondary education through leadership roles, to professional bodies, and to the community”.
Although Helen is excited about pursuing new opportunities, she lists the sound of children, the daily rhythm of school life and a supportive staff environment as things she will miss about Wesley College.