Seeing Jesus in each Child’s Smile
Alison Dunn has been leading Catholic schools in Cape Town for the past 23 years. She shares her thoughts on leadership and the value of Catholic education.
Alison Dunn took up the post of principal of the junior school at Springfield Convent, Cape Town, 12 years ago. She was well known to the Dominican Sisters as she had worked previously at another Dominican school, the inner-city St Mary’s primary where she led the children and teachers as principal for 11 years.
And it is through her 20-something years of leading Catholic schools that she’s seen the value of Catholic education.
“What a privilege it is for me as a leader in a Catholic school to experience life lived to the full,” Ms Dunn said, referring to Jesus’ words “I come that they may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10).
“Every day I see girls enthusiastically involving themselves in the wide curricular and co-curricular programmes, always trying to achieve their best to make us proud. Every day I see parents involving themselves fully in their children’s schooling, encouraging their daughters in all they do, and always willing to help and lend a hand when needed. And every day I see teachers conscientiously giving of their time, knowledge and expertise, often beyond the call of duty, to help the children in their care. All of this is indeed life lived to the full.”
Ms Dunn said another benefit of leading a Catholic school meant combining one’s work and faith, something very few people get to do.
“God has given me a true gift in the job that I do. I have 520 girls and 40 staff members in my care every day, all working, learning, experiencing and enjoying life within the special ethos of a faith-based environment.”
And it is that faith-driven attitude that comes out in her work ethic. “In our baptism, God lights the flame of faith within each of us. In the Easter liturgy we pray that ‘the morning star which never sets may find that flame of faith ever burning’, and that is my prayer as a leader in a Catholic school each day—that I may play a part in keeping that flame of faith burning in everyone in my school.”
But it’s not all plain sailing. Ms Dunn acknowledges there are many challenges facing Catholic education. The world of today, in which our children are growing up, is often at odds with our values and ethos.
“All schools are battling against the wave of social media, against the somewhat alarming digital world in which we now live, against the societal values that differ from ours, against the instant answers our children expect, not to mention the curriculum changes that plague us—faith-based institutions are in no way immune to these difficulties.”
In fact, Ms Dunn believes the Catholic education system is further challenged as Catholic schools strive to educate children not only with common good morals, but also to educate young people in a Gospel-based environment.
“I have learned to remind myself often why the parents have chosen this faith-based institution for their children, even if it seems that they have often forgotten that themselves,” she said. “They wanted something special, something God-centred and value-based for their children and that is the basis of our existence and the underlying principle upon which everything we do is based.”
Ms Dunn holds the words of Jesus in guiding her leadership: “I come among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:27). She said this is a reminder to listen to everybody, from the littlest voices of nursery school to the teacher about to retire.
“I have learned that a Catholic school is indeed a true place of blessing; that being kind is far more important than being right; that everyone I meet deserves to be greeted with a smile; and that life seems so much brighter when a hall full of girls greet you on a Monday morning at assembly with ‘God bless you, Ms Dunn’.”
The veteran principal said she sees Jesus shine out of every child that smiles—and she loves telling the children that! And she believes that when a child grows up in an atmosphere of care and compassion, the child becomes a young adult committed to social outreach and care for others—the endeavour of Catholic ethos in education.
“But most importantly, I have learned that it is the love that pervades the school that makes it a perfect, magical place to be.”