Tom Kendell of Sacred Heart College: 'an exceptional Catholic educator'

Tom Kendell of Sacred Heart College: 'an exceptional Catholic educator'

Richard Rymarz

The end of 1997 marks the retirement of Tom Kendell as Principal of Sacred Heart Regional Girls' College, Oakleigh, Victoria. Tom is embarking on a career as an educational consultant.

He has much to offer after a distinguished educational career spanning over 41 years. This includes extensive experience as a senior teacher in Adelaide and Melbourne, working in the Catholic Education Office in the Sandhurst Diocese and in key administrative posts in Catholic schools. The most notable of these was the last 16 years as Principal of Sacred Heart. In this position Tom has carved out a reputation as an exceptional Catholic educator.

Tom's major achievement was his ability to run an excellent Catholic secondary school, a school which has achieved educational excellence on any measure: religious, academic, sporting or cultural. This was done with an absolute commitment to keeping the costs to parents to a minimum. Tom was always absolutely insistent that Catholic education had to be affordable. This is undoubtedly a strong echo of his own childhood which certainly impressed upon him the struggles of working people.

Although Tom has the type of character and temperament that in-variably generates anecdotes, the focus of this article will be on his contribution to the current debate on the future direction of Catholic schools - in particular, the extraordinary clarity he brought to key terms which to some seem difficult and elusive. Clarity is understood here as a positive quality and not something to be dismissed as simplistic or shallow.

As Newman pointed out last century, the ability to obfuscate an idea is not necessarily an example of scholarship or depth of thought. Indeed the opposite is usually true: profound ideas are usually clear ones. To Tom, concepts such as witness, vision and formation had obvious and direct relevance for Catholic educators.

The witness provided by teachers in Catholic schools is an absolutely fundamental idea in a whole range of contemporary Church documents, from Vatican II's Gravissimum Educationis to The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School.

To Tom, witness was not an abstract notion. It meant clear and tangible commitment to the teachings of the Church as contained in documents like the Catechism of the Catholic Church and an equally strong identification with the life of the Church. This witness was just as pressing on the Principal as on others in the school community.

This also reveals much about Tom's style of leadership. Perhaps against the contemporary trend, Tom saw the role of Principal as one of educative leader. This did not devalue the important administrative aspect of the position. It rather emphasised the role of the Principal as the instigator of the educational vision of the school.

Evangelical mission

Tom's vision of the school was intimately connected with the evangelical mission of the Church, which sees an important goal of the Catholic school as assisting in the formation and development of young Catholics. In this sense his vision was intimately catechetical in the same way as the Catechism speaks of initiating students into the fullness of the Christian life as a crucial aspect of the Church's educational endeavours.

Part of Tom's vision was the active formation of students. This flowed from his understanding of witness. To identify closely with the teachings of the Church means that you think that these teachings have something to offer. They are not burdensome, but liberating.

The Catholic school, then, is vitally concerned with presenting the Church's story in the best possible light and doing all it can to help students integrate this with their own lives. This is not to ignore the autonomy of each student, nor is it blind to the fact that many students in Catholic schools today are indifferent to the schools' religious expectations. Rather it is presenting to students the best the Church has to offer. As Tom once put it: "We (at Sacred Heart) are on the Catholic Church's side."

The school should never become merely the conduit of information, accommodating all views but not actively promoting any one, leaving students to "make up their own minds." This mentality is derivative of a secular view of education and is an argument for government, not Catholic schools.

The practical edge of formation in Tom's vision can be appreciated by his emphasis on the word expectation. Students needed to have before them a range of clearly defined, realistic and worthwhile expectations. These covered the whole range of human values.

Students at Sacred Heart are expected, for example, to be polite and courteous to teachers and more importantly to their peers and fellow students. This simple emphasis explains in part the extraordinary support that Tom has received from parents in his tenure as Principal.

Parents better than anyone understand the need for the cultivation of human virtues. I have never met any parents who have complained that their teenager is too courteous. Parents want their children to grow up to display a whole raft of virtues. It seems sensible that the school should help families in these legitimate aspirations.

To conclude, when one recalls the contribution made by Tom Kendell to Catholic education in this state, many words spring to mind. One, though, should be stressed: that word is courage.

There have been times during his tenure as Principal of Sacred Heart when Tom's educational approach was, without doubt, counter-cultural. Tom, however, as Churchill would say, is a man who "knows his own mind" and thankfully has the courage to bring his principles to fruition.

Richard Rymarz is the Religious Education Co-ordinator at Sacred Heart College.

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