Karen Rohrs always knew she would be a teacher.
“I never considered any other profession,” she says. “I knew what I wanted to do even in preschool.”
She is the new principal of Darwin’s independent Essington School, which tops the Territory’s graduation results league every year.
Ms Rohrs was working at an international school in Denmark when she and her husband Ken decided it was time for a change.
She had three possible offers – two schools overseas and Essington.
The maths teacher made the best choice by opting for the NT – partly because she wanted to return home to Australia, but more importantly because the school perfectly suits her philosophy of teaching.
She obviously believes strongly that everything possible should be done to ensure students leave school with a good level of education, grounded in strong values and a commitment to make a difference through their words and actions each day.
“My parents told me when I was growing up that a good education was critical. It opens doors. The better educated you are, the more choices in life, the more opportunities you have.”
But Ms Rohrs also believes that schools should not be satisfied with academic or VET achievements alone – they should also nurture young people to become confident, decent and contributing members of society.
“We want our students to be wellrounded, culturally aware and to go out into the world to make a difference.”
Achieving these demands means treating every student as an individual.
“Each student is on their own learning journey. Students have different abilities, passions, temperaments and aspirations. It is finding out where they are and taking them to the next step.
“Some students need more support than others at different times, in different ways. We provide that support. We have an excellent team at Essington – they truly care about the students and want the best for them.
“Learning is a social activity and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
The school’s suite of age-appropriate wellbeing programs ensures that no student falls through the net.
“If students aren’t in the right headspace their education suffers. Their well-being is paramount to being ready to learn and building connections.
“If covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we need to have the qualities of adaptability, initiative and resilience.”
Pastoral care partners include Headspace, Beyond Blue, the Be You program, Life Education’s Healthy Harold, Territory Families and the Rite Journey.
The development of mindfulness, social media education, bullying and harassment awareness, and personal safety skills are embedded in the curriculum and wellbeing activities.
Time each day is dedicated to checking in with students.
In addition, a weekly wellbeing lesson is in place in the Middle School and Senior College.
Open communication of students with teachers and peers is encouraged.
Mentors and homeroom teachers provide wellbeing support to students, including academic progress reviews, career pathways information and help with study skills, study organisation and subject choice.
The school has a school counsellor, who collaborates with students, staff, and families. And it is seeking to appoint a defence school mentor to provide additional assistance to students and families when required.
Essington offers a broad range of after-school clubs and activities to fuel creativity, imagination, and exploration. As part of making learning an adventure, students experience the world beyond the classroom through field trips, camps, and after-school opportunities.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award program is available for Middle and Senior School students.
The non-competitive youth development program requires students to learn a skill, improve their physical wellbeing, volunteer in their community, and experience a team adventure in a new environment.
The school has one of the highest enrolments in Australia – more than 750 of its students have achieved bronze, silver or gold over the past 15 years.
Essington, which covers preschool to Year 12, is undergoing a program of upgrades, including improvements to classrooms and the installation of a teaching kitchen.
“The classroom anchors learning, and the upgrades provide light and bright spaces, and increased student independence,” Ms Rohrs says.
The school is reviewing the masterplan and exploring options for an undercover shaded area.
Having lived abroad for over 20 years, and working in international schools, Ms Rohrs loves the diversity at the school.
“We think globally and attract students from everywhere. We have a diverse community in Darwin and that is reflected at this school. Our diversity extends beyond the 40 nationalities, gender and neurodiversity.”
Students bring their own experiences and backgrounds to make Essington a richer environment.
“Cultural understanding begins with awareness; we encourage everyone to build connections, learn from each other and celebrate differences.”
Sydney-born Ms Rohrs gained a degree in secondary education, specialising in maths, masters in education leadership and administration and post-graduate work in special education.
She was teaching in a 1200-strong Catholic high school in New South Wales in 2000 and studying special education at the same time when an offer to work at an international school in Hong Kong suddenly came up.
“Teaching in Hong Kong wasn’t on my radar at the time, but I jumped at the chance.”
She worked in Hong Kong for 15 years, serving in both section and school-wide roles.
Ms Rohrs met her husband at the school and they married in 2004. He was also a teacher, working most of his career in international schools.
The couple then spent six years at an international school in Copenhagen before moving to Darwin September 2021.
They have picked up so many interesting mementoes on their travels around the world – a water puppet from Myanmar, a large Masai beaded necklace from Kenya, pottery from Poland and Turkey – that a neighbour in Denmark said:
“You could charge an entrance fee to your house.”
Essington School has created a strong community culture over the past 33 years.
“Everyone notices it,” says Ms Rohrs. “Families considering sending their children to Essington mention it when they are taken on a tour of the school.
“Yes, there are schools with better and newer buildings. But something special has been created at Essington – inclusiveness, learning, caring. People want to get to know you, want to welcome you and hear your stories. “We have staff passionate about their work, great kids and supportive parents. That partnership is the key to supporting students learning.
“We are grateful to work with parents who are invested in their child’s education. While partnership can be challenging, due to different expectations, goals, and communication expectations, it is essential for student success.
“Each of us brings a different expertise to the conversation, but we share a common purpose – to support students in being the best they can be, each day. It is this purpose that fuels our collaboration.
“Our students are happy to be here; you can tell that from their demeanour. They smile when they see you and say, ‘Hi Miss – how are you?’
“They want to share ideas, visit previous teachers, join in activities. There is always lots of laughter, play and engagement in learning. Essington is a safe, welcoming and encouraging environment where it is okay to be yourself.
“We are a school built by the community for the community. My hope is that the emotion we evoke is one of pride – in our personal and collective accomplishments and the difference we can make within the world beyond school.
“There’s a different feel about this place. And that means we are doing something special – we are igniting a love of learning.”