Detroit Stirling – Culture and relationships

A case study for Learning from the Middle.


Mauri ora, I’m Detroit Stirling and I’m a Learning Advisor here at Unlimited, Paenga Tawhiti. My iwi are Ngati Porou, Whānau Apanui and Kai Tahu, born and bred in Christchurch.

Unlimited is a student-directed school, in that the students direct their own learning. We have IEP plans once a term with them. I’m a learning advisor, not a teacher, but a learning advisor and I have a half an hour sit down one-to-one with each student in my home base, where I hear about their learning programme and it can also just be a “How are other things in your life going?” because that relationship is key.

Once I develop that with the students then I can help in other areas. That’s largely what we do differently; every five weeks the students are choosing a new schedule so there’s lots of advising that goes on – just general support. With them choosing a schedule every five weeks they are in classes that they want to be in because they’ve chosen it; they are passionate about it, there are less behaviour issues, of course, because they’re there - they want to be there. With my subject area I know that, so when I’m teaching these students there’s that buy-in from them and it just gels. We’re all there because we want to be.

My subjects here at Unlimited are Te Reo Māori and Physical Education. I teach those two subjects and I’ve always been passionate about the two. From that I’ve also evolved into some leadership of students and staff; a team of staff to work with and a group of students to develop community and relationships. Largely we work a lot on building relationships here at Unlimited and that gets the best out of our students and staff of course and of recent I’ve been tasked with leading Māori and Pasifika student achievement, which has been quite rewarding.

So, at Unlimited I’m tasked with leading or improving Māori student achievement and what I do in that role is I think I work closely with my staff and supporting them to set goals to improve Māori student achievement in their own classes. There’s all sorts of dimensions, whether it be just a conversation about how they relate with Māori students in the home base, in their form class that is, or their teaching subject. There’s other sort of pastoral care things that I would have a conversation with colleagues about. I’m quite approachable as a person, so I’m always willing to chat about those sorts of things. I feel that my staff would come to me and say “I’ve got this dilemma – any advice?”

I’m a big believer that you’ve got to empower them to believe that they have the solution themselves, that the learning advisers can do it themselves. We have an amazing staff here and I do believe that, so for me, it’s just giving them the self-belief that they have the answers, and they can relate with those students; whether it be to share some of their positive skills they have and remind them of what they can, or are already doing, and how that might apply to a Māori family or a Māori student.

I guess it comes from within; that pono again. I’ve got a belief in something that I want to lead because I know , at the end, it’s going to be an outcome I want everybody to be on board with. I’m a big fan that we’re a school that’s working on the same kaupapa, with the same direction, so I want to know when I’m leading staff that we’re on board together, and when I’m out the front in a meeting they can sense the passion that I have and it’s contagious; they can’t help but see that in me and want to jump on board and follow the waka that I’m rowing.

To get other learning advisors on the waka with me, to get them on board with what we’re doing, you’ve got to have a bit of data, a bit of evidence. You’ve got to be able to say to them “hey, this is the case and we want to improve student outcome here, so here’s the evidence to say we need to work together on this”. When you see that, it’s like you’re empowering them and they go through this sense of realisation. You can see it and it’s quite rewarding to see them have that ‘light-bulb’ moment and then off they go and they do something even more amazing, some sort of initiative and you sit back and you go “why didn’t I think of that”, but you know that you’ve contributed to that.

We’ve taken our staff on Noho Marae for professional development because the amount of bonding you get in that environment is so strong, so for our staff occasionally after the earthquake we needed a sense of bonding before we could go forward with any school initiatives, so that marae is the perfect environment. Because I’m familiar with the marae I naturally fall into that leadership of the kaupapa and how we go on to the marae and those sorts of processes. When we get there, whatever our topic is, I make sure I’m on board and supporting our staff.

When I just started out at Unlimited one of our board chairs said that learning advisers are only meant to be at Unlimited for a couple of years; they’re dynamic, amazing people and they’ll be off doing different things around the world, following different passions, because here you’re meant to demonstrate to the kids that “hey, I’m passionate about this”, be it sports or my Māoritanga, and that’s sort of contagious and they pick up on that. The idea is that in a couple of years I’ll be over this place and I’ll be off following those passions, but of course this place has grown on me and I love it too much; it’s dynamic enough for me. Eventually I do want to move into some mainstream leadership position; to take what I’ve learnt in this arena and put it in another school setting and share those views and be radical and challenge other structures. I think I’m quite proud of what we do here in Unlimited and I think it can work in all schools.

Using this case study

  • With both students and other learning advisors at Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti Detriot Stirling has concentrated his leadership around establishing positive and trusting relationships. Discuss the importance of relationships with your leadership team. How do you set them up and maintain them? What are the outcomes you can expect from them?
  • Māori student achievement, both academic and in other areas, is important for all New Zealand schools. List the methods which Detroit uses to gain the support and develop the awareness of other staff at the school. What will work most effectively in your school and result in lifting Māori achievement and motivation? How do you deal with any resistance to your plans?
  • As a middle or senior leader you need to prepare yourself for the future and for further leadership. What plans do you have in place for that? For yourself? For others who want to be in leading positions in schools?

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