Shortly after the announcement of Dr Julie Harris as our incoming Principal for 2022, we sat down with her to find out a little more about her background and what she’s most looking forward to as her tenure approaches.

When did you decide on a career in teaching and was there something that triggered this decision for you?

Growing up, I planned to be a medical doctor or the conductor of an orchestra. Careers advice in those days was interesting – I was advised that continuing with my chosen subjects (foreign languages) was unwise because studying things you were particularly good at would be too easy and therefore pointless. In those days, you did what you were told even if it seemed strange or illogical and I was therefore enrolled in the sciences because I found these challenging. My results at the end of school were appalling (I am still embarrassed by them, even though I have probably proved myself academically since then!) and meant that I didn’t get into the medical school I’d applied to.

I studied Zoology and Psychology at University and enjoyed all sorts of things that I now see were really related to teaching – I helped run a boy scout group, had fun researching in the university library, worked with peers who needed a hand … In retrospect, getting into teaching was probably inevitable – my mum, aunt and both grandfathers were teachers. It was in my blood and I was fairly bossy from the beginning, so it suited me beautifully. I have never regretted becoming a teacher – I love it. The way teachers affect so many lives and have an influence over the pathways that so many of their students take, is just brilliant. And it’s such fun, too – what other job could enable you to work in such diverse countries all over the world?

What aspect of teaching brings you the most joy?

Many things about teaching bring me joy. Teachers will all have experienced that amazing moment when somebody understands something for the first time and is so pleased with themselves and excited by the experience. I also recall times when a student has confided in me and I’ve been able to sit and listen and together we’ve worked out how to sort out their issue – that brings me joy. And the times when students get in touch from the university where they’re studying to tell you how they’re going is fantastic - I remember well the pride I felt when a past Biology student sent me the abstract from his PhD. I suppose the one thing that all these experiences have in common is that the teacher has, in each case, made a difference and that brings great joy.

What do you think has the most influence over student success at school?

There are so many confounding variables involved in student success that it’s difficult to answer this question, but I’ll try and list the things that affect it. Having excellent teachers who know and love their subject, know how to teach it well and genuinely care about the students in front of them is a great start. Student motivation is a huge factor, too – the sheer effort that I watch some students put into their studies makes a huge difference to their academic outcomes. And parental support is also really important - when parents understand the importance of education, they back the school’s efforts and there is an aligned approach, this can only contribute to student success. Having said that, I have also (in the dim and distant past) come across students who achieved success despite a lack of parental support for education, so with a fantastic teacher, anything is possible.

You have worked a lot with staff in your role. What initiatives or activities do you think have the biggest positive impact on teachers?

Teachers work hard and need to feel valued. Pastoral care is all about looking after staff and providing the conditions they need to do their job brilliantly. I remember being shocked to learn that within five years of starting teaching, 50% of all new teachers leave the profession. I was determined to prevent this and held regular and frequent meetings with all our new teachers during their first year, so they always had someone to listen to them and to work through issues which inevitably arise in your first year of teaching. I like to think that this was supportive to those entering the profession. Watching this from the other side, as a parent, (my son is part way through his first year of teaching) I have been very pleased and grateful to see that he has similarly been well-looked after in his first full-time teaching role.

You mentioned in your video that you are trained in snake catching. That’s an interesting side business! What attracted you to undertake training in this area?

Guildford Grammar School is situated very close to the river, which means that snakes are regularly seen on the campus at various times of year. The School ran professional development sessions for about a dozen staff, so that there was always someone present who could be called on to catch any snakes that turned up when the students were at school.

The training was one of the most exciting professional development courses I’ve ever done! We started practicing using the tools (hook, tongs and bag) with plastic snakes, then worked our way up through slow-moving, non-venomous species through faster ones, to dugites which were pretty cross, having been waiting around all morning to get their outing. It can be quite confronting, faced with an angry snake moving swiftly towards you and arching up to make itself look scary as possible. Each time it was caught safely in a bag was quite a relief. I don’t know whether the snakes got fed up with constantly being released and caught, nor whether they wondered why we didn’t get it right the first time, but they put up with our efforts and the skills learnt have been put to good use on a number of occasions around the campus since then.

You’ve mentioned your keenness to start learning about the Jewish faith and culture. Can you share something you have learnt so far that really interested you?

There have been many things, but the one that I’ve been most interested in so far has been Shabbat. I love the idea that there is a set 25 hour period each week in which people switch off from work, email, social media and household chores and rest, relax, meditate and spend time with family. In recent years, all of us have come to learn the importance of slowing down and contemplating things other than our jobs. Yet Jewish people have observed Shabbat for centuries! The mental health benefits of time without work are undeniable. A whole day and night away from email each week is something that I might try to adopt.

What are you most looking forward to from your new role as Principal here at Carmel?

Having briefly met many of the Carmel teachers, I’m really looking forward to meeting the students. Whatever school you teach in, the students are the people you’re working for – to make sure their school gives them safe place in which to develop a real love of learning and therefore the best opportunities for their future. I’ll be keen to hear their ideas and see them learn. I’ll want to learn all about their hopes for the future and I’ll want to work out how I can lead the School to ensure that it’s the best possible place for our students to be.

We’re really looking forward to making Dr Harris welcome from January 2022, and members of the community may see her at events in Term 4 this year as her handover with Shula commences.