Leanne Hunter

Teacher, spa maven, mother.

This was a bit of a special interview for me, because this is my mum, Leanne. Now this might seem like a little bit of nepotism, and my sister will most definitely call me a suck up, but my mum is one of the people in my life who has inspired me the most. To work hard, to be a caring, loving human, and to bring joy and light into the world.

A self-proclaimed below-average student, Leanne started teachers college at the tender age of 17, with a determination to keep furthering her education beyond just learning a skill. A teaching career that has now spanned around 40 years (with a break somewhere in the middle), she is renowned and celebrated for her innovative and exceptionally creative approach to the classroom, becoming a much-loved and much-requested leader for students and teachers alike.

In a stroke of chance and perfect timing, Leanne bought the very first two franchises of the highly successful Endota Day Spa, in Mornington and Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula, mid-way through her career. I, for one, will attest (I was her receptionist, manager and spa therapist) to the year(s) without a day off, as she and her business partner Wendy Hood helped build the businesses, as well as the brand’s exceptional reputation, from the ground up. Never again do any of us want to stand in a tent at the Mornington Races giving out free hand massages on a 40 degree day!

The pair sold businesses off at the height of its success, and without an ounce of regret, besides maybe the loss of free treatments (or maybe that’s just me). Not one to sit still or even contemplate retirement, at least as long as my dad is spending like it’s going out of fashion, Leanne is back in the now-virtual year six classroom, helping guide our female leaders of the future.

I spoke to her about teaching now and then, how expectations around the role have changed, taking the leap to start a business in your 40s, and how her fear of failure has ensured she’d never settled for less than she knows she can achieve.

Mum & I

Leanne Hunter is…

Driven by a desire to never give up. I think it is part of my personality that I can’t bear the thought that I will fail at something. So I think with everything in my life I’ve been motivated by either not letting someone down, or meeting expectations that probably weren’t even there half the time. But in my own head that they were expectations that I didn’t want to quit.

I had that strong desire to succeed in areas that people wouldn’t have thought I could do. So for example, I hadn’t done very well at high school, I was only just probably a below-average student. Not a thinker, not an inquirer, not someone that looked for anything other than what the teachers told me, not really that interested in a lot of the things I was learning. The only thing that I really liked was the artistic side of things, and that really wasn’t all that available to us in those days. You had to be a really good drawer or something similar.

I also came from a family that didn’t have higher education as a family background – no one had gone on to tertiary in any sense, most people in the family hadn’t even finished high school past about year eight. But I think I was wanting to push myself that little bit further and meeting those needs in myself to do something that no one else had done.

What do you do and when did you decide this was what you wanted to do with your life?

After a big break I’m back teaching – I taught for about 27 years and had a huge break, about 12 years and have gone back to education again.

In making that decision, I think it was one of those things I landed in once I decided I wasn’t going to be a nurse, I wasn’t going be a hairdresser, and I wasn’t going to work at the bank. They were your other big three jobs when you were a girl in my era. No one would ever put it in your mind that you might be an artist or anything else, I just didn’t come from that sort of background. I came from a working class background where you needed a skill. I just decided I wasn’t going to be one of those skilled people, I was going to go on and keep going with school. But at the same time, didn’t really have the super smarts.

My logical conclusion at the end of it, with the scores that I had, was teacher’s college. So, I puddled my way through that for three years.

Teaching in the age of shoulder pads

Obviously you had the break in the middle, but you’ve been teaching for over 40 years. I can imagine the education system has changed quite a lot in that time, what, in your opinion, have been the biggest changes, both good and bad?

I think I came in at an era where education has headed back and forward to a few times, which was more your inquiry style of teaching, and it’s what I’m back doing now. Inquiry is leading the charge through the International Baccalaureate that is creeping into lots of the schools, particularly down here on the Mornington Peninsula.

I started in an era where it probably was more teacher-driven, where you used to write your own curriculum – though there was a little book that you came out with and which had what you were meant to achieve by the end of each year. I was lucky enough to work at a school in Ripponlea, which was very different back then to what it is now. And I worked with some really creative and innovative people. I was in the lower primary area, as is what would happen to most young girls when you came out of teachers college. Very rarely were you put up into the senior part of the school – that was saved for the few men or the more experienced women.

I worked with these really creative women who’d worked in preschools and they all did this inquiry-style teaching. And I think it just ignited something in me, that artistic, creative side that held me in good stead for a long time and is pretty much what I’m still doing.

Has there been any kind of negative changes?

I think every time you have a situation where the kids can’t read, the kids can’t write, the kids can’t spell, the kids don’t know maths, it would go back to this teacher-driven, top-down type of direction that always came from the administration and drove the curriculum at the children, rather than with them.

Even today, it’s still very prevalent where you’re not asking the children what they think, you’re telling them what they need to know. I think it’s one of those cycles that we’ll get into every ten or so years, where there’s this reaction when it looks like we’re falling behind world standards. And you can sort of understand it from an administrator’s point of view, but from a teaching point of view, it’s fairly tedious. I find it really uninspiring and very difficult to deliver that type of curriculum.

Do you think there’s still a lack of flexibility within the system, especially if your kid’s not a typical classroom learner, which fosters that more kinaesthetic, hands-on learning?

I think school’s always going to be difficult for those sorts of kids. There are plenty of schools set up that have hoped to address that. Others have tried to address it, but when you get into mainstream school, you’ve always got some hierarchical, ministerial directives from the government as to where they think education needs to go.

One of the improved areas that’s come out of all these years of being more directed, is that we’ve now got a really great, and probably much easier to address, curriculum that is Australia-wide. A huge amount of thought over the years has been given to what the outcomes are that should be addressed at each level as you learn. So that’s really amazing. And I think we’ve got a lot more flexibility depending on your school, by the way in which you deliver that curriculum.

With friends and colleagues from Toorak College

A large portion of your teaching has been at girls’ school. Do you think the expectations on girls, and what they can and should achieve has changed over the years?

I think one of my biggest wake-up calls was probably starting at Toorak College, when I suddenly realised that here was this really powerful and educated group of women. They had been educated at private schools, they’d come from a fair bit of wealth and they had the expectation that education wasn’t just there to be mucked around with, that education was so important. And I think for the first time ever in my life, I saw that the role of women change – even if you were a mum. These women valued education in a way that I never had, even though I’d probably been teaching close to ten years. Up until that point, I’d never seen teaching as a career, I’d only seen it as a job.

And that’s where I really first saw that power of girls being educated, that education led to choice, that education gave careers that were outside of anything I could have ever dreamed of. These people knew things that I’d never known, there networking that happened just as a result of the fact that you’ve got a mum in your class who was a doctor, one who was a chemist, and a mum who’s been a racing car driver.

I don’t think the expectation for girls changed while I’ve been at this school, because of the sort of had experience there. However, I think my expectation have changed enormously over the years of what I think children need and what they’re entitled to as an education, to what was previously possible.

Would you say that working there has helped in terms of your own career as well, in terms of opportunity and leadership roles?

Even when I first came out of teacher’s college, because women were the predominant employees of the education department, there were lots of opportunities. It was after only a few years that I got to a position of responsibility at state school. I had opportunity to go back to university, where they paid me to do the deaf school teaching, after which I did visiting teacher service for the deaf.

I think I let go of a lot of positions of responsibility by swapping and changing a lot. That was my choice. I was probably always looking for something different, a little bit itchy feet. I think being somewhere different, somewhere innovative, working with people that were different, you got opportunities in a different way. You got to show what you could do just by doing it. My preference was and still is in the classroom; being out of the classroom never really interested me all that much.

You left teaching after 27 years to buy the first two franchises of Endota Day Spa in 2003, which was a pretty risky venture when the business was pretty much non-existent. How hard was that decision and what made you decide to take the leap?

It wasn’t really a decision. I think the underlying thing was that I’d really taught for a long time. I’d probably taught as long as some people ever had had a career in teaching. I wasn’t dissatisfied with teaching, so it wasn’t the reason I left. I actually had a great job, I was doing some fun things, but I think in that my personality is I’m always looking for something interesting and new and different, and an opportunity arose. So I took it and worked my guts out for 12 years, and I didn’t look back.

It was advertised in the paper wasn’t it?

Yeah it was a local Mornington Peninsula paper, and I was sitting with my friend Wendy Hood, while our girls were playing tennis, and she said, “What do you think about this?” And I said, “Oh yeah, I’d give it a try”. She was in the computer industry and it was starting to struggle. So the opportunity was one of those things that if I’d really thought about it for a long time, I may not have done it.

But things just fell into place, where it was like, well I’ll do it if I got a loan from the bank, but I don’t think the bank would give me a loan. I went to the bank, I stumbled on a temporary manager who was a female. And she was like, yeah, I’m going to give women a chance. I think had I gone to a male bank manager, I may never have got the first loan that we needed.

The house that we had at the time was probably reasonably valuable and my husband also had a teaching job. So there was good money coming in, regardless of whether the business made money or not. I think I was just lucky. It was just one little thing that fell into place after another, even buying the franchise so early was in its own way lucky.

From memory, Nanna wasn’t too impressed, was she?

I don’t think there were many people in my life that said don’t do it. I got a lot of support. But I think Nanna was part of that whole generation of – you’ve got a great job, you’ve got good income, why on earth would you throw that away? And I think that was her wording was – why would you throw that away for something that you don’t know what you’re really going to? I think my answer was, well, I can always go back to teaching! I think too, people were excited for me. But yeah, Nanna wasn’t all that wrapped. So moving back in with her, if it all went belly-up would have been fun!

Endota is now one of the biggest spa franchises in Australia, but what was it like, not only entering at the start of that business, but pretty much the start of the spa industry in Australia?

It was kind of exciting, at the same time as a bit daunting, I think because of what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. At the start people would ring us asking to send someone out to fix their spa bath! And we’ve have to be like, we don’t quite do that.

We originally had three little rooms in a tiny little shop in Mornington, plus three kind of very ordinary rooms at a big hotel in Red Hill in the pool area. It was so noisy, it was smelly, and we had no control over anything that happened at that place.

But just one step after another one, once again, things fell into place. We were lucky there were people in the franchise that started to come in that had a lot of business background. Also the women who started the franchise were probably really open to a lot of input from us. So we were able to run incredibly successfully and had enough good people around.

You were almost a bit autonomous at the start.

A little bit. I think the women who started the business were so busy trying to grow the brand that they were looking for input from the people that were starting to do well. We always used to say, if we hadn’t done well, the brand wouldn’t have done well. And that is a truth because they needed us to be showing other people that were potentially interested in the brand that it could be successful.

What often was the missing link, was that people thought it could be successful by putting someone else in charge. The reason ours was so successful at the start was that we were prepared, and when I say we, I mean my business partner and I, as well as our husbands, were prepared to work seven days a week, busting our boiler, with one of us at each location, not taking a wage and growing our business all the time.

We worked so hard to really get that name out there. We’d go to Bunnings ladies’ nights and stand in the freezing cold in the middle of July at the end of an aisle, handing out vouchers.

Those days at the races when we were giving free footbaths!

We did some horrendous things when you look back, but we didn’t realise they were going to be horrendous, nor did we think they were horrendous at the time. We had people come in from massage schools that needed extra hours, that would come and do head and shoulder messages for hours in freezing cold or stinking heat of the races. We didn’t do them for too long, but we had to do them.

That leads into my next question, because you didn’t initially have many skills that it would take to run a business like that – you didn’t have marketing experience, you didn’t have sales experience, you didn’t have massage experience. How did you make that work?

I guess it’s just throwing yourself in there, and having to learn on the hop. Wendy and I had different interests in the business, which was a real advantage too. She was much more focused and very good at the bookwork and making sure that the numbers worked. And I was just happy to be at the spas, doing rosters, thinking of creative marketing opportunities and running that side of things.

We were learning to do things to just get the name out there – handing out 10% off cards or flyers, anything that got our name out there. It just was a whole lot of things that we were prepared to do to make this work. But also in there saying that, there was that part of me that couldn’t bear the thought that this could fail. My motivation has always been, I can do this. I can prove to you, I can do this.

By the time you sold it, you had built two extremely reputable spas. What prompted you to leave and what are you most proud of from your time owning Endota?

We decided to sell Mornington to people that were keen on the brand, but wanted an established spa. It was great being paid to let go of something when it probably was at its absolute prime, and then watch those new owners make it just as good in their own way.

The sale of Red Hill came about when Wendy and her husband had decided to move to Sydney for his work, and suddenly it looked like I was going to be running the spa on my own. And at this stage, Wendy and I were doing a nine day on and five day off roster and quite enjoying our life. And I couldn’t imagine going back to that seven days a week, running everything, managing everything, I just was not interested in doing that. So we decided there and then that it was going to be sold and our manager was very keen to be part of the brand still. So we sold it and she’s still running that one very successfully.

I think probably what we’re most proud of is that we not only stuck it out, and stuck it out for a really long time, watching it grow from three little rooms, to a huge space where we were constantly booked out. Also building the brand, being part of the growth of the larger business, and knowing that what you were selling was a good business. You weren’t trying to fob something off that didn’t work to someone else – we knew you were passing over something really that worked.

Endota Mornington

You’re back in the classroom now and it’s very strange time for education. How are you finding online learning?

At first I was excited by the chance to really improve my computer skills, which have actually gone through the roof. I think what I’ve found the most strange is that lack of connection that you’d normally get in the classroom. Teachers don’t become teachers to do what we’re doing now. You want that interaction with the kids, and interaction with the families. You don’t want to be separated from them by a computer screen. I don’t love computers myself, I’m just not a computer person.

I hardly sit down at all at school, so I find that really difficult to sit for hours. I also feel the frustration of not being able to help those kids who struggle – if you’re in the classroom, you’d be there within seconds to help them. But at the same time, once we went into lock down again, I think there was a little bit of that Stockholm Syndrome, where you suddenly start to look forward to what’s become normal in your day. I now get up a whole heap later, and even though the day is intense, there’s less of a day at the same time. It’s just all been about adjusting and adapting while we have to.

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