Brisbane Catholic Education Office Executive Director Pam Betts never set out to become a senior leader in Catholic education. She has always just worked to give her heart and soul to whatever role was given to her.
American fashion designer Anne Klein once said it’s not clothes that change the world but the women who wear them. It’s certainly true of the leading lady of Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women in 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has managed to gain worldwide attention for her policies and not just her blazers.
For a jacket collector like Brisbane’s first female executive director of Catholic Education Pam Betts, Merkel is a fine example of a woman leader who understands that what you do is more important than what you wear.
‘It’s interesting about women in leadership and how we dress’, Pam says. ‘You’ll notice that Angela Merkel – who I think is a fine leader and her advocacy for refugees I really deeply admire – has stated that she doesn’t want people to notice what she wears, but to notice her as a person and as a leader.’
Fashion is hardly the priority for the Brisbane-born woman in charge of ensuring 139 Catholic schools in the Brisbane archdiocese are on track to prepare young people for the future.
Since Pam took over the role in 2013, there has been a 7% increase in student numbers enrolled at Brisbane Catholic Education (BCE) schools, making a total of 72,270 students.
One of her future development plans for BCE is to open another 20 Catholic schools in the next 20 years.
A strong single woman and a steadfast educator with more than 30 years’ experience in Catholic education, Pam only ever dreamed of becoming a teacher.
‘I never remember wanting to do anything but teaching’, she says. ‘That was always my dream and I knew I’d be a teacher.’
She knew this even when she played with other kids in her own backyard.
‘I had a dear friend who lived across the road, we’re still dear friends’, Pam says. ‘Every now and then she reminds me, “Remember you used to try and teach us, like you were a teacher”. I must have been dreadful!
‘Dad set me up – he painted a blackboard and we had this place next to the car garage and I’d set that up with chairs, drag all these neighbourhood children in and I’d pretend they were my class and I’d teach them. Sad really, isn’t it?’
The makeshift backyard classroom was different to the real thing.
‘So first year of teaching is tough’, says Pam, who went on to complete an Environmental Science degree and a Diploma of Education. ‘It’s a new job, you’re usually new in the workforce, but it didn’t dampen my spirits.’
Instead, Pam created a name for herself in four Catholic schools across Brisbane, including her former high school, Our Lady’s College in Annerley, where she received an education from the Sisters of St Joseph.
‘They gave us a fabulous education and foundation, particularly as women’, Pam says. ‘In girls from Our Lady’s...there’s a confidence that’s not arrogant but a confidence to give it a go and you never know you might be successful, which I think is reflected in Mary MacKillop.
‘I use a saying that is attributed to Mary MacKillop...that Catholic education is about allowing young people to become the person that God created them to be. That’s what makes me get out of bed every day.
‘It is about allowing young people, just as the Sisters of St Joseph and the Presentation Sisters did for me...to go into the world and engage in that world, not for personal gain, not so you can have the flash house, the big car, but to make a difference in the world and treat people with respect.’
Interestingly, Pam never mapped out a plan to sit at the top of BCE, even admitting she never knew what an executive director did.
‘I’ve always focused on what I’m doing and put my heart and soul into it because you can’t waste a day dreaming of what comes next’, she says.
While she never dreamed of it, what eventually came next was a ‘circuitous route’ to the top, accepting jobs in around eight different upper-management roles (something which made her father, a tax officer of 40 years, cringe) including a position implementing GST in all Queensland Catholic schools.
Pam’s gender was only ever a point of conversation in one role – her job as executive director of the Christian Brothers’ schools, which made her ‘a female in an all-male order’.
‘People would say “You’re the only woman in this meeting” and I’d say, “Really?”’ Pam remarks.
‘You just stopped noticing because it’s about the work and you’re working with people who are professionals and treat you with respect and you treat them with respect.’
When Pam eventually applied for the job as executive director of BCE, it was a time of apprehension and change, not only because her predecessor David Hutton was stepping down, but the Archdiocese had recently seen in a new Archbishop, Mark Coleridge.
Pam’s colleagues quietly egged her on to take up the executive director’s seat, but the question begged – would they appoint a woman in a role previously inherited by three men?
They did. ‘And I’m still here and still going strong’, Pam says.
Her personal strength and deep faith has helped her carry Brisbane Catholic schools through one of the toughest moments for the Catholic Church in Australia – the Royal Commission.
‘Once you’re in a position like this, if you can’t bear those times and continue on and be a sign of hope in an organisation like ours, you probably shouldn’t be in the position, dare I say’, she says.
The mission of her role is now to use education as a tool for amplifying the voiceless and marginalised in society.
‘We see from the Royal Commission and the horrendous statistics around domestic violence, and our refugee and asylum seekers, the people’s voices have been taken away from them’, Pam says.
‘So if in education we can give young people a voice, allow them to speak up for those who don’t have a voice, then we can make our world a better place.’
View the reflection questions and activities for 'Becoming the best you can be’ here