Kate Mortimer has always loved a challenge.
With the ink on her Bachelor of Education testamur from the University of Sydney barely dry, she stepped into a role in state education at a school in Sydney’s Inner West.
From there, she crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge to join an independent school on the Lower North Shore, where she focused her efforts on the use of data in the context of academic rigor in her faculty of responsibility. Later, her first senior leadership role took her to Adelaide as the Head of Secondary and Deputy Principal at a leading independent school that offered the South Australian Certificate of Education and the International Baccalaureate.
But perhaps Mortimer’s biggest challenge yet came in January 2022, when she became the first new Principal in 25 years at Brisbane’s Sheldon College – and only the second in the independent school’s history.
"Taking over from a founding head is always challenging," she tells The CEO Magazine. "And, the greater the challenge, the more interested I am."
The greater the challenge, the more interested I am.
Her predecessor, Lyn Bishop, established Sheldon College in 1997. Driven by a vision of traditional values and progressive thinking for quality learning and living – a vision the school still upholds today – Bishop grew the school, set on 22.6 hectares of land, into one of the country’s most outstanding educational institutions.
"It didn’t matter who got the job, it was going to be difficult because you’re coming in after a much-loved, well-respected and iconic figure who built the school from scratch," Mortimer says. "But I was excited about the challenge, both professionally and personally, that it posed."
A good year
She approached her new role with three things in mind. "When you’re coming into a new school, you’ve got to be present, visible and demonstrate care," she explains.
In the first six months in her role, Mortimer spoke to the staff, communicated with the community, stepped into classrooms and attended events. She was also careful to be open and transparent about everything she was doing.
"I often spoke about being respectful of the College because we’re a school that’s different, with really rich traditions," she says. "Boys tip their hats to teachers and students greet adults by saying good morning or good afternoon when they cross paths throughout the day."
When you’re coming into a new school, you’ve got to be present, visible and demonstrate care.
But she’s also firm on the fact that at the heart of every decision she makes are the students. "If a decision will have a positive impact on the students, I was prepared to roll it out even if it was within six months of starting my tenure," she explains.
Saying that, the changes that she has initiated since she started have been minor operational challenges that "show respect to the legacy of the founding head".
"We’ve had an enormously positive year," she enthuses, reflecting on her first 12 months. "We’ve moved forward in relation to our strategic and operational planning and in how we operate the school educationally. We’ve also made small inroads into how we better our partnerships with parents and students."
As she looks to build on these achievements, she says the Industry 4.0, or IR4, is providing the Sheldon College team with a wonderful opportunity to delve forward into its master planning.
"Graduates of the future are going to have many different types of jobs, so we are looking at how we can grow our buildings to better facilitate students who are future-focused and career-ready," she explains. Bigger breakout spaces and more collaborative areas are some of the changes in the works.
There are also Sheldon College’s award-winning sustainability initiatives to continue. "As a College, we treat all our sewage on-site and we use our two dams for all our water treatment," she explains.
At the Clean Energy Council’s Solar Design and Installation Awards 2022, Sheldon College’s 1.2-megawatt solar installation took out the "Over 100 KW" prize. The grid saves the college a lot on electricity, she says.
The development and implementation of wellbeing programs have been a particular area of focus for Mortimer throughout her career, and this will remain the case at Sheldon College.
We are a school where what matters most is connections with young people.
"We’re about to build our own program from scratch, having worked with our community and surveyed parents and students to create something that will provide young people with the tools and strategies to make specific changes," she explains.
Love, laughter and learning have played an important role in Sheldon College’s philosophy since day one, and under Mortimer’s lead, it continues to be lived every day. "We are a school where what matters most is connections with young people," she says.
And she’s excited about the role she gets to play in shaping the disruptors of tomorrow.
"Educationally it’s all about innovation," she says. "It’s about how we create graduates who are risk-takers and who are brave enough to ask the right questions so they’re ready for the future."