Home' Independence : Independence Vol 38 No 2 Oct 2013 Contents 40 INDEPENDENCE VOL 38 NO 2 OCTOBER 2013
REFLECTION SIMON GIPSON
AT THE beginning of this year, after 13
years as Head of St Michael's Grammar
School, I finally took some extended
leave. For two and a half months --
after cycling from Luang Prabang to
Hanoi -- I worked as a volunteer with
the Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF)
in Phnom Penh, which provides hope
and opportunity for the impoverished
children who live on the old landfill
dumps at Steung Meanchey.
I have always held the belief that
Principals of schools are leaders of
communities. And communities exist
because of an implicit need by human
beings to connect with each other
in a shared and mutually supportive
At the heart of communities lies a shared
set of values, a common understanding
of what is important and what matters.
At St Michael's we have always held
the belief that our role is to ensure that
when our students leave us, they do so
with a confident understanding of who
they are as people, where their strengths,
talents and abilities lie, what they would
wish to do in the next stage of their lives,
but most importantly, fully appreciating
the skills, values and attitudes required
to be contributing citizens in whatever
communities that they may live as adults.
The children with whom I worked with
and for in the rubbish dumps of Steung
Meanchey did not need this lesson.
Without hesitation, the people of Steung
Meanchey, like most in Cambodia, see
their primary obligation to their family
and then to their immediate community.
They do not quite put themselves last,
but their motivation is towards their
family first, their community second.
They look to others long before they look
Similarly, in northern Laos, in a small,
remote village where I stayed called Ban
Sop Jan, each person focused not on
themselves, but on their obligations and
responsibilities to others -- firstly their
kinfolk, then their community. They
looked out, away from themselves, as
their first act.
Significantly, I saw no mirrors in that
village. It was as if there was no place
for indulgent vanity and self-absorption.
There was much room, however, for duty
and obligation to others.
In conversations with the Khmer staff
at CCF, it became clear that whilst some
might harbour a distant ambition to
travel, to possess a car or to own a Rolex,
the more important goal was to provide
for their families. If young, this might
be providing for siblings or building a
proper home for their parents; if older,
looking after children and assuring that
the medical expenses for families were
met. In the midst of such collective
poverty, it is humbling to be surrounded
by an absence of emphasis on self.
In our First World, we live a life of
conspicuous consumption. We champion
individual rights and individual comforts.
We look after ourselves. And, we have
lots of mirrors around us.
Learning for life
Almost without exception, the families
in Steung Meanchey are from the
provinces; they arrive at the dumps as a
consequence of crippling debts, which in
the main are the result of high medical
bills. Money is borrowed against meagre
possessions at extortionate interest rates --
Of course, at the centre of this is the
recognition that our most important role
as human beings living on this fragile
planet is to make the world a better
place -- that we have a fundamental,
unselfish obligation to make others'
lives better without expectation of return
As leaders of communities, we must
authentically reflect the values at the
heart of our communities. The chance
to work with CCF and the children of
Steung Meanchey was therefore not
only what mattered to me, but what
mattered to the school community.
But it was fundamentally a personal
journey to connect with what drew me
to the profession in the first place: the
opportunity to make a difference.
A different world
I have worked in schools for 30 years,
and it would be reasonable to say that,
for the majority of that time, I have
spent my professional career caring
for already privileged students and
providing positive pathways for them
when they leave to take their steps in
the wider world. I have always believed
that the most valuable lesson that
we can impart to our students is the
absolute importance of caring for others.
CHOOSING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
IN A WORLD WITHOUT
Simon Gipson, Head of School, St Michael's Grammar School, St
Kilda, VIC, describes how he found refreshment by spending his
extended leave in the dumps of Phnom Penh.
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