Getting to the heart of education – a story of a great mentor

Rod West, former Headmaster of Trinity, honoured

Sports fans will know of coaches who produce players that turn into coaches themselves. Or political junkies can name pollies that inspired the next generation.

The same applies to school heads. The proof is in the life of Rod West: and the tributary of school heads who Sydney’s Trinity Grammar’s leader formed. In the Shakespearean sense, I mean “tributary”: of a long line of people who honour a great person.

“It is an honour to give the inaugural Roderick West Oration, an educator whose beach towel and flip flops I was unworthy to carry,” Phillip Heath, Head of the Barker School in Northern Sydney, began. His task is to examine West’s ideal of “education of the heart”, which has influenced so many, and determine if it is still possible to do. Or worth doing.

The event also featured the launch of a fundraiser to endow the Roderick and Janet West Professorial Chair in Christian Education Leadership at Alphacrucis College. This proposal is believed to be the first Christian education chair in over 100 years and is part of the increasing links between Alphacrucis’ education team and independent schools.

Former Prime Minister John Howard officially launched the Professorial Chair via video commending the importance of Christian education.

The influence of a great educator

Quoting from West’s Sydney Morning Herald obituary, Heath noted that West created something of a nursery of heads of schools at Trinity.

“Of the teachers who worked under West, 31 became headmasters or school principals, including Dr Tim Wright, headmaster of the Shore School, Phillip Heath, headmaster of Barker College, and Graham Anderson, headmaster of Arden Anglican School.

“Evangelical in terms of doctrine but favouring a breadth of vision, West was for years a member of the Sydney Anglican Synod. At least 50 boys whom he instructed went on to become ministers of religion, including 44 Anglicans.”

Heath describes himself as “a former captain of a modest Catholic school in Bellambi, someone who had experienced his own reformation of sorts”, doing his history masters under Stuart Piggin on the “extensive debate on the theology of redemption as articulated by 17th century English Puritans John Owen and Richard Baxter.”

“Stuart Piggin, in a weak moment, must have mentioned my name to his Uncle, Rod West, the Headmaster of Trinity. I can think of no other reason why Mr West would be willing to meet someone like me who grew up in the fibro clad Housing Commission dwellings of Sandon Point in the northern suburbs of Wollongong.

“I well recall my first visit to Trinity on a perishingly hot Tuesday afternoon in late November. I was enthralled beyond words to see the boys of the First XI Cricket Team clad in whites training on the Centre Wicket of the Trinity Main Oval. I had only ever seen schoolboy cricket on concrete pitches with mats.

“Our interview for a History post at Trinity consisted chiefly of discussing the piety of the Moravians and their contribution to Christian Mission – nothing much about the seven English and History sets that I was about to be allocated as a 22-year-old to teach a few weeks later.”

This personal history puts into perspective Heath’s extensive work, as head of St Andrews Cathedral School and Barker, to set up first nations schools genuinely owned by local communities.

West’s passionate faith defined his ethos of education, learning and leadership

At Trinity, West required the Herculean effort from staff, following his own example. But in Heath’s account, it was not just intellectual effort or extended hours. It was spiritual work.

“Like the apostles on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, we were called to leave everything and follow him to the wondrous world of service in education.”

“Rod West did not appoint his staff, as we might now understand a contracted position under a Human Resources framework – he called them to participate in a sublime quest: to educate his Trinity boys.

“This education would be accomplished in a loving, sacrificial but ambitious manner, following his lead as the complete schoolmaster in the finest tradition, and a complete Christian where the character of Christ permeated his every thought.

“Like the apostles on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, we were called to leave everything and follow him to the wondrous world of service in education.”

Heath points out that West was appointed Head when Whitlam was PM.

“Leadership in schools is vastly different now, robbing its leaders of much of the romantic flair that thrived in previous generations. The philosopher king is but a memory and good oratory has been undermined by the need for brevity and clever command of visual media. ”

Charting the changes in Society since West, Heath identified a “burden of pain” and “loss of meaning” as calling for “a new expression of the old truths; and a new metaphor for leadership that seeks for the transmission of the loving personality.”

 “We need…leadership that is virtuous, compassionate, serving, visionary, forgiving, and courageous.”

The vision for Christians engaging in our society as “to lead in love and service” has not changed.

Each of us has to work out this ideal in our sphere, our job, our calling.

Heath defined his task this way. “The role of the Head is to create the learning society within a school; to nourish and shape its ethos; to influence its climate and provide a secure place for children, young people, their teachers, and their parents safely to experience being fully alive in mind and spirit, free of the fear of exclusion or rejection, infused deeply with love each day and in every way.

“We need experts in learning, of course, to enliven the minds and deepen the available knowledge. But following the pathway of Roderick Ian West, we need leadership for all ages – leadership that is virtuous, compassionate, serving, visionary, forgiving, and courageous. “