The sounds of head-banging heavy metal music might not be everyone’s cup of tea – especially for someone more in tune with the graceful sounds of the classical flute – but that was the reality for Helen Riekie when she was sent out bush for her first posting as a music teacher.While the contrasting music styles – not to mention the dry, dusty surrounds, extreme heat and flies – could have been her undoing, it was instead a year in which she flourished in her chosen career.
“I was a classical flautist and I taught heavy metal music to mature age students,” she explained of her one-year stint at Port Augusta High. “They were all boys, about 18 and 19, and I was only 21. You can imagine it was certainly challenging!”
Luckily she hit the right notes with her students and her teaching career blossomed, culminating some 25 years later in being appointed the new principal at Cabra Dominican College.
Dr Riekie is no stranger to the school community or Catholic education, having moved to Cabra in 2016 to take up the position of deputy principal of Student Wellbeing and Leadership. Prior to that, she spent 23 years at Cardijn College at Noarlunga where she taught music and eventually moved into leadership roles, including head of Senior School. Working at Cardijn for such a long time taught Dr Riekie much about community, connectedness and the power of education for young people.
Speaking with The Southern Cross only a few weeks after the new school year began, Dr Riekie said she was looking forward to helping to continue the Dominican tradition at Cabra, providing “an accessible, inclusive, excellent education for all students”.
“I believe that the biggest ‘change agent’ in that is teachers…so one of the continual challenges and opportunities is to ensure all staff have the right support and tools to foster a contemporary, stimulating and engaging learning environment for all students. We are much stronger and can achieve much more when we work together as a team,” she said.
Taking over from Brian Schumacher (who is now principal of Rostrevor College), Dr Riekie said she was drawn to the Cabra community because of the dynamic co-educational environment and its “diverse and inclusive community”.
“Because of the inclusive environment, there is a ‘richness’ that is experienced by all.
“Cabra and what we stand for and our story really resonates with me. Personally, I like things structured, but with faith and leadership it’s all about having the courage to work in uncertainty and sit with it. I believe I have that courage, even though I’m not necessarily always comfortable with it.
“I think I bring a spirit of calmness and openness and feel honoured to be in this position. When I reflect on the Dominican story and talk to the Sisters, I am really aware of the significant responsibility and joy I have in ensuring our Dominican story remains alive in our community today.”
There are many aspects of the college she is passionate about, including the polarising SACE research project. Over the years there has been a mixture of criticism and support for the Year 12 requirement, but having taught the subject Dr Riekie is a strong believer in its worth.
She said through undertaking her own studies for a Masters and PhD over the past decade she had fully appreciated the benefits of “posing a question and discovering something new” and the structure needed for that to happen.
“The research project is all about self-directed learning and apart from completing the three assessment tasks, it’s about the student driving it. They are not being spoon-fed…they are given guidance and instruction and we work in a strong mentor role rather than being the font of all knowledge.
“It’s a wonderful life skill to learn about thinking, posing questions, exploring and then arriving at a resolution, rather than simply regurgitating facts.
“We talk about 21st century skills and the work environment and how you have to be adaptable, resilient, reflective, and a team player and I think there are a lot of skills in the research project that are transferable,” she reflected.
Dr Riekie said the decision to put her hat in the ring for the top job at Cabra was influenced by a number of things, including two sources that inspired her beyond her boundaries of comfort and self-confessed shyness.
First, she drew inspiration from an autobiography she recently read. Live Lead Learn by former Westpac CEO Gail Kelly who wrote of rather than finding reasons why not to do something, to consider all possibilities or what you offer to a situation.
Secondly, a story which used cycling as an analogy for faith provided the final catalyst. It was suggested that sometimes a person needed to let God take the handlebars and set the direction, rather than continue to cycle on the safe route. When a person allows this the ride may be more challenging, but it opens up to a fuller life, beyond any personal predetermined boundaries. A keen cyclist herself, Dr Riekie said that really struck a chord.
“Sometimes I think it would be easier to sit back and not take on a challenge. Taking this job was about being led by what I believe is right and what God was calling me to do.”
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