Leadership in education drives community wellbeing

Issue: Volume 102, Number 4

Posted: 30 March 2023
Reference #: 1HA_97

President of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation, Leanne Otene’s decades of experience in education leadership has culminated in a wide understanding of how to create and support capable, empathetic and effective leaders in schools. She says both cultural and leadership development is crucial to creating these leaders – especially at a time where many schools are dealing with significant global and national disasters.

President of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation Leanne Otene has decades of experience in education.

President of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation Leanne Otene has decades of experience in education.

Hailing from Te Rarawia in the Far North, Leanne calls Kaitaia home – however she was raised in Taumarunui. With a father working on the railways and a mother working as a nurse, Leanne describes a childhood full of community – and an education which, while privileged, lacked a level of cultural development.

“At 12, I was sent to boarding school in Hamilton. Looking back now I know how fortunate I was to have that, however there wasn’t much cultural support.

“Being a young Māori girl, I really wasn’t exposed to much within that until later in life. A privileged early education came at a cost to my culture.

“Whilst my whānau visited our marae for tangihanga and hui, it wasn’t until I was a young adult that I really had the opportunity to explore and grow in my understanding of tikanga Māori, te reo Māori and te ao Māori.”

A journey into cultural roots and leadership

After studying at Waikato University for her bachelor’s degree and teaching diploma, Leanne worked at Hamilton West School before moving to Bruce McLaren Intermediate in Auckland. Before long, she was in for a change – a move to the north, to learn about her roots.

“My grandmother decided it was time for me to come home and learn who I was, back to Kaitaia. I was 24 when I got my first principal’s position there, at the beautiful Ngataki School.

“Until then, I was very much under the mindset of ‘good teachers end up as principals’. I got the job, and realised I was so naive about what principalship was.”

Ngataki School taught Leanne the importance of having a support network. She was a teaching principal, which meant she only had around 1.5 hours per fortnight to do any administration.

“I was very lucky to have a mentor there, who I could look up to and seek advice. It was there where I really started learning about what the role of principal was.”

The next school Leanne worked at was an ‘at-risk school’ identified by ERO. Pukimero School was in the middle of Ngaruawahia. She spent two years there, and says it was at this school she learnt the leadership skills that she believes were important to drive improvement in education policies, quality teaching and learning programmes.

“At the time ERO’s involvement probably seemed overwhelming, but on reflection I think it gave me an understanding of management. There was a beautiful community fully involved with the school, and they were part of Waikato-Tainui, so iwi involvement was expected.”

For three years after that, Leanne worked at Southern Cross Campus side by side with university researchers. She says this was a crucial time where she developed the skills of analysing and using student achievement data, developing her understanding of formative assessment practices and when the BES (best evidence synthesis) was released.

“This gave me a platform to better understanding the importance and place of research in my practice. To this day I am deeply interested in local, national and global research.”

In 2002, while working at Te Horo School in Whāngarei, Leanne was seconded to the Ministry of Education, taking on the role of principal advisor. At this time there were many school closures occurring around New Zealand, and her work was to support those involved and affected by these changes.

“We were working with principals in closing schools, and supporting them in their next journeys, giving professional guidance and support. It gave me insight into the system. I knew how the wheels of Wellington worked, I had to write ministerials, report on different frameworks and milestone reporting.”

Currently Leanne is released from her principal’s role at Manaia View School in Whāngarei, while holding the president of NZPF position. There is currently an acting principal leading the school.

“I have absolute faith she [acting principal Wendy Rudolph] will take the school forward without me. I miss them dearly. When I return, it will have made steps without me and I’ll be catching up. And that’s great, that’s leadership.”

This trust that her school will keep evolving and growing in her absence comes from Leanne’s extensive experience and professional learning as a school leader. Her work at this school and those that came before has included building training and support systems for teachers to be able to lead effectively, most recently demonstrated at Manaia View School.

“You’ve got a school at the top of their game. There’s low turnover of staff; five principals have come out of the staff; there’s a strong understanding around staff progressing through to leadership positions and strong induction programmes for staff and students.

“Developing a workforce at Manaia is not just for Manaia – these teachers will be principals one day at schools that will have my mokopuna at them.”

Support systems are key to leadership growth

Through diving into leadership roles early on in her education career, Leanne learnt early on that positive guidance and thoughtful induction programmes are integral to leadership development and success – schemes which develop knowledge in finance, governance and management.

“The only reason I survived my first principal role was because I had a strong mentor. You also need a strong induction – all new principals, regardless of experience must be inducted.

“What other job is there where you wouldn’t have an induction? We need to do better than just handing over the keys and saying, ‘do your best’.”

There are many other organisations and bodies which have contributed to Leanne’s own growth as a leader, including many that have supported the development of her cultural leadership.

“My involvement with Te Akatea [New Zealand Māori] Principals’ Association and the Whāngarei Principals’ Association has contributed greatly. It’s been the support of these and my colleagues which has aided the development of not only my leadership, but my growth in te ao Māori.

Leanne Otene

Leanne Otene

“There’s collective wisdom that comes from being part of, and participating in, a professional body.”

Leanne says she encourages any Māori teachers or principals to get involved with Te Akatea and says she wouldn’t be sitting where she was if it wasn’t for the investment in her leadership that she’d received from this organisation.

“They have beginning and aspiring principals’ programmes, which recognise that Māori principals need specific supports. There are expectations placed on us as community members that come because we’re Māori, so we need specific professional development and support.”

Another collective that has greatly influenced Leanne’s cultural development, and one which she has been a part of since its genesis, is the Māori Achievement Collaborative, which provides professional learning and development in ways that support principals to honouring and give effect to
Te Tiriti O Waitangi.

“The kaupapa is specifically to ensure principals are culturally responsive and that this is sustained. Principals are the leaders of learning and therefore this kaupapa must be led by them in their schools.”

Responding to crisis by bringing communities together

Also important within the sphere of leadership development in education is responsiveness and resilience in times of stress and crisis within our communities – like the recent Cyclone Gabrielle.

In situations like this, Leanne says she wants to ensure leaders have the tools, resources and personnel to help move their communities through crisis to recovery and simultaneously ensure structured, professional development.

“Principals are people who have the skills and attributes to lead at these times and who are looked to, to support their communities. They do that willingly. They step forward, they’re invested in their children. It becomes more than about education; many principals in those areas are stepping up to support the full community.

“The challenges are real. We share them, challenges of equity, access, services, funding. Key things we are constantly concerned about. Making sure regardless of postcode, you get the services you need to provide things your school needs.”

In this line of work, Leanne is adamant the role of a leader in education goes outside the boundaries of education. It’s a role that is constantly changing depending on community wellbeing – and for this reason, leadership in this space is not only confined to the walls of the classroom.

“Our bread and butter is teaching and learning. But we also have to recognise all other components of the job like dealing with the community wellbeing – there has to be a balance.”

Leanne says it’s crucial that school leaders need to both seek and give support. Throughout her leadership journey, the common factor that ties all her roles together has been the connections made with the people around her and the leaders she has looked up to.

“It’s fascinating for me to reflect on how every school has had an influence on who I am. I’m still in contact with all those people, I treasure and value those relationships. They’re not just set in that time and place; I’ve taken them with me.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 11:26 am, 30 March 2023

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