Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

'We're the only country in the world that overtly labels schools' - Harsh lessons from retiring principals

Madeline Gunn, Peter Gall, John Heyes and Salvatore Garguliano. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Madeline Gunn, Peter Gall, John Heyes and Salvatore Garguliano. Photo / Brett Phibbs

A swathe of experienced principals are retiring from Auckland secondary schools. Kirsty Johnston tracks down four who, between them, have 120 years' teaching experience. They reflect on schools, teaching and the education system.

Salvatore Gargiulo, Manurewa High School

Why did you decide to become a principal, and why are you leaving?

When I was a young teacher working at Nayland College, I was fortunate to have a great principal, Raz Zacharisen. After that I saw limitations in the others I worked with - so when the chance came at Nelson College, where I was deputy, I applied with the sole desire to be as good as Raz.

Next February, I will turn 65 and am fortunate to be in good health so I am keen to take the chance to have another episode of life unaware of what that might look like other than getting to know my grandchildren better.

What will you miss?

I will miss being knee-deep in the humour, optimism, gratefulness and friendship of youth.

What has been your proudest moment at Manurewa High School?

I can think of a lot of team and individual performances of our students in sport, performance and recently in future problem solving that I have been delighted with, but the moment that I was most proud was in January this year when we achieved the national average for both level 1 and level 2. This was a goal when I started in 2010. It was thought then to be something to aim for but not a reality. Since then we have had annual improvements and achieved the goal last year. I am confident that the results next January will add level 3 to this statistic. An achievement such as that needs input from a big percentage of the staff, students, parents and community, not just a few individuals such as a team.

How would you describe the kids of today?

Not sure I am in a very good position to make an overall statement of kids. The last six years I have been immersed in a subset of youth, the kids from my school. Life for them is so different from when I was a kid. They live in an existence of survival, where what is most important for them is relationships. With that comes an appreciation, an enjoyment of humour and a high level of resilience.

What more do you think the education system could do to help give everyone a good chance?

On reflection, my lens on the education system has been changed since I came from Nelson College - in those days it was about the gender gap and why boys preform so much worse than girls in New Zealand education. This gap still exists and when you look at Education Counts it is getting worse.

My focus is now on how to improve the performance of students from lowly resourced families. We are fortunate that New Zealand has such an excellent assessment programme (NCEA) which gives all students an access to five years of secondary education. But access without support is not an opportunity. The education system needs to investigate the resources that students from families in poverty do not have. Currently there is a lot of talking about, at and for people in poverty, but very seldom are we listening to them. The inequity that exists in New Zealand as described by the decile system will not change without developing the skills in schools to reduce it.

Madeline Gunn, Epsom Girls' Grammar School

Why have you decided to retire, and what do you plan to do now?

EGGS celebrates its centenary in 2017 and I felt I had to commit to staying another two years for that or leave now so a new person could settle in to lead the school into the centenary and beyond. I felt it was better to choose the latter. When I was appointed I committed to 3-5 years and I've done 3+5 and feel the school is in good heart to leave now.

I plan to have a break and then perhaps do some coaching or mentoring of principals as I'm still very interested in leadership of schools.

What's one thing you've learned from working in a girls' school?

The importance of positive, supportive learning relationships between students and staff. All students, but girls in particular, learn better if they feel comfortable with their teachers and their fellow students. In an all-girls environment learning can be aimed at the interests and learning styles of girls. They can experience failure but not be shamed for that and learn from their mistakes. Developing resilience is very important for many girls who can tend to be perfectionists.

Who was someone who was a role model for you, and why?

My first teaching position was at Rutherford High School where Eric Clark was the principal. He was very good at identifying people who had the potential for leadership and delegating responsibility to them to develop that. In the 1980s-90s many school leaders in Auckland had been at Rutherford in their early careers. I feel very proud that many of my staff at EGGS have been promoted to senior leadership or principal positions and hope that I have been a role model for them in a similar way.

What do you think the biggest challenge is for education at the moment?

Many of our students are achieving at levels which equal those anywhere else in the world. However, we have other groups of students who are not engaged sufficiently to achieve as well as they should. Equity in opportunity and outcomes is our greatest challenge but the responsibility lies not just with education. If students are hungry or tired or stressed, they cannot learn effectively.

What's your most vivid memory from your time as a principal?

The most vivid memory would have to be walking out of a surprise assembly the senior girls had held for me to see a guard of honour formed by the junior girls which wound down the driveway, along the road and back to my office. It was incredibly emotional.

John Heyes, Mangere College

Why did you enter teaching?

Having completed an honours degree in English in the mid-70s, I was faced with either continuing in the academic world and completing a masters or considering applying the knowledge and skills that I had already gained. As the outlook for the academic world in the 70s was not looking too rosy, and even tenured university positions being at risk, I decided to train to be a teacher. At the time we were also paid to train (at one salary step below what the starting salary would be) and this was a very real incentive - an incentive that the current Government should really consider in the face of the growing teacher shortages that we are experiencing.

What was the best thing about working at Mangere College?

The last two schools that I have worked in have both been schools that serve decile 1 communities. I have received great personal and professional satisfaction out of a sense that I have played a part in making a real difference to young people's lives and the communities of which they are a part.

What do you think we can learn from Pasifika communities that perhaps we aren't aware of now?

Auckland, in particular, and New Zealand have to both recognise and embrace the multiplicity and vibrancy of world views inherent in our Pasifika communities. We happily accept the contribution to our cultural and sporting life that Pasifika peoples bring but we have yet to fully understand that Auckland is the largest Pasifika city in the world and what it means for NZ to truly be a multi-ethnic nation.

How do you think we can provide a better education for all our kids in the future?

We have to work a great deal harder to ensure that the teaching profession is a first choice of profession for our brightest and best graduates.

If you could go back and tell yourself one thing as a beginning principal, what would it be?

It's OK if it's not done by tomorrow.

Peter Gall, Papatoetoe High School

What are your plans for next year?

I'm going to be working in an Education Consultancy, Edsol New Zealand, with Michael Leach from King's College. We'll be working for boards and schools doing principal appraisal, appointments, and working with leadership teams.

What do you think your greatest achievement was as a principal?

If I sit back and think about it, it would be about providing the environment and opportunity for students, in many cases, to rise above what might have been expected of them and go on to great things. You feel pretty proud of the fact you see some students that have had pretty difficult circumstances to overcome - not of their own making - and have been able to respond to the culture you've helped to create in the school as a team, and as leader.

What is the most frustrating thing about our education system for you?

Without a doubt, the inequity within the system. There is a mechanism called the decile funding system to address inequities, but I believe it contributes to further inequity rather than addressing equity issues. Without a doubt we need differential funding but labelling schools with a socio-economic index is not called for. It's bad policy. We are the only country that overtly labels schools. To me, it's stigmatising for low deciles and it's very misunderstood.

What do you think its greatest strength is and why?

Two things - our self-managing model - the autonomy that schools have that allows principals and boards to respond to the particular needs for their school. We definitely have a lot of influence on the culture that we establish in the school, and the curriculum that we offer. That's a strength compared to some of the other jurisdictions. Another one, and the main one, is the quality of our teachers. New Zealand teachers have got, very justifiably, a great reputation around the world. They're well trained, they work incredibly hard and in the secondary sector they really understand about the teaching and learning process and assessment.

If you could give the kids of today one piece of advice when they start high school, what would it be?

My advice would be to take advantage of all of the opportunities available - performing arts, music, sport, community service. Our holistic model is a real strength and it's all there for students to do. I'd say, have a crack. Do something, try something you haven't done before because you don't know what your talents are yet.

- NZ Herald

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