A servant leader

By Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, 12 October 2022
(L-R): St Agnes Catholic High School Assistant Principal Geoffrey Kemmis, Principal Jeanette Holland, School Captain Julia Freeman, School Captain Abhishek Maharaj and Assistant Principal Gavin Hilder. Image: CEDP/Supplied


St Agnes Catholic High School Principal Jeanette Holland loves the Rooty Hill community she serves, her staff and most importantly, students. Yet when asked about her role as a school leader, she quickly turns the conversation to those around her.

“I’d prefer to talk about the school, the students and our great teachers rather than me front and centre. I want to celebrate the things that we all do,” Jeanette said.

St Agnes Catholic High School is a proudly culturally diverse co-educational Years 7 to 12 school. From its humble beginnings in 1962, St Agnes Catholic High School has grown from a school of just 27 girls to a vibrant community of 865 students. With a strong focus on sharing their Franciscan charism through all they do, the school looks to serve the community, others in need and seeks to make a genuine difference.

Leading this community requires the type of leader who not only has a deep understanding of learning and teaching but who values the importance of building relationships to bring people together for a common purpose.

“It is not just about me,” Jeanette said. “My role is to serve the community, that is really important. The work we do in schools is relational, whether it is in the classroom or in the staffroom, so it starts with getting to know each other as people,” she said. “It’s all about caring about others, not being removed from them. It is about being on the ground, building relationships, working things through and being present to the students, the staff and the parents. It’s not leadership, it’s leading,” she said. “Anyone can talk themselves up, you need someone who walks the talk.”

“It’s all about caring about others, not being removed from them. It is about being on the ground, building relationships, working things through and being present to the students, the staff and the parents. It’s not leadership, it’s leading.”

Careers Advisor and teacher Nashwa Karafotias, who leads many of the school’s outstanding programs to support students from culturally diverse backgrounds, said this approach instills a positive culture of mutual respect at St Agnes.

“Jeanette treats staff and students on an equal playing field bringing consistency and a new perspective to all that she does,” said Nashwa. “She is the true definition of a servant leader leading at the ground level.”

Jeanette previously served as Assistant Principal and Acting Principal of Marian College Kenthurst and most recently worked within the Learning team at Catholic Education, but said she was drawn to St Agnes because of the community.

“I thought I could make a difference here and the students are lovely, so respectful and grateful,” Jeanette said. “For our school, we have to be very aware of cultural context and communication because of the diversity. We offer pathways leadership opportunities looking at the students holistically, identifying where they are at, opening their worlds to where they can go, guiding them to achieve their goals.”

Being an advocate for students and building their confidence to achieve is a top priority.

“Self-efficacy is really important and we really look at how we can help to build that up in the students so they can look at themselves as learners and know that they can do anything – work hard, overcome obstacles and achieve,” she said.

Jeanette also comes to supporting teachers with this same view. Her colleague Lauren Walters, who just won the Australian Schools Plus Early Career Teacher Award in the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards, says Jeanette is the best boss she’s ever had.

“Jeanette is a truly inspiring leader. Since coming to St Agnes, Jeanette has taken the time to get to know each and every one of her staff, learning their professional interests and strengths, and providing opportunities for us to explore those interests, Lauren reflects. “She has a real team mentality, welcoming and appreciating our input into decisions. What’s in the best interest of the students underpins everything that she does.”

As Jeanette herself reflected: “Leadership isn’t about being centre stage, it is about putting other people forward and giving them a voice and an opportunity to lead. It is about building capacity in others, working with and assisting them in their leadership.”

“I guess you could call that being a servant leader.”

This article was originally published in the 2022 Season of Creation | Spring 2022 edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine. You can pick up your copy of the magazine in parishes, schools and offices across the Diocese of Parramatta now or you can read the digital version here.


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