Hamish Ruawai: leading learning

by Hamish Ruawai

Managing self and relating to others are really important for all students, but to Māori students in particular. We know that for Māori students to be effective learners they need effective relationships with people who are teaching them. This knowledge influences how we work at Kaikohe West School.

Early influences

When I went to Teachers’ College I learned fairly quickly that being Māori and being a man would be attractive in terms of getting jobs. I had always loved sport and I was a keen sportsperson, especially rugby, and enjoyed playing the guitar to support kapa haka events, all those things that Māori men do! I suppose I got stereotyped early on. Gradually I realised that I could make even more of an impact, not just on sport and Māori culture but on the things we did everyday – learning and teaching.

I had wonderful mentors to work with early on in my career – Shona Oliver and Debra Peck presented effective and different models of leadership for me. They both invited collaborative decision-making, and they were interested in my opinion early on in my career, which I thought was unique! I was able to see the development of ideas from decision, to implementing and monitoring, and then to reflection. We were able to see if we were really making a difference and how to make change. It was exciting and I became passionate about it. I realised that kids don’t learn in a vacuum. Then I began to focus on other things about the students: how they learn, and how to build more effective relationships with them and their families.

Learning from my mistakes

I became a deputy principal at Linton Camp School, and then graduated to principal in 2001. I was principal for eight years there. It was a military school, high decile and with 80 per cent Māori. I had to work with the community in that environment. I got to know them really well. I know this is a strong thing to say, but I did love that community and I enjoyed the role that the school played in providing a stable environment for students when their parents were serving overseas. That was my road to becoming a principal really. I think that the biggest learning for me was realising the impact that the principal had on the whole school and the responsibility that was entrusted to you while you were in the role. I made some mistakes, and I wish I hadn’t, but those experiences contributed to the type of leader I am today. We built a lot of trust among the team, and we developed other qualities of effective leadership in later years as my focus changed to developing the leadership capability across the school for both students and teachers.

Starting a new school as an experienced principal

I came to Kaikohe West in the Far North as principal in 2010. I’ve learnt a lot in these last 18 months about how to plan for entering a new organisation. As a decile 1 school, it is a completely different environment from Linton and I’ve had to work extremely hard on building relationships based on trust. My predecessor had done things extremely well but there were changes to make.

Listening and gathering information was paramount before changes began and I needed the support from others. I have used a lot of Michel Fullan’s work, especially from his latest book “Motion Leadership: The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy” (2009) which focuses on integrity, transparency and managing the change process.

The urgent need for change

At Kaikohe West we have 370 students, 90 per cent of whom are Māori. The Far North has some of the worst statistics for educational achievement, health and other social factors. Looking at Māori educational achievement, not a lot has changed over the past years despite the government’s focus. In fact nearly half of all Māori students leave secondary school without a qualification, which is an absolute tragedy. This is an urgent matter; it’s not a situation where we can wait for another two, or three or four years. Deficit theorising does not lift outcomes for Māori.

We are about excellence

At West, we invest thousands of dollars and hours in developing quality teaching and learning, and we work just as hard to remove out-of-date systems that have little impact on student learning.

We are raising expectations and standards and sending clear messages to parents, students and teachers that excellence is what we are about. When we make decisions we always start with the question “What would excellent teachers do?”

It is what excellent teachers do every day behind that classroom door that makes the biggest difference to students and we believe in identifying, sharing and focusing on these effective traits of teachers.

For example, Maths has been our major professional development area for the past 18 months. We have co-constructed what we think an excellent maths teacher does, and have developed a continuum of maths teaching consisting of four stages of development. Each stage has three sub-stages. We have broken the teaching down into three layers:

  1. what the highly effective teacher of maths has going on in their environment
  2. what the effective teacher of maths does during the lesson
  3. a description of what the students will be doing in such a classroom.

Teachers self-assess against the continuum and are observed by a maths coach and school leader. Teachers are observed and are given feedback. They get a ton of support to work out the next step for them and their class. We release two expert teachers each day for two hours. The expert teacher stays with them and they co-teach together, side by side. Then the teacher tries on his or her own. It is a really complex process.

We’ve identified that one of the biggest barriers to learning is the teacher’s pedagogical content knowledge within the subject area. Without excellent content knowledge they are not able to effectively diagnose what the learner can and can’t do which leads to determining their next learning step. Another area of focus for us is the relationship between the teacher and learner as this must be strong and based on mutual respect. The Te Kotahitanga Effective Teacher Profile provides an excellent base for identifying these characteristics and how they can be used in class practice.

We have engaged outside help with an expert maths educator from Auckland University who comes in to look at our teaching, to make suggestions, to talk about current research and evidence. The Maths leadership team meet with her offsite once a month to reflect on progress.

As this is a new initiative we are very keen to gather feedback, both positive and negative to help us get better. We view mistakes as opportunities to learn and therefore actively discuss and present the model to local principals for critical comment.

Examining the data and supporting teachers to improve

To help create urgency we now primarily discuss and present achievement in class data rather than year levels. We present this data visually in our staffroom and this engenders constant discussion and reflection in both formal and informal meetings. This has created immense emotional response by teachers as they now reflect in a transparent manner on what they as professionals will do, with substantial support, to raise achievement. However, the main outcome has been the renewed emphasis on ownership and responsibility by individuals and as a whole team.

We have to be careful as leaders when we do this kind of thing because transparency is really about ‘risk taking’. If we don’t get the school culture right teachers may lose their willingness to share, take risks and be innovative with their teaching. The model has been going for over a year and a half now and we have had some amazing results based on achievement data. What we know is that:

“Teachers who have made the greatest progress in their teaching based on the continuum also have achieved the greatest progress in student achievement.”

It is my role to manage this change and I try to be really transparent. I do need to tell people what I am thinking about their progress. We are doing okay in maths at present and we now must have an emphasis on sustainability, especially as we move into a writing focus for 2012/13.

For a teacher who is not doing so well we have to have robust conversations with them in a respectful manner and make sure that they have the support they need. Not everything goes the way you plan! Sometimes talking to teachers isn’t easy, and you have to be responsive and a good listener. I know that sometimes I do well in this, but I also know there are times when I jump in too quickly without providing time for the teacher to identify their needs and the necessary support they require. However, our aim is to empower all learners and we are developing better ways for teachers to take greater responsibility for their learning.

Final thoughts

I have been brought up with sport and the sporting ways of doing things. It’s helped influenced how I see my role. You have to work as a team, and you need to rely on each other. It is not stars that make the team - it is the whole team as a unit. That is what I really believe in. The good thing about a team is that you need to be honest if things aren’t going well. You need to cut through the other stuff to get to the heart of the matter. And when you do that you build trust because people know that you are going to be honest with them, and they can be honest back. Hopefully we do model ourselves on being a team-orientated school and because that is the culture we are trying to create. Healthy competition is part of it, and we need to know how to lose and to encourage fair play from all members of the school community.

Principals can’t do everything on their own! You learn from your mistakes as well as the achievements, and you need to keep a balance. I am trying to focus now on developing interschool relationships and with the community as well. There is never a dull moment. It is rewarding and extremely challenging too.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this story:

  • Hamish Ruawai gives an extended example of how he has put together a project for improving maths teaching at his school. He includes external experts, observations and modelling, talking with teachers, setting expectations and providing resources and support. How could you make improvements in teaching and learning at your school using some or all of theses methods?
  • The focus of the school has been on improving the progress of each student, not just the best results of the highest achieving students and teachers. How do you and your staff ensure that everyone in the school makes progress in their learning and teaching. What processes could you put in place to improve the progress of everyone?
  • At Kaikohe West Hamish has put an urgency around the achievement of all Māori students. What is your school doing to improve the performance of all Māori? What support are you able to draw on to achieve this outcome from your community and from educational sources?
  • In making changes at his school Hamish has drawn on many of the findings of both the Leadership and Professional Learning BES. For example: building relational trust, providing resources to support teachers make change, professional learning opportunities for all staff, significant conversations with staff, delegation of leadership tasks. Look at ways in which these key documents can help you and other school leaders improve teaching and learning in your school.

Tags: Culturally responsive leadership

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