One for the road: A toast to Nat Mierczak

  • Leadership
J Christine Greenberg, Primary And Middle School Principal

I met Nat on 18th January 2016. 

Jason was forwarded Nat’s CV by his wife Emily, who wasn’t hiring for her company at the time. Jason sent it to Fiona, our then Curriculum and Instruction coach and Fiona forwarded it to me with the words: “She also has a special education background too! She looks very promising.” 

Then the Principal for PreK-12,  I was spread across two mini-campuses in Kennedy Town, the Garden, the newly allocated campus, now known as the Grove, and architect meetings in Wanchai. Because my office at the time was at the Garden, Fiona wisely reserved Jadis’ therapy office on the 19th floor of Main (later known as Harbour Village) because that’s where I happened to be that particular morning. As with any other, it was a particularly busy day for an interview, but we had a teaching vacancy to fill mid-year due to a sudden spousal relocation, so I squeezed the interview in between two urgent meetings and told Fiona I could join only for 20 mins before popping back down to the 2nd floor. 

Years later, Nat confided that she thought I hated her (of course she would think this!) because I walked in to ask my questions before having to quickly leave. I’ve been told I have a bit of a direct, probing, somewhat unorthodox interviewing style, and with limited time and needing to get to the heart of the matter before excusing myself, I was probably even more efficient and rushed than usual. She already had all the certifications and academic competencies but reviewing her CV, I prioritized determining two qualities in assessing further cultural fit: authenticity and thoroughness. I left the 19th floor that day feeling satisfied that she ticked both with the addition of two other bonus qualities: extreme conscientiousness and a steely can-do attitude that I recognised garnered from years of working with underserved inner-city populations. Teachers who’ve dodged scissors and cleaned bodily fluids on the regular on top of their instruction and planning duties just have a certain seasoned glint, which I saw that morning. In any case, thanks to differences between the US and Australian schooling calendars, she came at the perfect time for a short-term position from April-June wherein we would assess her suitability for a full contract further in-situ.

Nat initially took on the Grade 4 teaching role alongside one of our most competent teachers, Rosie, whose meticulous organizational skills, pedagogical expertise and high expectations of students, colleagues and herself made her a family favorite but an acquired taste for lesser co-teaching mortals. We waited with baited breath to see how this pairing would play out and whether sparks would fly and for the wrong reasons. When Rosie gushed over her new teaching partner a few weeks in despite being knee-deep into Renaissance Faire planning, and that it was a match made in “OCD heaven”, we exhaled and knew we’d struck gold. 

As a teacher, Nat is thoughtful, skilled, insightful, and exceedingly caring of every child. She noticed when kids tried their best. She commiserated with them over their mistakes and helped them back up when they stumbled. She showed great empathy and ingenuity in finding ways to help each child thrive, and her communications with parents frequently reflected the extent to which she knew, understood and hurt with their child. You didn’t just hear from her when something went wrong. In fact, you heard from her often when little things went right. My youngest son, Milo, was in Ms Mierczak’s classes with his best friend, Ben, Nicky’s son. Nicky and I worked closely on marketing initiatives meeting fortnightly with a handful of other parents to form the first Parent Ambassadors. I know how uncomfortable it can be for me to play two roles for our teachers, so I typically underplay my role as a parent. I appreciated the little positive notes Milo’s new teacher would send but secretly hoped she wasn’t doing this just because I was the Principal. Nicky assured me that despite the less-than-ideal circumstances of a mid-year teacher transition, the other G4 families were impressed with Ms Mierczak and appreciated her thoughtfulness and warmth, and that all of them got similar messages too.

Multiply that through the years now a hundred-fold when, as a Vice Principal, her “class” expanded each year. It is not an exaggeration to say that each student and family felt welcomed heartily by Ms Mierczak either at the front door, in class, in the stairwell, or even on-line. If you had a new lunchbox, wore a kitty ear headband or got new glasses or a backpack, she noticed and rejoiced or lamented with you. As the Grove matured, she insisted on maintaining teaching hours in addition to her growing administrative responsibilities and often signed up to manage a Learning Support group, Homework Club, literacy group, GIC or LEAP or Global mentoring, along with recess and lunch duties, including the Gardening Club and Student Council. On most days, she comes across like a mix between that Looney Tunes character, the Tasmanian Devil (from her native Australia too by the way, only not drooling or messy) and Mary Poppins (just as polished only not sing-songy) rushing off to wherever she was needed. One minute at bus duty, the next handling an assessment, soon after patching a recess tiff, then attacking her keyboard to bang out emails or logistics documents (with points bolded, underlined or both for emphasis and often accompanied by colored tables, always center justified). She might then pause briefly to tend to a teacher needing advice, then return to her desk for more loud typing and bolding but this time perhaps with ALL CAPS highlighted, sometimes even with letters in red, to draft cluster agendas and then somehow managing to rush back to another emergency, while posting a kudos announcement or responding to some parent query along the way.

The whirlwind she is with students, she is for teachers too. She is big on fairness and doing the right thing, and does her best to support and represent their views whenever appropriate. It’s not easy being a middle manager- navigating expectations from all sides especially in the painstaking transcription of an innovative vision into action, but she consistently channels her own emotional intelligence to provide direction and feedback in a kind, measured way that raises the cultural and pedagogical bar amongst our primary faculty. She works closely with the floor mentors and coordinators and turned the office that she shared with Jen, Tiffany and Jason into an inviting (and always minimalist and disinfected!) haven of sorts for staff hot-desking from other offices or campuses. She was part of our Project Zero team which has been instrumental in expanding our Share Fairs into a DIVE series that supports professional development for the entire faculty. Throughout she was often the first to roll her sleeves up and lend a hand, an ear, a positive word, an honest opinion and support on anything from drafting emails to moving chairs or ordering food, no matter too big or small for that trademark follow through.

So many will miss her, but none more than me. My penchant for pushing the envelope and insistence on a certain exacting standard can be tough to work with. Add to that my inclination to create from scratch, rather than use previous templates, while adding extra to the mix, necessitate being managed at times to meet reality and deadlines for more tedious, routine tasks. And so Nat’s perceptive diligence on hyper-drive (really, there is no other way to describe it) and her no-nonsense demeanor is exactly what I never knew I needed. She is intuitive in managing and complementing my strengths while rounding out my shortcomings in her usual warm, witty, typically self-deprecating way. Whenever we’ve had differences of opinion or difficult conversations, the mutual respect borne through the years fills the briefly awkward space, each of us eventually trusting the other’s intention and growing in perspective as a result. We see-saw effortlessly like the best of work partners, balancing each other out, providing a hop and a lift when the other is down, or hands up and laughter when all else fails.

I feel lucky to have worked with her this long and while I am happy for her with what lies ahead, and excited to work with Thabo too, it will be very hard not to feel the void when she moves on. She has been a big part of the last seven years of our school’s culture and its many, many  successes in primary. She leaves us an even warmer, homier, more conscientious community that can now tell you exactly what is an avo in the arvo if you’re on your way to a bottle-o. She’ll probably be mad that I’ve written all this, because it just isn’t her style, but truly it has been my privilege to learn from and work alongside this gem of a colleague and beloved friend.

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