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Coley comes home to Chanel

Myra Coley looks forward to starting her new role as principal of Chanel College. PHOTO/ANGELA GREGORY

Her new role as principal of Chanel College is a return home for Myra Coley. She talks to ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL.

A last-minute change of plans has led veteran educator Myra Coley back to her turangawaewae in Wairarapa.

Next month, Coley will head back to school – as the newly-appointed principal at Chanel College, the region’s only Catholic secondary school.

Coley (Te Rarawa) is a familiar face in Masterton: as a primary and secondary school teacher (in the classroom and senior management), an active member of the St Patrick’s Church community, and former owner/manager at Scoops Cafe.

Her new role brings her career full circle – her first job upon settling in Wairarapa in 2009 was teaching Years 7 and 8 at Chanel, before becoming its assistant principal.

An eight-year tenure at Chanel was followed by her assuming the role of deputy principal at Makoura College, and then a stint teaching in China – sadly cut short by covid-19.

In fact, she and her family – husband Adam and children Lochie, Carter and Hadleigh – were due to head off on another overseas adventure when she spotted the job vacancy at her former workplace online.

Coley had previously accepted a role teaching English in Brunei, and her whanau were due to fly out on December 30.

“Then I saw the job at Chanel – which closed on the third,” she laughed.

“I sent in my application at the last minute. I thought I’d give it a shot – if it didn’t work out, it was obviously God’s plan for us to go to Brunei.”

God clearly had plans for Coley in Wairarapa: she had an interview at Chanel at 11.30am on December 4 and received the job offer by 3pm.

As new principal at her old stomping ground, Coley looks forward to reconnecting with the Chanel College whanau – students, staff, parents and Wairarapa’s Catholic parish – and being able to make a positive impact on her community.

“Chanel is very special to me – it was the base from which I was able to connect with Wairarapa,” she said.

“Chanel is my turangawaewae: a place to stand, where I am empowered to be myself, I feel connected, and where I’m able to affect change.

“If you want to make an impact on people’s lives, you have to be prepared to lead and help make systemic changes – and education is a big part of that.

“Education is a service – and I have the opportunity to serve the community that has embraced me.”

Coley, originally from Whangarei, did her teacher training in Hamilton and got her first job at a primary school in South Auckland.

After several years teaching in Australia, she settled in Masterton – husband Adam’s hometown – and began work at Chanel and, later, “down the road” at Makoura.

Coley is passionate about helping children become “global citizens” and connect with young people of different cultures.

She managed Chanel’s overseas student exchange programme, helped Makoura acquire a Japanese sister school, and organised two student volunteer trips to Samoa.

“Young people do have a place on the world stage.

“When kids connect with other cultures, they see beyond themselves and their usual surroundings – and realise the world isn’t so scary, and people aren’t so different.”

In 2019, family in tow, Coley travelled to China, where she had accepted a role at Rong Qiao Sedbergh School, a private boarding school in the Fujian Province.

There, she worked as a bilingual educator – working, together with a Mandarin-speaking teacher, with Chinese children to build their English language skills.

“It was challenging, especially as the parents had high expectations and wanted to see results quickly.

“But the kids were amazing – we bonded very quickly. Kids are kids throughout the world – they want to know you care.”

The Coleys enjoyed immersing themselves in Chinese culture and found the people “incredibly friendly and welcoming”.

“They love sharing their culture with you and are very keen to find out about yours.

“We found Chinese culture approaches raising children similarly to Maori – such as bringing up families in multi-generational households and having a deep respect for their elderly.”

The family intended to stay in China at least three years, but came back to New Zealand in February 2020, in the early days of the pandemic.

They were on holiday in Vietnam when they found out the Chinese border was closing – and they had “just hours” to get back to Fujian.

They opted to head back to New Zealand from Vietnam and planned to return later in the year so Coley could start a teaching job in Shanghai.

But with the Chinese government suspending family visas, the Coleys remained in Masterton and embarked on a new career path – opening Scoops.

Though Coley was grateful to “take a sabbatical”, she is excited to return to her first love of education.

Her first job as Chanel principal will be to consult with students and whanau about any changes they’d like to see – but eventually hopes to implement more project-based learning initiatives, restart the international exchange programme (once it’s safe to travel), and build on the school’s community service work.

Being of service to others, she says, is an integral part of Chanel’s Catholic ethos.

“For example, the students have been cooking meals for the older members of the parish – small acts which make a big difference.

“I want the students to see their faith puts them in an important position to make an impact on the world.”

Since Coley left Chanel in 2017, there’s been “several new developments”, but the heart of the school is the same: a tight-knit and inclusive student community, proud of its cultural diversity, with strong support from parents.

She acknowledges retiring principal Debi Marshall-Lobb for her “wonderful work” with the students.

.“Whaea Debi has such a gentle, genuine leadership style. I’ll definitely be learning her expertise!”

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