Lasting learning: a letter to the past

Ms Sarah Frew, Associate Dean (Academic Care)
Originally published March 2017

There is something exciting about being new. For me, at the beginning of 2017, newness abounds. I am new to Brisbane Girls Grammar School, new to girls’ education and working in a newly created role—Academic Care. From my vantage point amidst all of this newness, it is clear that dealing with change will require courage and boldness.

Change is brimming with possibility. I learned this at school, and I realise now that, of all the things I learned there, it is the most precious and useful. Because of the role she played in preparing me for the vicissitudes of life, I recently wrote a thank you letter to my own Senior English teacher:

Dear Mrs Hair

Twenty years ago this year, you guided me and 20 or so of my peers through a rigorous program of literary discovery, high on a hill in a beautiful girls’ school not all that far from where I now write in leafy Spring Hill. The course content was broad and deep … spanning the Boer War political scapegoating of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, Romantic poets’ contemplations on nature, the thrill of the Geoffrey Robertson hypothetical, the vaulting ambition of one tragic hero, Macbeth, and the spirited Jane Eyre (Reader: I loved it!). It was a rich and robust study of language, literature and, fundamentally, what it means to be human.

I remember.

I remember because the journey wasn’t easy. In fact, there were days of frustrationwhen the result I wanted seemed out of my grasp, when I wrestled with ideas and you answered my questions with questions. Oh yes, I remember!

There were no hollow victories for me in Senior English. You taught me the value of hard work, of asking questions and the importance of reflection. Indeed, you offered me an early apprenticeship, of sorts, in grit.

I want to thank you and my parents for never doing my thinking for me, for empowering me and for helping me to relish challenge. Through your wisdom and your gentle encouragement, you fostered a deep love of learning, inspiring me to pursue a career as an educator.

You set a fine example and your pedagogies that prioritised critical, creative thinking and productive, reflective learner virtues, maintain their relevance. As I reflect on my 17-year-old self, knowing what I know now, it is important that I express my sincere gratitude. With your kind and knowing smile, you pushed my questions back to me and asked clarifying questions that placed me in the problematising hot seat. It was uncomfortable, it was frustrating, but it was exactly what I needed.

Teaching, as you have so beautifully shared, is an exercise in building hope and confidence as much as it is about building skills, knowledge and understanding. The learner virtues that will withstand and transcend complexities of the post-corporate, post-truth (?!), post-certainty paradigm are those of courage, bravery, the ability to sit with discomfort, to persevere and to be prepared to take risks.

Thank you for teaching me.

With my warmest regards,


As I reflect on the learning experiences that were most powerful and influential for me and consider what Academic Care might look like for the girls of Brisbane Girls Grammar School, I keep coming back to the teachers who taught me the growth mindset power of yet, before it was a thing (Dweck, 2014). I cannot help but think that to care, academically, is to provide skill sets for ‘going placidly’; for facing the tensions and the complexities with courage, and for knowing that mistakes are invaluable if they are treated as chances to grow.

The very best favour we can do our students is to nurture a spirit that is unafraid of discontinuity, and one that is reconciled with the uncomfortable but positive power of the word ‘yet’. What is required of today’s learners is grit; the tenacity to dig in and keep going, to welcome discomfort and celebrate industry and deep skills over the ‘grade’.

‘Not yet’ is an expression synonymous with hope, what Viktor Frankl calls the ‘last of the human freedoms’. I would suggest that we might also see it as the first of the human freedoms. There is something exciting in the idea that we have the power to choose our disposition as a learner. After all, attitude is free and attitude is everything!

In a time when educational discussion is dominated by innovation, when pathways open onto futures unimagined, when ‘STEM’ is excitingly in vogue, when journalists are too often calling the educational shots, and when ‘big data’ informs so many decisions (Lingard & Rizvi 2010), there is value in ‘taking a pause’ and reflecting. It is crucial that we reflect on and actively promote the skills, learner virtues and attitudes that will stand by our students and sustain them as they meet the complexities of these exciting new futures. This is the moral imperative of education (Hargreaves, 2006).

Academic care, then, at its core must be relational. It must be about noticing positive learner virtues and attributes and most especially noticing learning and coaching for growth, underpinned by Kaizen: gentle, graceful and incremental change (Capelli, 2009). It must be about embracing productive struggle and it must be about placing the responsibility for thinking and for learning endeavour with the learner and cheering from the sidelines. To care in such a way champions the deep skills that last, long after the girls have stepped out of the classrooms. I know this from experience.

Hope is a beautiful concept—one that allows space for the uncertainties of change, for discomfort, for failure and for growth. What is inherently sustained is a spirit of optimism—that things can be better, that tomorrow is a new day with new opportunity, that we can—even if we are not able to yet.

Having received one myself, I believe that a strong, liberal education allows for and inculcates a hopeful disposition, and that the very best learners are those who welcome growth and persist in the face of the challenge.


Capelli, G. (2009). Thinking caps. Perth: Pilpel Print.

Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: how you can fulfil your potential. London: Little. Brown Book Group.

Dweck, C. (2014). The power of believing that you can improve. n.p. Retrieved from

Ehrmann, M. (1986). The desiderata of happiness. London: Souvenir Press. (first ed 1927)

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: the power and passion of perseverance. UK: Edbury.

Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. UK: Beacon. (first ed 1946)

Hargreaves, A. (2006). Sustainable leadership. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lingard, B., & Rizvi, F. (2010). Globalizing education policy. Oxford: Routledge.

Saujani, R. (2016). Teach girls bravery, not perfection. n.p. Retrieved from

Zourzani, M. (2002). Hope: new philosophies for change. Australia: Pluto Press.

Read reflective commentary from Associate Dean, Ms Sarah Frew, on her article, ‘Lasting learning: a letter to the past’.


Reflecting on my previous article, a few things, I feel, maintain their resonance. The first, and most important of these, is my firm belief that mistakes are invaluable if treated as chances to grow. We all know that mistake-making is an uncomfortable business but if we feel pressure to be perfect, to be ever right, to never make a mistake, we run the risk of limiting ourselves to the very hard-to-tread path of never making one—how boring!

I wonder what lessons and whose influence the girls will in time remember fondly, with gratitude; what aspects of their experience now will serve them as they move into their post-schooling adventures? I suspect there will be the inevitable legacy of curriculum material, but also the dispositional growth that is nurtured by teachers, families and friends; in classrooms, on buses, on sporting fields and stages, on international tours, in the family car and around the family dinner table.

The noble goals of education have less to do with facts remembered than they have to do with the ability to be curious, to think critically and creatively, and at times, divergently—to go into the world as kind, informed, ethical citizens who are equipped to meet the unknowns of the future with confidence.

In the most recent QANTAS magazine, I read a CEO’s advice that business leaders over 45 years of age should have a mentor who is under the age of 30, so that their perspective is broad and balanced, and so that they understand the point of view of a vital portion of their workforce. We have that opportunity in schools. It never occurred to me that my Senior English teacher, Mrs Hair, may have learned from me, too … but perhaps she did—as I learn from the young people in my own classes.

In re-reading my thoughts on lasting learning, I smiled at the reminder of those whose wisdom I have benefited from—and still benefit from—in my own learning and growth. My gratitude to Mrs Hair and my parents remains steadfast, along with my gratitude for my son and my students, who teach me every day.

We are surrounded by opportunities for growth—we just have to be open to them.