Wairarapa College welcomed new principal Matt White to the school with a powhiri at the end of last year. PHOTOS/FILE
As Term 1 of a new school year gets under way, education reporter TOM TAYLOR checks in with Wairarapa’s secondary school principals, who share their visions for 2021 and the lessons they learned in 2020. This week, Wairarapa College’s principal Matt White talks about school culture and identity.
Tom Taylor: Coming from Burnside High School in Christchurch, what lessons will you look to carry forward from your time there?
Matt White: What I want to bring is an ethos of personal care and excellence. There were several students gaining not only recognition at NCEA and Scholarship, but also achieving in New Zealand poetry competitions, in EVelocity, in academic fields that I would like to bring here as well and really lift that bar another notch.
I was also part of the property steering group at Burnside. As you can see, significant work is going on at WaiCol. I want those to fit in with the heritage and narrative of the school. We have beautiful grounds here, and a lot of history in the buildings, and I want that to remain while still being modern and innovative.
TT: Christchurch has had its fair share of challenges. What was your experience like living and teaching there?
MW: I moved to Christchurch just after the earthquakes. There was still a process of people recovering, right through from my own family to the students I was working with. Then we had the Port Hill fires. And then we had the terrorist attack.
I was teaching PE class. We were upstairs in the weights room, and we just knew something wasn’t right. I was probably there until close to five o’clock with my class.
It was challenging because with social media the news came through quite quickly. There was a lot of misinformation that we had to deal with. But out of that experience, the bond that I shared with that class was probably one of the strongest that I have ever had.
Then of course, we had covid-19 last year, and it was probably a similar situation to the rest of New Zealand. Christchurch is a place that has been through a lot. WaiCol is also a place that has been through some significant challenges in the past. I think the most important way that we as people in society can get through challenges like this is to look after each other.
TT: So how has life been here so far?
MW: I’m loving being here, loving the role, and the lifestyle’s been great as well. It’s got everything we need. It’s got a real community feel to it and everyone’s really extended that greeting to welcome us and find us a home – which is a challenge.
TT: Coming into a new school as principal, what can you see as areas for development?
MW: Bringing biculturalism and Te Ao Maori, making it visible and seen around the school. That’s one of the areas I would like to grow.
Compared with Christchurch there is a significant Maori percentage of students on the roll. Being Maori myself, that is important to me and who I am as a person.
I want all our students to be proud of their identity and not to leave that at the gates. I think it is important that they embrace who they are, so you know where you are from, who you are, and where you are going.
TT: How important is the school itself for a student’s identity?
MW: What I would like to continue to grow is the culture, the history of the school, the story behind our six houses, which are all connected to the local maunga: Puketoi, Aorangi, Remutaka, and so on.
A story I shared was around the narrative of mountains being important to protect and provide, just like the house structures with a dean and a form teacher, house leaders and prefects, as student support.
They are all there to look after you – even when you can’t see the mountains, the staff are still there, so if you need support, you know where to go.
TT: How do you make sure that every student has access to equal opportunities?
MW: What we have started this year is a Year 9 induction programme … All our head prefects and deputy head prefects get up and talk about their experiences as Year 9s, their time at WaiCol, some advice, and their opportunities.
They’ve all shared different aspects of what has been important to them, and the message of getting involved seemed to come through. [On the second day of the induction] we start with information from kapa haka, and the students will learn the school waiata. Then we go into opportunities in art and sport, and we have our co-ordinators and staff talk about how you can get involved in drama club, environment group – and I’m only finding out now about just how many of those opportunities exist in this school.
From that, we follow up with regular student-led assemblies promoting those opportunities and encouraging students to dare to succeed.
TT: WaiCol’s vision is ‘with wisdom and courage – kia matau kia maia’. How does that apply to the learning environment?
MW: My focus is on care. That’s what is most important to me. I want to create a culture where all students are cared for so that they can thrive and excel. And what is great about WaiCol is all the opportunities.
We’ve got that fantastic size of not being large like Burnside High School with 2500 students, but a good-sized school where there are all the opportunities for students to excel in arts, sports, leadership, and service. The number of musical groups and sporting clubs we have means that we can cater to the interests and needs of all students.
I want to focus not just on one particular group. Every student that walks through that gate is going to be cared for, so they can have the best quality education.