You’re on record as saying earlier this year that teachers should be getting paid $164,000 NZ a year, which is a lot of money! Do you ever see that happening?
Well, in an ideal world, yes. It did happen in the '70s or '80s, in terms of real money. But the point I’m making, is, it’s not so much the detail of money that’s actually important. What happens in the classroom, with a teacher and a group of learners, is fundamentally important. It is the most important in-school thing that happens, and so, let’s cherish and celebrate our teachers and reward them for the great job they do and we expect them to do.
Do you think that teaching is undervalued, and how can we fix that?
It’s interesting, when you go into a school and talk to parents, overwhelmingly the response is admiration for teachers. Lots and lots of parents I’ve talked to anyway, and students, they admire the work our teachers do. So on the one hand the teaching profession is well respected, but in another way, in terms of the workload we expect them to carry, I think their pay and conditions, the ... status ... that teachers have, could be improved. We always look at other countries, but in other jurisdictions there are a lot of people who want to be teachers, and I suppose in New Zealand it’s not quite that strong in terms of a desirable career path. You’ll be aware that various corporates go around universities when graduates are coming out of university and they go for the top people to employ and develop – and I’d like to see that with teaching. I’d like to see that happening, people going in, taking the very top people, and saying ‘this is such an important task, and we’re going to give it status, we’re going to reward it, because what you teachers are doing, what you have, you’re privileged, we’re giving you the privilege of our children, and therefore our future’. It seems to me, we undervalue in that respect because teachers are so important.
You’ve successfully led four schools all with varying student numbers. What does it take to be a successful principal across all of the different environments that you’ve been in?
There’s no magic bullet - if there were it would be easy! I think it’s about relationships. And for me, what I’ve really enjoyed about principalship was working with teachers particularly, but obviously students as well, and creating an environment where they take responsibility and control of their own lives and their own institutions. I think the key is building an environment where leadership is distributed. Clearly a leader needs to set the tone, be encouraging, to feed ideas in, provide a framework, but ultimately I think the biggest strength is demonstrated when the leader leads. And when that leader leaves, has the culture or the way that that place operates, changed and improved, and is it sustained? That’s probably for me the key thing, that leaders when they leave the institution, leave a better place which carries on, which sustains. I think the heroic idea of leadership, when somebody comes in and people look to that person for advice and they look to that person for direction all the time, is a flawed one, because it’s so dependent on individuals, and it needs to be distributed.
If you had to narrow it down, would there be, say, three top essential skills that you would say that a school leader has to have?
I think the first one is the ability to build relationships and have empathy. And that’s across the board with teachers, with students and with parents. And that business about listening with empathy I think is so important, so that’s the first thing. Listen, build relationships, understand what is going on first of all. I think the second thing is, there’s got to be a sense of direction. So the leader’s got to provide an exciting, 'what-it-might-look-like' vision. It sounds a bit trite, but people do look to leaders to do that. But having said that, that what-it-might-look-like vision is built on [and] is developed with other people, so that relationship thing comes in again. You can’t just do it all, you can’t go to a whiteboard and say ‘this is what we’re going to do’, it’s a very very organic, messy process developing it, and you do it with other people. Probably the third thing is harder in a way, it’s about having some non-negotiables and having high expectations of people and holding people accountable, if required. I think there is a hard edge to leadership as well.
That must be one of the hardest skills to learn – you would get caught in that trap of always wanting to keep people happy...
Exactly right. And I think that’s the skill. The skill is around building good, solid relationships, [where] we know where we’re going, and then if it’s not working for some people, it’s about working with those people, it’s about providing support for those people, all those positive things. It’s not just black and white, but it’s doing all the things that are required in a community to make sure everybody is doing the best that they’re able to do. But in the end, it’s also about everybody accepting that the children, the learning, is fundamentally the most important thing that we do, and that’s what we’re required to do, and we’ve got to maximise those possibilities for the children in our care.
A lot of the work that you do now is focused on leadership. What is it that you enjoy so much about that?
What I enjoy I suppose is the relationship stuff. For me, it’s about service. It’s about being allowed to contribute something to the whole, and to do it with other people. And the leadership bit is, if you like, providing or hopefully trying to provide the sort of spark that gets that going.
What’s your current view of the New Zealand education system?
First of all, I can’t pre-empt the findings of the review panel. One of the things we’re going to do is ask people what they think. So I think it would be a mistake for me to start giving my opinions at this stage. The role I have at the moment is to go out and do some listening. I don’t want to be pre-empting and giving my personal opinions about what’s going well and what’s not going well.
What I would say is that the previous model has been in existence for 30 years, Tomorrow’s Schools has been in existence for 30 years, and times have changed. And I think everybody is of the view that it’s important to look at it again, to identify what’s working well, to look at what’s not working well, and to face forward. It’s a very different world than what it was 30 years ago, and it’s opportune for us to do a bit of a system check and that’s what we’re going to do.
What are you looking forward to as Chair of that panel?
Ah! Well it’s exciting! First of all, we’ll be doing lots of talking and consulting. We want to hear from students, we want to hear from people for whom the system is working well, but we particularly want to hear from people perhaps who don’t think the system is working well. I think that’s really, really important because the system needs to work for everybody, and if it’s not working for some, there are consequences for the entire country. That business about going out and listening to people and trying to empathise with where they’re at and from that, build some recommendations, I feel privileged to be involved with the other members of the Taskforce, all of whom are outstanding individuals. I feel really privileged to be involved in a group that has been given that responsibility of stepping back, having a stock take, and the Minister has given us a pretty free reign. He’s asking us to have a good look at it and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. That’s really exciting; it’s an opportunity which is very rare.
You’re incredibly passionate about all this – it comes across in your voice! What makes you so passionate about education?
It’s funny, I was just thinking about that yesterday. I was thinking 'what else would I do if I weren’t a teacher or in education', 'what else would I have done?' And I couldn’t think of anything, I really couldn’t think of anything that would please me as much as doing this job. Although, I have to say I’ve had my ups and downs and it’s been tough, and sometimes I’ve wanted to throw the towel in and sometimes I’ve grieved about things, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather be. I don’t know how many people are as lucky as that, that they‘re doing stuff which is what they want to do, and lots of people may be in a situation where work is work. Well, actually, it’s not for me - it’s more to do with just living my life and doing what I want. For me, I wouldn’t be doing anything else. But the other thing that struck me was ... when you send your child to a school, as a parent you’re giving the care of your child to the school, you are giving the privilege of looking after your child to this school, to these teachers, to this principal. And it seems to me that if you think about it that way, what a privilege that is and what a degree of responsibility it places on schools and teachers to do the right thing, because that’s what happens isn’t it? I know people will say ‘well, parents often don’t think about it that way’ but for me, when they came in the school gate, and you greet them at the school gate, I know teachers and principals feel the same thing. We’ve got to do the best we can, and if we don’t, well, we need to improve. And I think that’s what keeps people going, I think that’s what keeps teachers going.
You wear a lot of different hats – you’re a presenter, an author, you’ve been a principal and now you’re reviewing the education system. Which of these roles do you prefer, and what do you want to be remembered for?
That’s a biggie! That’s really difficult because I think it’s time-bound, it’s context-bound. Personally, I’ve been through the principal role and I think there’s a certain amount of time - for me, I felt that I’d done enough and I needed to make way for other people. So it depends on the timing, but I suppose if I’m thinking back, the role of school leadership is such an exciting one that I’d have to say that being a school leader was a fantastic experience and an incredibly challenging one.
So is that what you’d like to be remembered for, for leading these schools and making an impact on people’s lives?
I suppose I’d have to say that. And I think probably when I worked for NZQA, when I went from school leadership to NZQA, and did quite a lot of work around the ... reforming process [of NCEA], I was pleased to go through that and be involved in those changes as well, because in that sense there was a national impact, which was pleasing.
At school, my teachers described me as...quiet and sometimes rebellious.
The first band I ever saw was...The Who, in Leeds.
I unwind at home by...learning to play the guitar, which has been going on for 30 years which tells you how successful I am! But learning to play the guitar, and reading, I like watching movies, love to go for walks because we live quite close to the sea, love the beach.