LEADING LIGHTS     Issue 4 | 2021

Shelley McKay


Leading in a Foundation School

“It always seems impossible, until it is done.” Nelson Mandela

Article by   Shelley McKay

Close up group wood person human alike on brown background, Leadership concept

Mā te kimi ka kite,
mā te kite ka mōhio
mā te mōhio ka mārama.

Seek and discover.
Discover and know.
Know and become enlightened.

As leaders we are constantly navigating a variety of situations, environments, and expectations. There are huge demands on us as we navigate the complexity of each day.

In July of 2020, I found myself paddling through some extremely interesting waters as I took on a new role - that of deputy principal in a foundation school due to open at the beginning of 2021.

Firstly, I want to clarify my definition of leading. The verb - an action, a doing word. Leading is finding the potential in people and processes and developing that potential.

How does one begin to build a school from the ground up - literally, during a worldwide pandemic? How do you navigate through the seas of building a team around you, resourcing, building a community and culture? Setting up and maintaining sustainable systems?

I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learnt in the short time I’ve been leading in a Foundation School:

  1. It can be done!
    You can get a school up and running from greenfield to opening in 8 months during a worldwide pandemic. John Kotter’s 8 Step Framework for Leading Change cites “creating a sense of urgency” as the number one accelerator. We had by nature of the short time frame created this sense of urgency. We knew that by early February 2021 we had children coming and we needed to have a school, curriculum, and resourcing that was ready for them.
  2. Identify our school vision and values and commit to this being the driving force in all that you do!
    This provided a strong direction for our school and our vision is one of our non-negotiables. Our vision was sound, it could be communicated in less than five minutes and was reflected in everything we did. Kotter (2011) "nothing undermines change more that behaviour by important individuals that is inconsistent with their words".
  3. There is a reason you are called a Foundation School. 
    We wanted to run before we could walk. We realized halfway through term two that we needed to slow down and ‘enjoy’ the process. We needed to make sure that what we were doing was sustainable for the years to come and 'grow up' with our school.
  4. You can design an amazing curriculum but until you have learners, whānau and a community your 'amazing curriculum' - on paper - makes little sense. 
    Designing and writing a Curriculum and learning experiences, developing relevant assessment practices and creating an effective and innovative learning environment without knowing your learners or whanau is incredibly challenging.
  5. Creating a sense of belonging for all stakeholders needs to be one of your top priorities.
    In Owen Eastwood's book Belonging it states that "to feel a sense of belonging is to feel accepted, to feel seen and to feel included by a group of people, believing that we fit in, trusting that we will be protected by them. To not feel belonging is to experience the precarious and insecure sense of an outsider". 
    We were transitioning over 80 new learners. Three-quarters of these had had previous school experience. They had had previous friendship experiences. These learners were being moved to our school for a variety of reasons. Creating this sense of belonging needed to be explicitly discussed, taught, observed and continuously supported for many of our students.
  6. Greeting children/whānau at the front gate every day, by name is so important.
    It is the small things that all combine together to make your unique culture and help support the sense of belonging. Embedding small things like birthday celebrations, shared morning teas, celebration huis, in our school gospel hui, prayer times: all become rituals which add to our school culture.
  7. Setting up a school is like running an ultra marathon.
    You know you are in for the long game. Some parts of the “race” everything flows well. Until you hit the wall… That’s when you have to dig deep - push through and know that it is only a 'phase', it will pass. You just have to be methodical and work through the process, seek help and support from those around you or your supplies and keep that 'relentless forward motion'!
  8. Whatever the situation - clear communication, a kind heart and approaching anything with an openness always has a positive outcome whether it be a structural issue, a personal issue or a community issue. Every challenge is an opportunity for growth and new learning. Brene Brown coined the phrase “strong back, soft front and wild heart". This phrase for me has meant being strong in moments of adversity - and there have been plenty - saying what you mean and meaning what you say in a clear and kind way.
  9. Who we are is how we lead.
    The act of leading is deeply personal. We bring to the table our past experiences and beliefs. We learn, develop and refine the art of leading as we grow in our experiences. However, essentially the 'art' of leading requires you to understand yourself before understanding others. Being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses - being confident in your own skin, being curious, compassionate and flexible are some of the key values essential in my journey leading in a foundation school.

“It always seems impossible, until it is done.”

Nelson Mandela