Australia Day Honours

Educating young minds is her greatest joy

Children come to us with such optimism, such energy and such naiveté. It’s really a privilege to work in this space.

Head of Abbotsleigh Junior School Sally Ruston was surprised and humbled to receive an AM on Australia Day, for significant service to primary education and professional associations.

“I’m thrilled primary education was recognised in this way," Ruston said. "It’s not about me but the profession I’m so passionately engaged in.”

Ruston has been Head of Junior School at Abbotsleigh since 2000. Previously she worked at Newington College, Lindfield and began her career at All Saints, Bathurst in 1983. She has been an IEU member throughout her career.

“Many professions beyond education are often seen as lofty and worthy of recognition but educating young minds is my greatest joy. Ray L Wilbur said, and I totally agree, that, ‘The potential of a child is the most intriguing and stimulating thing in all creation’. Primary education is such a worthy and purposeful vocation.

“At the start of every year I’m filled with excitement at what we can achieve with children. Children come to us with such optimism, such energy and such naiveté. It’s really a privilege to work in this space.”

After nearly 40 years Ruston has lost none of her conviction that teachers can make a difference in children’s lives, if they work with “expertise, passion and compassion”.

Ruston also values contributing to the development of colleagues, but this is bittersweet, as leading in this domain has meant working beyond the classroom.

“Your influence can be far reaching when you pull together a band of teachers who are equally committed to good outcomes for children and each other’s wellbeing.”

As well as her principalship, Ruston has held numerous influential board positions, including Federal President of the Independent Primary Schools Heads of Australia, Chair of the Independent School Teacher Accreditation Authority and is currently Vice President of the Australian Primary Principals Association.

She said Abbotsleigh is supportive of graduates and practicum students and continued to be so even during lockdown.

Allowing new teachers to have enabling experiences, matching them with mentors and wonderful programming models sets them up for success, she said.

“If you curate new teachers’ experience carefully, they too can make a difference in the lives of children.”

The solution to the current teacher shortage is about retention as well as attraction. Ruston was instrumental in setting up Abbotsleigh’s Early Learning Centre in 2010 to provide teachers with a quality service on campus. She said retention rates have improved substantially as a result.

While juggling principalship and IEU membership at times has required diplomacy, Ruston has always maintained her membership because she is committed to contributing to a “reasonable and measured” voice that speaks for teachers and support staff.

The AM is not Ruston’s first award. She was The Educator’s Australian Primary Principal of the Year (non-government) in 2019; won the Excellence in Education Award from the Australian College of Educators in 2017; and the John Laing Principals Award, Principals Australia Institute, in 2015. In 2021 she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Teachers’ Guild of NSW.

COVID has delayed the presentation of Ruston’s AM. She’s looking forward to afternoon tea with NSW Governor Margaret Beazley later this year.

Sue Osborne