Fraser Smith became the former principal of Ōtūru School on April 27, but a lot of people might not have noticed. His departure into retirement passed quietly during the Covid-19 lockdown, and plans to mark the occasion were been put on hold until the rules of public gatherings have been further relaxed.

And it should be very well attended, given that he led the school for 20 eventful years.

"When I came to Ōtūru as deputy principal 21 years ago, things were very different," he said.

"There had been considerable unrest, which continued for years, and the roll was dropping fast. During my first two years as principal we went from seven teachers to three. It was during that time that the board chairman and I began to build a concept we now call Ōtūrutanga. To me, the type of learning our tauira craved was meaningful and connected to practical experience. They didn't see the point of sitting at a desk and working from a blackboard; funnily enough, when whiteboards arrived they made no difference.

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"I had one computer in my classroom and was a teaching principal for years. We wrote school reports on pretty paper by hand. I carried the classroom computer home in the boot of my car to work on at night.

"What the kids enjoyed was the chooks and the beehives, the gardens and cooking, and inventing rongoa from the native medicinals we planted. Oh, and school camps in the uninhabited areas of the coast and bush. There was plenty to learn, and behaviour problems weren't a real issue outdoors. There were no serious injuries. OSH wasn't the beast it is these days. They could see the point of that kind of learning.

"There were things we weren't supposed to do, for example, have beehives on the school grounds, but now lots of schools do.

"Before the Moko team we were treating kutu, eczema, impetigo, scabies and other infections with products from our plants and beehives. We grew vegetables, olives and fruit for our own use. Specialist teachers were employed to help with kids in the gardens and the kitchen, which was a converted classroom big enough for a whole class to cook in."

Music, story-telling, waiata and te reo were a daily event every morning with the school. When the new New Zealand curriculum was about a year old, ERO asked Smith how long he had been using it.

"Oh, at least five years," he said.

Meanwhile, the children spread Ōtūrutanga around the community.

"Their mates came to us, and their mates' mates," he said.

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"What was a wonderful small school of 60 kids suddenly doubled, and carried on growing.

"The computer tech revolution ripped on, but we used it to help our cause, to encourage curiosity, asking questions and finding answers. We painted our beliefs and ideas over the walls of buildings that were falling apart. Our kids and teachers coped with poor conditions. We held the school property together as best we could until the roll growth forced the Ministry of Education to review the condition of our classrooms. We were to get another classroom and a hall, but the state of the other buildings demanded that eventually they all be scrapped, and totally replaced."

The teachers and their students had now been enjoying a new school for 18 months.

"The shift wasn't easy; we did it all ourselves," Smith said.

"Our teachers are the lifeblood of a great school," he added.

"We are lucky to have been able to attract dedicated staff who can carry the kaupapa of Ōtūrutanga. Pat Heta, our board chairman, has always popped in for our philosophical chats about education that suits the needs of our kids. For well over my 20 years there he gently helped and encouraged thinking outside the square. One consistent message from Pat was, 'If you don't have aroha for that kid, don't expect anything back'.

So from blackboards to every kid with a computer - but some things stay the same. Ōtūrutanga demands: we are rebuilding the gardens, replanting the fruit trees smashed during the rebuild. New hothouses are going up. Huge new paintings are telling our story on the walls. The only structure that hasn't been bowled is our swimming pool. Our values remain in real colour as you enter the gates."

A long-term partnership he had established with the Takapuna North Rotary Club also continued, and the latest idea had become a reality.

A fund called Rangatiratanga, "growing kids as leaders in our community", was now a registered charity, the interest from which will put some Ōtūru students through boarding school throughout their secondary years.

"All our kids need is suitable opportunities," he said.

"And me? I am landscaping at home, planting trees and gardens. I am halfway through the third book in the 'Awatea' trilogy that won a Noteable NZ Book Award, and I am pleased adults and kids are enjoying the books. The Ministry of Education is now translating them into te reo for schools.

"I am playing music, fishing and thinking of what to do next. There are more books to write. Pat tells me there might be somewhere in education for me to carry on the good work but I like to make my own rules. Retired may not be the right word. Perhaps redeployed?"