Monday, December 23, 2013

Spirituality in a School?

I said to someone recently that my life has ben immeasurably changed, for the better, by having been part of this school, and by becoming part of these young peoples lives, and thats so true.

When I came here three years ago, I knew my life was going to change, and it sure has.

Most of my life I have lived and taught and lead in fairly typical white middle class communities, with a few exceptions at times.

Coming to live, and lead a school, in a predominantly Maori rural village was going to mean I needed to learn a new way of being, and quickly.

But its taken me three years to really understand what I’m learning.

As a staff we meet on a Monday to begin our week together with karakia (prayer)  and waiata (song).
We close the week on a Friday after a positive reflection session with a karakia and waiata together.

Our learning communities (groups of students that learn together) meet each morning and all student and staff start the day together with karakia and waiata. Most learning communities do the same thing at the end of the day.

The idea of prayer in a secular school would have concerned me in another environment.

In our environment it is the right thing to do.

We attend a lot of tangis, (extended funerals) I have often attended tangis of people I don’t know over the last three years, just because it is important in our context to show that respect to the wider whanau (family) as well as the deceased person.

I go to kapahaka wananga (haka group practices) and I see kids , who can be hoha (difficult) in a classroom be completely focussed late into the night. I see something different come into them, or over them.

We blessed our new school last week and I got that in  a way I wouldn’t have necessarily in the past. I understood the traditions that were happening, and a lot of the korero (speeches) that were being spoken, in a way I definitely wouldn’t have been able to three years ago.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but this year I got something else. Somehow I just got it a whole lot more this year. I am not religious,and I wouldn’t say I’ve found religion, but I have found a much deeper level of spirituality. 

One day I went to a tangi of someone I barely knew and I just got it. I got the spirituality that comes with tangis. I got the spirituality that comes with the Maori culture. I got why there is so much crying. I cried for 24 hours. I went to sleep crying and I woke up crying and I just got it. And after I came out the other side of that, I just got spirituality on another whole level.

And once you understand  it- that whole spirituality that comes with being part of the Maori culture, or being immersed in it, it doesn’t go away.

And getting that, helps me learn with our kids and our whanau. 
It helps me learn with them. 
It helps me help them to learn. 

And it helps us keep developing our school community. 

We talk a lot about “I” words at TKAS. A big “I” word for us is Identity. We know and embrace the fact our young people need to fully develop, and understand their own identity in order to make the most out of their learning opportunities.

Learning isn’t something that can happen in isolation at TKAS. We know we need to understand ourselves and those around us in order to make the most of our learning. 

And we need to understand and fully embrace the Maori culture we are immersed in in order to make the most of our learning opportunities. And when we embrace that culture, we have to understand the unspoken, and sometimes covert as well as overt spirituality that comes with that culture.

As we wind up our third year I think thats a pretty good understanding to have.

Our core business is learning, but so much has to happen for optimal learning to really take place, anywhere. 

How much do you embrace this in your learning institution? Is learning something that happens in isolation? 

Or is learning a part of the culture of your students, and do you make their culture a part of your learning?

And does that mean that learning looks different from school to school? And for groups within schools? And is that okay? I say yes.

My life has certainly been immeasurably enriched by being exposed to what I have been in the last three years.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Packing Up, Letting Go, Moving On

Three years ago we moved into an old run down site while our new school was built.... 6 to 12 months I was told.

And this old run down site has served us well for three years.

Its made us understand that property and flash stuff and space and room aren’t the most important things in a school.

We’ve learnt that having running water and toilets that flush properly aren’t always the most important things.

We’ve learnt that with a bit of stubborn determination and a bit of luck in appointing a teacher who was a master electrician and a knowledgeable “IT Geek,” (his terms) we can run 150 devices simultaneously through a whole lot of temporary cabling, wifi units and even more good luck- except when it rained and we got ‘weather fade!'

We’ve learnt to understand why kids wear no shoes to school in the balmy 27 degree days that hit us from November to March and why they wear gumboots in the rain of winter when the ground turns to rivers in hours. (Even though we keep trying to get them to stop wearing the infernal gumboots!) 

And we learnt that focussing on the gumboots or what they wear is just not the most important thing. And we will keep enforcing uniform, but we’ll always remember that there are more important things too. 

So if we learnt that all that is just not that important what did we learn was important?

We’ve learnt to figure whats important in teaching and learning without the benefits of flash buildings and furniture. 

We’ve learnt to tackle adversity. 

And we’ve learnt the lessons from the geese story- when someone at the peak of the formation gets tired, we all took turns pushing ahead and doing the leading.

But what was the biggest think we learnt?


It was the absolute key to us making a difference to these kids.

We had to build a relationships with these kids. Very few of us knew any of them at the start. And building a true relationship with young people takes time. They were naturally suspicious of us, they were very wary and some of them were absolutely aggressively anti everything we stood for. But we persisted, and over time they gave some as well.

To sit at a senior dinner last week and hear Year 13 students speak without being asked to all about how much they hated us and what the school was doing at the beginning, because it was so far from their understanding of what school should look like three years ago, but that now they get it. That they get we are just here to help them and help them find their way in this big world. That was both heart breaking and heart warming in the same moment. So much energy spent fighting us at the start but where they have come to makes that all worth it.

To see those big Year 12 boys, who as Year 9 and 10 boys wanted to do nothing but throw things at me, refuse to complete anything, be completely non compliant and draw gang symbols, now come past you at the end of the day and stop just to say “hey, whats your day been like, have a good night,” and even sometimes stop and just give you a hug goodbye not for any special reason but just because they can, kind of says it all really.

Our kids hug each other, a lot. 
Our kids and teachers hug, maybe not as much but they do. 
Our teachers hug each other. Our kids see that too. 
Long may all of that last. 

I get the reasons some schools have no touch policies but that will never be us. Just wouldn’t be right here. Touch is important in our school. Touch is important for our kids. And touch is important in our staffroom.

Relationships. Its what has turned a bunch of strangers three years ago into some of the tightest, closest staff members and friends I have seen.

Maybe its the nature of a small school. Maybe its the nature of a remote school. But our teachers aren’t just colleagues. They are friends too. And that, of course at times brings its own difficulties. But it makes our school a pretty special place to be.

And it makes endings sad. In fact in the last six months I’ve made a number of the hardest, toughest farewell speeches Ive ever made in the 15 years I have been a Principal. 

Through the years we have said goodbye to some really special and talented teachers. Some of them have gone far away. Some of them remain close. But we know there are always threads linking them and us to the time we spent in these old run down buildings. 

They were really special times.

See in that time we built a school. Not the buildings but the fabric. 

A school that has an absolute vision, and is on a mission to meet that vision. 

We know what we don’t want to be. And we are figuring out what we do want to be.

This week we said goodbye to our students for the year. Some of our seniors students are moving out into the world on their own now. 

And we also said goodbye to a number of staff. 

And so their day to day presence in our lives is broken but those threads remain. 

You could not have been part of what we have been for the last three years and remain unaffected by it. Parts of them remain with us, and they take parts of us with them.

And now we prepare to say goodbye to our old run down buildings and the property which has served us way better than anyone maybe even realises. 

Because while we’ve been building the school vision and being we‘ve had an amazing group of architects, builders and contractors building this amazing new school building for us down the road.

So over the next week we pack up the remains of 3 years of development in order to move into those new buildings. We figure out what needs to come with us and what doesn’t. Its time to shed some of those early struggles and move on with confidence and excitement. 

But we take with us the threads of those staff and students who have already moved on. 

We take bits of all of you into that new building with us next week when we bless it before we begin the task of moving into it ready for our learners to be back with us at the beginning of February.

A friend sent me this poem this week:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;

to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go. 

~ Mary Oliver 

And its a really poignant place to stop this blog post.

To those staff and students who have moved on, we let you go...but we keep a piece of you in our hearts, always.

To these buildings, you have actually been the making of us as a school. We let you go too. But we will remember our times with you with absolute fondness. You’ve helped us all focus on whats the most important.

We are excited about moving into a brand new modern learning environment. 

But let us never forget its not the buildings that make our school.

It’s the relationships. And it always will be.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Minecraft Story

Over the last couple of weeks I have been confronted with some really uneasy feelings about learning, and my own place in approach to learning,

A  couple of weekends ago I decided perhaps it was time for me to learn a  little of what minecraft was all about. If I was going to facilitate our students developing an inquiry plan around it how could I do that without having some grasp of what it is they are doing on there?

And the learning I did  was pretty confronting for myself. 

Being someone who has always considered themselves- and been considered by others- to be slightly visually and perceptional challenged- as witnessed by the fact I am apparently on the “don’t drive with her” staff list, how was I meant to move around this foreign world with oceans and skies that required me to operate on different levels  in order to survive the world. 

I spent most of the first hour falling into the ocean and having to climb my way back up form the ocean floor. I learnt to fly up above my building so that I could look at it from a different angle and figure out what was wrong with my building.

I learnt that  making a simple building was actually a complex task. I had to draw on my knowledge of area and perimeter and shapes and sizes. And I had to keep watching out because every time I dropped a brick I made a hole in the ice and was in danger of falling through. Finally, a friend who was also building on the same server kept coming over to my building intermittently and plugging up the holes i was making so I stopped falling through the water.

And really it was this collaboration that was the key to my being able to continue and persevere. Although my friend was really wanting to build their own thing and didn’t want to stop too much to help me, when I got really desperate, he was willing to either suggest something, come and help for a few moments or show me a way to control something on the control pad which helped. Knowing someone else was there if I really needed it and I had access to immediate help was a key to persevering for me. This was a revelation to me. I’ve always considered myself an independent and self managed learner- and indeed I am with words- because its what I am comfortable with learning. When I had to learn something that I was not comfortable with- either in content or context- I absolutely needed the power of collaboration- and it needed to be supportive collaboration. Someone who let me struggle for a while and get frustrated but stepped in before the levels of frustration became so high I gave up- and I honestly think I probably would have given up in under 10 minutes if i had been by myself.

What does this say about some of the situations I have put learners in in a classroom in the past? How many times have I said you just need to figure this out by yourself not with your mate. This was a key question I kept thinking to myself all afternoon.

When we ventured into the survival world and I got completely lost for over 30 minutes and couldn’t find my way back, in the end my friend had to come and look for me as I was hopelessly lost. Therefore he had to leave the mining he was doing to come and search for me. And he had to leave appropriate signals so that once he had found me we could find our way back to where the crafting table was. In the end he made a huge marking pole that I could see from all over the world so that the next time I got lost I could use this to find my way back. How many real-life lessons are there here?

And how do we facilitate the kids making connections to some of those real life situations? So they can articulate the learning they are doing.

I learnt that when I was doing something difficult I needed to talk out loud. 

I kind of knew this. I’d realised a few weeks ago when there was someone else in the room while I was re-timetabling on a database, how much I talked out loud constantly while doing it. I’m normally alone when I do stuff like that and hadn’t realised how much I did it out loud. 

But the entire time I was on minecraft I found myself telling myself out loud what I needed to know or where I was going wrong. And how many times have I said to students in a classroom- can you do your thinking inside your head as its distracting for other learners?

And when I was just starting to feel slightly proud of the piddly little very traditional building I had made I looked at what my friend had made in that time and felt very insubstantial. While I had built this little 4 by 4 brick house with a bed and a doorway he had built this amazing castle moat like fence right around my house. How did he even know how to do that? According to him he visualised it in is head before he started and then made the picture in his head in the game. So again i thought to myself well how do I even start because I just don’t see that picture in my head? And if I cant see that picture in my head but the kids can, then what pictures do I see in my head that I think the kids should see and that they simply can’t, just like I can’t picture that building before I start?

And when I thought that maybe it was about time to do something else because we must have been doing this for close to an hour, we checked the time and found out it was coming close to 3 hours we had been totally engrossed in this learning- it was enjoyable and challenging and fun- and yes, it was certainly learning.

And how many times have we said to kids in our classrooms right your 30 minutes for that learning is up now for the next learning- and how authentic is that to real learning engagement? 

So what were the main lessons for me
  • the power of  having a mentor who knew a little bit more than you but didn’t consider themselves an expert- someone who was discovering and exploring just a few steps ahead of yo
  • the power of collaboration- from someone who was prepared to make you work a little but was perceptive enough to jump in before you hit the total frustration wall
  • the power of talk-out loud- both with a learning partner and also self-talk
  • the importance of real time for learning

Now I know we deal with the realities of classroom learning on a daily basis. 

We have numerous achievement objectives we are meant to be meeting. We have students who have significant literacy and numeracy deficits. We have students in whom who we often lament the lack of curiosity and questioning. We never think we have enough hours in the day. 

Can letting these kids loose on minecraft a couple of times a week do something dramatic for their learning or not? 

What about the fact we are meant to be spending all our time on literacy and numeracy because our kids are mostly all “well below” national standards?

How do we facilitate it so they can acknowledge and articulate their learning in order to accelerate their learning across the curriculum? 

How do we harness this engagement into literacy and numeracy? 

How do we give them sustained times on something like minecraft to really get into it and balance this with all those other demands? 

How do we ensure we are not being completely dictated in the learning we support our students with by an arbitrary timetable? 

After a couple of weeks of playing I have more questions than answers. And just maybe that is the answer. If after 10 weeks of this the kids have a pile more questions than answers how bad a thing is that?

I recently read the book Why School? by Will Richardson- one of the best books on learning I have read in ages and as a bonus a real easy hour read. It was that good that I have bought a kindle copy for all teaching staff at TKAS and sent it to their ipads. I look forward to hearing their responses to the book. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lessons Learnt From Our Plants

At the beginning of each year we hold our staff induction.

In our first year induction went for 2 1/2 weeks. We began for the first three days on the local Marae getting to know each other and the big picture vision around learning at TKAS.  The remaining two weeks were spent getting to know the area: the infamous Amazing Race around Waikohu; continuing to get to know one another: lots of team building; and planning an initial scheme of learning for the first term: concept to be highlighted- dealing with change.

The induction period culminated with a powerful powhiri led by staff and the establishment board to welcome all students and whanau onto an old site but a new school.

Following the hakari and entertainment, staff gathered back together for a closing of the induction period where I presented them each with a photo frame with images of the last fortnight surrounding  the well known words to The Power of Geese.

These words have proven true for us time after time through the last three years. In fact I closed our end of term staff reflections this term by referring to them yet again. It’s been a challenging term and there have been times people have had to step up and move to the head of the “V” formation and take their turns leading, and some of our staff have really risen to the occasion when needed.

In Year 2 our induction, on a different local Marae, focussed around developing a language of learning and a commitment to professional learning. In what was becoming time honored tradition the induction ended with a quote and song and a presentation- this time of a photo frame with some pertinent quotes for the year ahead.

This year we had committed ourselves to becoming an an Enviro school. We were on another local Marae but our approach to the start of the year was quite different. We spent time getting to know about the whanau hanging in frames on the walls of the wharenui. We went for a bit of a hi koi to some places of interest- the old Marae site, the Urupa and of course the Kokomo- the much revered local swimming hole. 

We spent most of our time digesting and exploring the charter for the year with the main task being use the new school iPads to create a visual representation of the charter to share with each other.

Music played a large role in this induction with the immersion activity being me playing excerpts from 10 songs and staff members in teams making suggestions about how those particular songs might link to our charter for the year. (And yes that was accompanied by much complaining about my taste in music.!)

Given the focus on the environment for the year the induction time was concluded with me presenting all staff with a  mini house plant and charging them with growing their plant for the year, as a metaphor for how we are charged with growing our students. 

I used the song In the Garden (Terry Kelly) to illustrate this concept:

Think of all the people in your life that have left impressions on you
The ones who never let you down and those who were there each time you lost you way
All through your lifetime do remember the ones who really cared
Coz they were always there in the garden, where the flowers grow in the garden
The future will unfold
Thank god for the rivers and mountains and the valleys down below
Thank god for the teachers of our children so the garden can grow

Without a firm and guiding hand a tender sprout is lost among the weeds
Until your roots were firm and strong in the garden
Where the precious flowers grow in the garden
Where a better future will unfold

Thank god for the rivers and mountains and the valleys down below
Thank god for the teachers of our children so the garden can grow

So.............. after three terms where are the plants at? 

Each end of term we gather for reflections of the term. It has become one of our rituals as a staff.

This year reflections have been heightened as they begin with people bringing in their plants and sharing the stories of their growth, demise or anything in between. 

Yesterday we had stories about plants being Whangai (adopted) to their grandparents for some extra TLC but being regularly visited,

We had plants that had grown beyond all recognition through nothing but being given space and water. 

We had a plant whose carer bemoaned national standards. She explained that she was feeling good about her plant- she felt it be about the right standard until she got to school and saw another plant that was very well grown and she felt inferior, but then spotted another plant which had not fared so well and then felt really superior.

We had a plant who's carer was quite blunt about not being able or willing to care for plants and told us she really ignored her plant for the first two terms. But this term, having discovered Carol Dwecks work around mindsets she has started watering her plant and is wokring on changing her mindset about being able to care for plants and it is starting to thrive.

We had a digital representation of a plant because it's carer felt it was too comfortable nestled in its home surrounded by family and friends to be uprooted at this stage.

We had a plant that had been doing fine but its carer got a bit pressured into thinking it could do better and put too much effort into shining its leaves and other well-intended but interesting caring concepts. The carer had finally realized that he just needed to give it some space and let it do its own thing and juts be there to support it.

We had  a plant that had been left to itself for a little while but had managed to find what it needed to survive within the light and water available to it in the room it was left in. A nice metaphor for some of those students who don’t always get what they need for their growth but somehow find enough from limited stores to carry on.

We had plants of staff members who have left us during the year being cared for by other staff, ensuring their legacy lives on.

We had three teaching staff members absent along with their plants. 

One was with his wife as they were welcoming a new addition to their family. 
Another two were with whanau giving support in times of need. 

And that reminds me that it’s important for us to realise that we need to support and nurture our own loved ones- whanau and friends- and ourselves, in order to be able to support and nurture our learners.

So what have we learnt from caring for our plants?

  • That they all grow at different rates and speeds- as do our learners
  • That they all need different things fed to them and to be cared for in different ways in order to grow- as do our learners
  • That we need to think about our mindsets- whether we are growing plants or people 
  • That we can utilise the power and magic of technology to help support our plants....and our learners 
  • That although it is sad when people move on and gaps are left, others will step in and up to provide the care and support needed for those left behind- whether its plants or groups of young people 
  • That is order to care for other things, we need to look after ourselves and our nearest and dearest first- we need to be healthy in body and mind to nurture and support others

As all my staff- current and previous are well aware- I am a bit of a Quotes Queen- normally managing to find and share quotes for every occasion possible. 

On Friday I came upon this beauty:

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.  D.Elton Trueblood

How apt is this both for:

The plants we are currently caring for- which need to be brought back in at the end of the year to take pride of place on the stage for our Celebration of Achievement (what other schools refer to as  prize giving) and thereafter will be housed within our new school environment- which we take ownership of in mid December.

The young people we are currently caring for and supporting and nurturing on their learning journey. We probably won’t see the end results of what we are nurturing and that is not the point. We are here to help them as much as we can through this point in their lifelong journey.  

Helping them to read and write and become engaged mathematicians is important. Even more important is the development of an inquiry mindset. And even more is the development of positive relationships.  

For us at TKAS helping our young people develop an understanding of their identity- past, present and future, the ability to be inclusive with all other people ( accept and have positive relationships with a range of people)  and doing things differently (being innovative) is the cornerstone to what we are doing (and are the three main points on our school logo). 

“Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”  Robert Louis Stevenson

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Three Years In

I have heard a number of people make analogies between building a new school and building an airplane in the air whilst flying it. It’s an apt analogy that has rung home endless times for me in the last three years.

Three years ago this week I took up my role as the Foundation Principal of Te Karaka Area school. All new schools have their own special and unique stories. None of them are easier or harder than others; just different. This is an summary of the story of our last three years - through my eyes.

Te Karaka Area School was advertised as a new school with a probable roll about 160, likely to be 90% Maori and Decile 1. 

Coming from a fairly middle-class mono-cultural environment over the last 10 years, I knew I was going to get immersed in Maori culture, and was looking forward to returning to Principalship in a rural community. It was a given (to me) that I lived in the community. Not that that would work for everyone, but it was what felt important for me.

Nothing, however, prepared me for a member of the establishment BOT passing away the day I drove into town. Being the brother of the newly appointed Associate Principal made the bereavement even sadder. So having not been on a marae for a number of years, attending a tangi was one of my very first official duties. Yes, my immersion into the local culture began straight away.

I had five weeks in the office - a small room down the back of the local medical centre with the establishment BOT secretary. I spent this time formulating a work plan, doing a bit of reading and thinking and trying to figure out how I was going to plan the formal procedures and policies, design a curriculum, purchase resources, develop a uniform, work with the MOE to develop a property plan, enrol over 160 students, appoint 15 teaching staff and another 10 support staff and do that all with my focus on teaching and learning, which was after all why I was told I had been appointed. I didn’t even know at that stage, about the accreditation process for NCEA and what a piece of work that would be. We had to go to huis for He Kakano and a small schools conference. We would have to attend prize givings and various closing ceremonies for both the local schools that were being closed. 

I know people from where I had come were envious that I had 15 weeks without a school to run or staff or kids to worry about, but I don’t think anyone, (including me at the beginning) had any idea what had to be packed into those 15 weeks. I get envious now when I hear other new school stories and I see the time they have to prepare and to work with their senior and middle leadership teams before the kids arrive. How they can develop their curriculum with their kids because the kids start in smaller groups than what their ultimate roll will be. 

But I’m also thankful that there has become such an open air of sharing in NZ education that I can follow their stories through personal connections, through websites, blogs, wikis, and twitter and I can learn from their thinking and learning and take the appropriate from them to incorporate into our journey at TKAS.

I’d been involved in, and a part of, some really exciting innovations in the ten years before I came to Te Karaka and I wasn’t prepared to accept that rural kids living in perhaps a more deprived area, than the Decile 10 urban kids where I’d come from, were entitled to anything less.

I knew there would be some suspicion of me; I was female, I was white, and further to that I did not have much cultural experience behind me apart from two years as a Principal in Fiji. I came from a Decile 10 school and I was from the primary sector. I could hear the whispers and rumours being spread around the community.  How was I going to understand the needs of kids in a school with a predominantly Maori roll? How was I going to handle the situations, both at school and in the community, when it was evident that people felt a male should be in the lead? How would I possibly understand the needs of, or relate to the kids in a Decile 1 environment? How could I possibly understand the curriculum demands of secondary students, or the intricacies of NCEA?

So after 5 weeks of thinking and planning I took a few days off and then I headed to U Learn in the Term 3 holidays with the two appointed AP’s who were starting at the beginning of the next week. We often laugh about our first team meeting being a full week long in Christchurch where we shared an apartment for the week and really got to know each other.

Term 4 saw the three of us appoint over 15 teaching staff and another 12 support staff. We visited area schools around the central north island. We went to hui and conferences. We attended various closing ceremonies. We met with students and started enrolling. We had consultation meetings on all the local maraes. We had fortnightly BOT meetings where things like the school name and uniforms became quite contentious at times. 

We started in February. Our staff had met each other for the first time two weeks before. We, with the Establishment BOT, led a powhiri to welcome all students and whanau into the school. We had been staffed for 170 kids. We had 199 students enrolled and 217 turned up on the first day. We had 15 teachers, because we were staffed for 170. We had 8 classrooms, and we just had to get on with it. 

In looking back over the three years what have been the most important?
  • important beliefs?
  • important people?
  • important events?
  • important decisions?

One decision made very early on was that we would be one school. Even though we had access to both the old primary and old secondary sites at the beginning, we did not want to split year levels or teachers across them so we moved in full onto the old primary site. This gave us some issues. We were squashed - no doubt about it. The infrastructure didn’t cope overly well. The staffroom didn’t really fit us all in together. But we very strategically also placed Year 1 students in classes next to Year 12 and 13 students. We wanted to be one school. We didn’t want any physical or figurative divisions between age groups and year levels. 

We were strongly influenced by Sir Ken Robinson. His commentary around the ‘conveyor belt’ of education and disparaging the notion that all students the same age should be taught together just because they were the same age resounded strongly with us. Indeed this quote remains on the wall in the leadership office to this day: “Our schools teach us to fit into predetermined spots along a conveyor belt, but rarely encourage us to question the value of the conveyor belt, the alternatives that may exist to it, or other ways we might get things done.”

We knew from the start that we did not want to treat our secondary kids like a “mini-secondary” school. Why would we? Their achievement data and their observable motivation was very low. A traditional system was not working for them, and why would we try and do that anyway? We would never have the staffing to specialist teach in a traditional sense. Lastly, but mostly importantly we didn’t believe that the traditional strategies and methods were effective or provided authentic learning for any kids. 

To do things differently we had to be ready for change. We had to employ staff who were ready for change, we had to get kids ready to accept change, and we had to try to explain and justify that change to Whanau and the wider community. “Who Moved My Cheese,” by Spencer Johnson became a classic book for everyone. In it were lessons that we all referred to many times: Anticipate change, Adapt to change quickly, Enjoy change, Be ready to change again, and again, and again.

We made clear to our staff on appointment that we wanted people who were experts at the teaching and learning process, and experts in building relationships with young people, not people who were experts in specialist areas. We made clear that we were not going to accept deficit thinking and that when things went wrong we would be actively looking for solutions rather than blaming kids for it.

Things weren't always easy. The kids didn’t always understand the different approaches, and neither did others looking in from the outside. We had a vision for kids to meet their full potential and for that to happen they needed to understand a whole lot about themselves and they needed to become self managing, a concept difficult to understand for those who wanted us to simply exert our authority in a traditional way. 

Lessons from Malcolm Gladwell Tipping Point needed to be reflected on and kept to. “What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behaviour or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.” 

We had to hold strong to our belief that our values and principles for teaching and learning were sound and that change would happen over time, and that once change began it would slowly build until it did become a tipping point.

Core education's paper on Modern Learning Environments, written by the inspirational Mark Osbourne, highlights the following features of modern learning environments:
Modern learning environments that align better with what we know about the brain and student learning can facilitate traditional pedagogies such as direct instruction if needed, but they typically offer students and teachers much more:
●  Flexibility: the ability to combine two classes into one for team-teaching, split a class into small groups and spread them over a wider area or combine different classes studying complementary learning areas. 
●  Openness: modern learning environments traditionally have fewer walls, more glass and often use the idea of a learning common (or hub) which is a central teaching and learning space that can be shared by several classes. They provide opportunities to observe and learn from the teaching of others and be observed in return. They also provide access to what students in other learning areas and level are learning, so that teaching and learning can be complemented and enhanced.
● Access to resources (including technology): typically a learning common is surrounded by breakout spaces allowing a range of different activities, such as reading, group work, project space, wet areas, reflection, and presenting. There is often a mixture of wireless and wired technology offering access as and when students need it, within the flow of their learning.

We may be moving into a modern learning environment next year but we haven’t had one for the last three years. 
We have had a caravan on site for a literacy support teacher. 
Our PE shed was emptied and that became the workspace for our teachers when they are on non contact time. It is freezing in winter and stifling in summer but after the first year of balancing laptops in the staffroom and around the classes that sometimes needed to use it, at least its given teachers a place to work - even if the photocopier is in there and interruptions are fairly frequent. 
My house (on the other side of the field) has had two different bedrooms used as classrooms over the years as well as much of the school archives stored in it and currently one large room used to store dress uniforms, sports uniforms and equipment, kapahaka uniforms and gear and props and staging for Stage Challenge and other performance based events. 
We’ve had to battle toilets that don’t flush and water that we weren’t allowed to drink for weeks on end. (And providing 200 people with water bottles for 6 weeks is no mean feat logistically or environmentally!) 
We’ve had to spend a lot of money on temporary IT solutions. 
Through all this however, we stuck to some of those original beliefs. No deficit theorising. If we need something lets figure out a way to make it work. These kids are not waiting until we have the right conditions. Their futures are too important to be put on hold “just until...”
Over time our kids have learned that learning does involve talking and collaboration and isn’t always, or even often, silent. They’ve certainly learned that learning doesn’t always happen within the classroom and it rarely happens with one teacher and thirty students and one classroom. They’ve learned that furniture is there to aid learning not look pretty for a teacher. We are blessed with a fairly great climate and its nothing to see tables and chairs outside all over the school as students select a good place for the learning they are currently doing.  
We know we’ve still got major work to do. Our national standards data is low and a lot of our kids are below and well below. Our NCEA data in our first year was extremely low, although this has improved exponentially over the last two years.

There are still suspicions from some corners about the way we operate; we don’t look like a ‘normal’ school, and we actually never will. That’s not because we are small, or rural or anything else. It’s because we don’t believe a normal school meets the needs of lots of kids any more, if it ever did.

I have had the absolute privilege of working with some amazing teachers over the last three years.