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.