29 January 2013

‘Slow Down Your Enrollments – We Can’t Catch Up’

All of us have had the good fortune, from time to time, to come across people whose outstanding results attract attention.

‘How do they do it?’ we wonder. ‘What are their secrets, their philosophy?’ As a time management specialist, I ask myself, ‘Do they manage their time better or differently from others? How do they get such exceptional results?’

Picture, if you can, your typical tiny farming village nestled among rolling fertile farmland, with a garage and a handful of shops to serve the local community, and you’ll have Kaingaroa in the Far North. Most tourists would hardly even notice it tucked under the hills about half-way between Kaitaia and Coopers Beach – as they head north for the rolling wilderness of 90 Mile Beach, or south to the beautiful beaches of Taipa, Coopers Beach and Mangonui. But something remarkable has been happening in this community.

When Raewyn Gregory left a Senior Teacher position at Kaitaia Intermediate to take over this tiny country school, the roll stood at 48 Year 1-6 students. It then grew to a full primary (Years 1-8) by 2002 with over 160 students, and an enrolment scheme in place. (Enrolment schemes are something you usually only hear about for large and prestigious city schools). As the roll started to burst at the seams, first they commandeered the school house for extra classrooms. That wasn’t enough, so for a few months a marquee became another temporary classroom. For a while urgent pleas to the Ministry only brought comments like: ‘Stop growing – we can’t help you right now.’ They’ve now got more buildings, but still always struggle to find enough room to house and educate everyone who wants to attend, hence the enrolment scheme.

And this exceptional growth is not caused by new industry or jobs – over the last few years the population of the Far North has diminished. So what’s happening here? A simple answer – parents are demonstrating their right to choose their children’s education by travelling significant distances to this school. Its reputation travels ahead, its scholastic and ERO results are excellent, the children are happy, and the Principal is one of New Zealand’s best. She’s also been a curriculum writer on various Ministry reference groups, a College of Education lecturer, and is currently Chair of the Far North Principals Association.

Whilst in the North, I took the chance to find out more about this remarkable woman’s philosophy.

Q. Raewyn, you have a reputation as being a very effective Principal.

I doubt any Primary Principal would view him/herself as highly effective. I certainly don’t. The job they’ve undertaken is far too complex. As one issue or area is resolved or developed, another area is identified as needing review.

When I look at the people I regard as highly effective, they’re too idealistic, have too many visions projected well into the future to ever view what they’re currently doing as being effective. And, there are always a variety of people around in a school community who communicate their views on your lack of effectiveness in some area. People do this in a range of ways and this keeps your feet firmly on the ground.

Q. Your modesty is worthy, but your results are outstanding. Is it specific actions that have given these results, or is there a deeper philosophy at work here?

One of the most important factors is time – but not time in the short term or superficial definition. I speak instead of time in the broadest sense. This includes recognising the need to invest time in order to gain experience. It includes time to reflect on and learn from that experience. And time is needed to grow the ability to transfer those learned skills and knowledge into a range of diverse situations

One criteria espoused by ‘experts’ is that effective leaders are able to define/create a vision. ‘Vision’ can’t exist without prior experiences that have somehow been developed into deep, meaningful philosophies or foundations. I believe that the only way this process can occur is through being able to ‘reflect’ and utilise the outcomes creatively over a considerable time frame. During this process people age or mature – just like good wine. Any real achievement in education takes time. Leaping from job to job to reinvent the wheel, or repeating past mistakes in a different setting would not only provide me with little job satisfaction but it’s also detrimental to the very people whom we are supposed to be supporting, teaching, providing opportunities or challenges to – our parents, staff and children.

Q. What do you think about the changes that have occurred in education over the last 10-20 years?

Particularly over the last 12 years, so much inadvertently has been done so quickly – curriculum development, curriculum review, consultation, planning and implementation. I question its real intent or purpose.

Has the rapidity of change in society become an exercise in education for short term thinking? Do educational programmes based on short term funding only result in short term results/achievement/success? I say ‘Yes’. Then it’s on to the next short term project. If national educational goals don’t articulate or model their clear, long term purpose to the educators in schools, then this example of short term superficial thinking will be repeated throughout the system in a variety of ways – with mediocre results.

So … … to be an effective leader in a school takes time. Being an effective manager evolves over five years with another five years spent on developing yourself as a leader. Courses, workshops, programmes can and are designed to aid this process but that’s all they are – aids. Recognition and respect needs to be given to the length of time it takes to become a really effective leader in just one setting, let alone a variety of settings. Being successful in that way and in that particular environment invites real challenge and real satisfaction.

Q. So what do you see as the role of education in the community?

We are not in business. I do not lead a school to make a profit. No matter that Telecom charges schools as a business and groups in economic arenas create liaisons and make statements about what ‘product’ they want to come out of the end of a formal schooling systems. Historically schools were established to produce a labour force, with a minority being educated to manage that labour force and to increase production.

Over recent years the trend has been to produce flexible thinkers, doers and problem solvers for the commercial world – people who are able to harness knowledge. We need to remember that this trend defines a minuscule moment in time. If educators – visionaries, planners, policy makers and practitioners allow these short term goals to become the main objective of schools then we will be all caught up in a wheel which spins through time with no long term outcomes for the people compulsorily involved.

My goals in education have always been more lofty and far more broad. They have to be – they have children as their centre – future adults who will think, interact, invent and reinvent as they have done since time immemorial.

Q. On a day-to-day level, what is the most important time saving strategy or skill you use?

Having the experience/skills and knowledge to evaluate the issues that arise and to know when one needs instant action to stop escalation further down the track. Too many people are procrastinators – what has been missing in their learning or in their early models that allowed this trait to predominate?

Q. Any particular strategies for dealing with interruptions?

When I was a teaching Principal with partial release from the classroom I found superfluous interruptions were minimal. This was partly created by me being forced to prioritise/eliminate any disturbances to my precious teaching time – my top priority. No fire, police, social agency or sales person was going to take that time away from the children.

As a Principal now, without commitment to my own class, people gradually seep into your daily routine to a point where, from time to time, some serious assessment of time management needs to be carried out. An open door to teachers/ parents/ staff means that some days I found that I’d given much to many people, but for myself as a professional person I’d achieved little.

Just as there are some children who demand that their needs become the centre of your universe as well as theirs, there are adults who act in the same way. Creating ways to block this unnecessary intrusion of my time become critically important to effective leadership and management of the school.

Q. Any specifics?

Two spring to mind immediately. It could be as simple as shutting the door or as complex as withdrawing physically from the school. And secondly, delegation seems to be a healthy easy solution. However, in a school community where Deputy Principals are full time teachers, there are complex issues that need reflection on. There may need to be creative alternatives to reduce the load, using other helpers and resources. Too big a topic for this article!





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