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Top accolade for esteemed rural educator

Whareama School principal Darren Kerr working on a project with pupils Ollie Halewood, Nelson Bird, and Bianca Norman. PHOTOS/TOM TAYLOR

Story by Tom Taylor

The principal of a rural school 40km east of Masterton has been recognised as one of New Zealand’s standout educators.

Darren Kerr, principal-teacher at Whareama School, was the only primary educator in New Zealand to win an Apple Award in the National Excellence in Teaching Awards [NEiTA], announced last week.

“After 24 years of teaching, maybe I’m starting to get something right,” Kerr said.

The NEiTA awards – now in their 27th year – awarded teachers and principals professional development grants of $5000-$10,000 to further their goals in education.

“It’s a reinforcement that the product that you’re delivering for your kids and your community is something that is acknowledged by your peers,” Kerr said.

He said that teaching in a small rural school – Whareama has about 55 pupils – he was sometimes worried that he might be working within a bubble and had questioned whether his teaching methods were in line with the current thinking.

However, he found that whenever he went to teaching conferences, other teachers were keen to take a leaf out of the Whareama guidebook, which involved a lot of hands-on “impact-based” and “project-based” learning.

“What we’re doing, we’re doing well, and it’s making a difference to our kids.”

This year, the school had begun the Whitebait Connection freshwater education programme, compiled by the Mountains to Sea Conservation Trust.

Earlier in the year, pupils had tested the streams around Whareama to find out what vertebrates and invertebrates lived in the waters.

This month, they repeated the tests down at Wairarapa Moana in South Wairarapa.

Next year, senior pupils would continue on to another programme based on a seaweed forest restoration project.

Reading, writing, and maths classes would be incorporated into this larger project.

“Rather than students just learning the area of a circle, there will actually be a reason relating to some of the things in the seaweed project – a purpose for the learning.”

Ollie Halewood constructing a prototype water storage system.

One of the highlights of Whareama was its ‘forest learning’ area, which received a special nod at the online NEiTA awards ceremony.

The wooded space at the rear of the school provided an environment where pupils could use saws, hammers, nails, pulleys – everything they needed to be creative.

“We send the kids up there and go, ‘This is today’s spec, this is what you’ve got to create – go’.”

In previous years, pupils had designed and created a mountain bike track and a treehouse playground and had installed an in-ground trampoline.

Kerr said receiving the NEiTA award was not only a personal honour but was also valuable for the Whareama community.

He said that having a good school nearby was essential for anyone moving out into the country.

“It might be a trigger point for people to think, ‘I’ll change my lifestyle, and I will move to Riversdale, Whareama, or within this Homewood area’.”

One of Kerr’s colleagues, who preferred to remain anonymous, had nominated him for the award.

“Darren will help anyone in any way he can,” they said.

“He leads by example and in a positive and organised way, ensuring his team of staff and students have fun and strive for excellence. He has done his utmost to support me. He is such a positive person to be around.”

From the nomination, Kerr was asked to put together a document, answering questions on every aspect of his teaching philosophy and learning initiatives within the school.

“I thought, ‘That’s a big document that will probably end up going nowhere.’ The next thing, I got an email saying I’d been shortlisted,” Kerr said.

After a Zoom call with a panel of interviewers from Australia and New Zealand, Kerr found out he had won.

“To be the only one in New Zealand is pretty cool – for little old Whareama to get an accolade like this.”

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