Published on February 17, 2023

My blogpost this week is a speech I gave to students at the Welcome Back Assembly on 7th February. It was so wonderful to have ELC to Year 12 students all together in one space. The focus of the assembly was Inclusion and Belonging and our student leaders in Junior and Senior School articulated the importance of these concepts for all students. You can read my speech below:

Before beginning I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the people of Turkey and Syria who have been so dramatically impacted by the earthquake yesterday. Over 2000 have lost their lives – the number is likely to be higher – and 11,000 injured. Please take a moment to hold them in your thoughts.

Welcome students and staff to 2023.

It is wonderful to see all of your faces and come together to celebrate what it means to be part of the HVGS community. Many of you I have met either at pick up or drop off and I am looking forward to meeting as many of you as possible over the coming weeks.

The start of the year is a time when we can reconnect with who we are and what it means to be part of the HVGS community.

Today I want to talk about identity, belonging and what it means to be an ally. At the heart of what I am going to be talking about is putting our values into action.

Firstly, let me tell you a personal story. When I was in Year 3, the original Charlie’s Angels TV show (the adults in the room might remember it) was “all the rage” on TV, and a group of us at school loved to act out scenes from the latest episode of the Angels.

It was a fun way to spend lunchtime, but I remember never having a choice about which character I would be in our dramatization. I had to be Sabrina – in my mind the least popular character. When I was growing up the characters of Kelly and Jill were the best ones to be. Everyone thought they were the “prettiest” characters but, according to my friends, I simply didn’t “look right” for those characters.

My parents had 7 children, my mother worked, and we didn’t have a lot of money, so my mother cut my hair, and she was not a hairdresser! I was embarrassed about that haircut and my so-called friends found ways to ensure I continued to be embarrassed. The cut was uneven and short and, in their minds, it meant I was excluded from having a leading role in our games.

This left me feeling deeply envious of those girls with long hair who were also the popular girls, and the ones who got to be the best characters in our playground antics.

I couldn’t put words to it then, but my friends were being unkind. They made me feel bad because of how I looked and what I looked like limited what I could do in the playground. I didn’t do anything about it, I just felt bad and embarrassed about my family and simply wanted to be more like the cool, popular girls. It also left me feeling lonely because it seemed that no one saw, and no one cared.

Flash forward to Year 9 and I remember a day vividly, when I decided to be an ally. I was watching another student – a friend of mine – being bullied by a girl. The bullying had been happening again and again over time and it was subtle but deeply hurtful.

I remember this day in Year 9 because I made a conscious decision to confront the bully and stand up for my friend. I decided to let that bully know it was not ok and most importantly to let my friend know I had her back. That I would stand with her. The outcome didn’t lead to immediate change, but I felt better and so did my friend. We both felt stronger together and I know it left her feeling less lonely.

That moment in year 9 also sparked in me a strong sense of justice that is at the heart of my values as a leader. As a school leader I am driven am driven by the desire to ensure all students at HVGS feel valued for who they are, not who we expect them to be or want them to be. I feel passionate about this because I know this is how belonging is cultivated in a community.

Each student in front of me today is unique and our role as educators is to get to know each one of you and support you in becoming all that you can be. The start of the year provides a great opportunity to do this.

It also provides a great opportunity to celebrate that we are all different, that it doesn’t matter if we are Kelly, Jill or Sabrina, that no matter who we are we have value and deserve to be understood, known and heard.

In this room we have

students who come from multilingual families.

people from diverse cultural backgrounds and religions; for example students who celebrate Diwali, Eid, Ramadan, Chinese New Year, and Yom Kippur, among others.

diverse aboriginal identities – students who are off country and those who are on country and students who are yet to embrace their aboriginal identity.

students whose brains are hard wired to study science, mathematics and/or write incredible stories and who love schoolwork.

students who struggle to sit still and listen in class or at an assembly, and for whom learning in a traditional classroom is consistently hard and exhausting.

students who are transitioning between genders, gender non-binary and queer.

students who have experienced racial discrimination based on the colour of their skin.

students with mobility challenges who have to navigate a beautiful but hilly campus.

We are diverse and very different from each other and because we are so different, we need to make allyship part of what we do.

This means speaking out, walking beside, and taking action when we see behaviours or hear words that make someone feel bad about who they are. When we do this, we make school a safe place for everyone, no matter who you are, how you learn, your skin colour or which languages you speak at home.

This is our strong focus in 2023: Stand up and Be An Ally. Instead of blending into the crowd and feeling relieved that the teasing is focused on someone else, we should all stand up, speak out and walk beside those who need our support.

We should get to know what makes each of us unique, celebrate it and champion it.

This means sitting beside the student who is on their own at lunch.

It means challenging your friends if they use words that put another person down.

It means acting with courage and integrity and recognizing that we all have a responsibility as citizens of HVGS to be kind, to be inclusive and to be an ally.

It doesn’t take much but it does feel good.

Tap into your own sense of justice and help us create a school community where everyone feels like they belong.

If we work on this together, it will be a great 2023!

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca is the Principal of Hunter Valley Grammar School. She has a Masters of Education, International Education from Monash University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the Queensland University of Technology and a Bachelor of Arts, History and English from the University of Tasmania.