When Ngaire Ashmore used to drive past Auckland Girls’ Grammar School as a rookie teacher 20 years ago, she felt intrigued by its “air of mystery”, comparing it to “something out of Harry Potter”. Ngaire says she dreamt of one day working at such an institution. Now, she’s heading it.
“I’m only a term-and-a-half in, and it’s been a fantastic experience,” beams the new principal. “It’s such a historic establishment—we will be celebrating the 130th year next year — one of the oldest in Auckland. Last Sunday, I had afternoon tea with 80 of the Old Girls, some of them are more than 90. It was amazing to hear their stories, witness their pride at being part of such as tradition. The schools where I’ve previously worked haven’t had that tradition of Old Boys or Old Girls networks, and I’m thrilled to be a part of such heritage. The women that have come through the school are exceptional.”
Does such a history add pressure?
“I feel more privileged than pressured. There is a sense of maintaining that tradition, while developing it further, preparing the girls for the 21st century and the society that waits for them today.”
Ngaire says it’s vital that pupils leave with traditional skills alongside knowledge in such things as automation. “We provide the girls with the opportunity to develop their creative sides, and to work in collaboration with each other,” adds the principal. “To understand the issues facing the world and how they can be part of the solutions to them in terms of what they can contribute to their local communities and society as a whole. The world is rapidly changing, as is the position of women in it, and we must build their confidence and encourage them to play a leading role in it. It’s about forward thinking.”
Ngaire sees several similarities between the Old Girls and the current crop — notably a sense of sisterhood and staunchness. “The girls here are calm and purposeful,” says the headmistress. “I’ve come from being a principal at a co-ed school [Ngaire led Tangaroa College for 10 years] so am used to dedicating time to problem-solving how to engage boys in their learning. In that sense, it does make it easier to be able to focus on only girls — having said that, a group of 1,200 girls comes with other kinds of challenges!”
The principal has put her PhD on hold while she settles into the role and “gets her feet under the table”. “There’s something very different about being at a school that’s been around for 130 years as opposed to one that’s been around for 50,” she says. “I’m still learning about the history of the place, and what it’s all about.”
So, what was Ngaire like as pupil?
“I was a student who liked to push the boundaries. Who was very inquisitive and didn’t just accept this is how things should be. I think I could have been one of those challenging students for some teachers; for others, a student that reminded them why they wanted to teach. Education is such an amazing vehicle for people to grow and develop and be all they can possibly be.”
Advice she would give to her younger self is to keep pushing the envelope, and “never accept mediocrity or the status quo”. They are philosophies that she now instils through her position as principal. “We must always consider the world and our contribution to it,” Ngaire continues. “I was very much interested in how I could serve, how I could give back. I think that is a very important quality for young people to have — to think about the community and how they can contribute to it.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces