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.