“You don’t find leaders, you form them.”

When I visited the staff room this week a teacher approached me to share what she had witnessed earlier this week. In South Australia, Years 2-6 and 9-11 students returned to face-to-face learning, and on the first day back, a new student to the school was upset as he did not have an exercise book to write in. One of our current students saw what was happening, approached the student and offered him one of his new exercise books as he explained he had spare books. He then asked the student to join him at a group table. This and many other examples of kindness, welcome and hospitality are what really makes you feel warm and fuzzy and grateful that you chose the vocation of teaching.

Teaching is a wonderful privilege and I am happy that 42 years ago, I somehow made the decision to become a teacher. I often reflect on how that decision unfolded as I was dead keen on joining the Defence Force and becoming an officer. I think the impact of my own schooling, my teachers, my experience of coaching a primary school football team whilst I was in Year 12 (and perhaps some dogged determination that I could be a much better teacher than those I had experienced at school) had something to do with it.

I do remember fondly my teacher training at university and the impact of my university lecturers on my love for teaching. I became passionate in the field of Physical Education and Mathematics. When I did start as a teacher, I was blessed with outstanding principals who not only mentored me as an early career teacher but consistently demonstrated trust in what I was doing and empowered me to reach out and broaden my horizons. The most important lesson I learnt was the power of empowering another person to believe what they can be and reach for the stars, to build trust and provide gentle guidance as they discover themselves and what they can do. Whilst I was an early career teacher, I also joined the Army Reserve and graduated as an officer in the infantry corps at the age of 22. I have maintained my Army Reserve service all those years although have had very little involvement in the last four.

My experience as an officer in the Army has been rewarding and a privilege as well. It taught me many fundamentals in leadership in a very different context. It taught me skills such as planning, strategic thinking, system analysis and fundamental discipline and organisation. Values such as service, courage, respect, integrity and excellence were at the heart of my experience. I was most grateful that I was able to rise through the ranks and experience many command appointments. In these appointments, I look back and remember that my training taught me that the lives and welfare of each person were in my hands and I had a duty and responsibility to them.

I think the school and army experience were closely aligned and allowed me to always aspire to be at my best, grounded in the values I hold personally. My own values are grounded in the Catholic faith, a deep belief in the Catholic social teachings that the life and dignity of each person are important, the place of peace in our lives, a deep understanding of the meaning of the common good, understanding the power of subsidiarity and of solidarity, the preferential option for the poor (not just economic poverty), the care for our creation and environment and the importance of the dignity of work and our participation in it.

People often ask “What defines you? What are you like as a leader?”. There is no question in my mind that the experiences of life, the impact of people on your life, the opportunities you create to be part of an environment where you can learn, develop and be a person who can make a difference in this world are what defines you. After all, Joseph Cardijn said, “You don’t find leaders, you form them”.

Dr Paul Rijken is principal of Cardijn College, an R-12 co-educational Catholic school in the Marist tradition, deeply inspired by the method of College patron Joseph Cardijn with a foundation built on the three pillars of his teachings; to See, Judge and Act. Educating and inspiring students in the beautiful Southern Vales region of Adelaide since 1984, Cardijn has grown to encompass three schools, each with distinct offerings. Cardijn College Galilee at Aldinga offers Reception to Year 7, expanding to include Year 8 in 2022 and Year 9 in 2023. Cardijn College at Noarlunga Downs offers Years 7-12 and is renowned for academic excellence and a vibrant extra-curricular program. Cardijn College Marcellin at Christie Downs provides a wide variety of vocational education and training opportunities for students in Years 10 – 12 and beyond, with relationships that extend well into their careers. With a current enrolment of 1750 students and 240 staff, Cardijn College is an institution which strives to be a beacon of faith in the community, with students who have enormous influence and impact on both a local and global level. Paul has been the principal at Cardijn College since 2005. He has a Ph.D. from Curtin University in Science and Mathematics Education. He is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educational Leaders.

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