Di's boarding career ends with a COVID bang

Di Kerr says goodbye to 17-year boarding career in Brisbane

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Retiring Clayfield College head of boarding Di Kerr, pictured with her grandaughters Olivia and Darcy, who are boarders at the college. Picture - Jessie Persse.

Retiring Clayfield College head of boarding Di Kerr, pictured with her grandaughters Olivia and Darcy, who are boarders at the college. Picture - Jessie Persse.

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A well-known face in Queensland boarding schools, Di Kerr will retire this month after more than 17 years caring for girls.

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A well-known face in Queensland boarding schools, Di Kerr will retire this month after more than 17 years caring for girls.

But with the impact of COVID19 on boarding houses across Australia, there was no chance of her 'retiring quietly'.

Ms Kerr has been Clayfield College's head of boarding since 2011, following boarding roles at both Ipswich Girls Grammar School and St Margaret's since 2003.

At 65, she will remain as the weekend boarding supervisor at Clayfield but looks forward to spending some more time gardening, walking, sorting photos, and going to the beach from her Gold Coast home.

Spending time with her grandchildren is also on the semi-retirement agenda, but fortunately for Ms Kerr, two of her grandaughters - Olivia, 15, and Darcy, 13, are boarders at Clayfield.

Apart from her career in boarding, Ms Kerr has had a long association with rural and regional Queensland.

Growing up in Rockhampton and attending Rockhampton Girls Grammar, her daughter, teacher Jessie Persse became the Queensland Country Life's The Farmer's Wife after she met and married Thallon grazier Charlie Persse.

"With Jessie's three children growing up on a property, I have a thorough understanding of the pressures and joys of children growing up in the bush today, which has helped me immensely in my role," she said.

No understanding or experience could have prepared her for the impact of COVID-19 on boarding schools, which didn't even exist when Ms Kerr made the decision to retire at the beginning of the year.

According to Clayfield College principal Andrew Cousins, Ms Kerr has done an outstanding job preparing the school for the boarders' return, developing the COVID-19 safe plan to address Queensland Health directives and AHPPC advice, and implementing new cleaning regimes and social distancing practices.

"Di is a much-loved member of our Clayfield family, and I sincerely thank her for her commitment and energy. She has provided an exceptional level of care for our boarders throughout her time at Clayfield College," Dr Cousins said.

Ms Kerr said some changes in the boarding house due to COVID-19 were very positive including the focus on general cleaning and handwashing as well as the abolition of the boarders' smorgasbord.

Over almost two decades she has seen many other changes in boarding, including a delayed start for some children, thanks to the impact of long-term drought on rural families.

"More boarders now come from regional towns such as Roma, Goondiwindi, Gladstone, and Emerald to access coaching and training in sports such as swimming or dancing," she said. "We also have many more local students boarding whose parents have jobs that require them to work away from home."

Ms Kerr said international boarders were also from a far broader mix of countries including Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands, China and Hong Kong.

Technology has changed boarders like it has changed the world, but Ms Kerr feels COVID has undone some of its negative influences.

"With the forced isolation, I have seen that girls are craving company coming off their devices, which is a real positive."

In the last 20 years, boarding staff have also significantly changed.

"The stereotypical older matronly woman is no more. We now have a great mix of staff with several who are younger university students and great role models for the girls," Ms Kerr said. "Boarding staff are also more qualified, doing ABSA courses in areas such as mental health first aid and child protection."

She believes the future of boarding schools in Queensland is bright, even despite the impact of COVID-19.

"Like many parents, my daughter Jessie has loved having her girls at home recently. But the girls have missed their friends and being a part of school and boarding life.

"The happy mix of international, local, country and indigenous at boarding schools works well and give the students opportunities that they would not find elsewhere.

"In the global world in which we now live, these are some of the benefits that will keep boarding schools thriving."

There have been lots of tears this week as Ms Kerr prepares to say goodbye but sadly no hugs, thanks to COVID-19.

In her 17 years, she formed many significant bonds with girls, particularly with those who have been through trauma or hardship such as death or divorce during their education.

"It's been tough getting them through these times, but the sense of achievement is immense. The bond I have formed with these girls is lifelong and they are relationships I will forever treasure," she said.

Clayfield College's marketing and enrolments director Kathryn Searle, who has been on many boarding tours with Ms Kerr in regional Queensland, will take over as Head of Boarding.

She too has a strong connection with rural Queensland, having attended St Mary's College as a boarder in Charters Towers.

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