Leading change through a major redevelopment project: An interview with Ōwairaka District School leaders

By Carolyn Marino

Leading a significant rebuild project is both a privilege and a challenge. This month Carolyn Marino sat down with Ōwairaka District School Principal, Sheryl Fletcher and Deputy Principal, Susan Whysall. In this article we reflect on their journey of leading staff through a change process.

Undergoing a rebuild of a significant number of classrooms is becoming increasingly common in schools across Aotearoa/NZ. Can you tell us a little about Ōwairaka School and the context in which this change is happening?

Ōwairaka is a well-established community based school that has recently felt the impact of a major state housing redevelopment project in our immediate zone. Thirty state houses have been removed and over 1000 new dwellings are in the process of being built. This housing intensification has brought major disruption to the school’s roll, as families have moved out of the area for the duration. In the long term, however, the roll is predicted to grow exponentially. A few years ago, the Ministry of Education (MOE) initiated the Master Planning for 16 new classrooms. Designs have now been finalised and we expect building to start in Term 2.

Our community is very multicultural and we value this diversity that adds such richness to our school. Our vision, Growing Great Learners, and our three school values speak to what our school is all about.

Ōwairaka District School: vision and values — Image by: Carolyn Marino

As one of the first schools in New Zealand to establish a thriving Garden to Table programme, and as a Gold Enviroschool and Travelwise school, these values are well embedded in the way we do things around here. As we grow and change physically, this foundation of values that align everyone together and bring attitudes of inclusivity alive in our community, will form the basis of the culture that we want to continue to nurture and protect.

In 2021 you were invited to work with Tārai Kura to begin preparing your staff for the anticipated changes. What were your key goals or desired outcomes i.e., what were you hoping to achieve?

The MOE driven design is in keeping with the current policy of building flexible, innovative learning environments. Ōwairaka has been a very successful school, offering education in single cell classrooms, with teachers who have, for the majority, only ever taught in this way and who have enjoyed autonomy and the security of doing things as they always have. We aspire to see teachers deprivatising their practice and realising the strength this will bring to our shared impact on each other’s effectiveness and student learning.

Having come from a school that had already undergone a complete rebuild, I (Sheryl) recognised that we needed to support the teaching staff to make the necessary changes to their pedagogical approaches with a focus on collaboration. We also, and perhaps more importantly, needed to support teachers to understand WHY the demands of 21st century living might be asking us to reflect on other ways of teaching and learning from that which we have traditionally felt comfortable with. We believe that all staff need time to undertake this scale of change. Whilst only part of our school was being rebuilt, as a leadership team, we wanted any pedagogical change to be embedded across the whole school, regardless of the type of classroom teachers would be working in.

As a senior leader and teacher who has never experienced working beyond a single cell environment, I (Susan) recognised change starts with each individual. We each have a responsibility to step up and learn, and to be able to contribute to the team effort of school continuous improvement. Manawanuitanga – being persistent around the learning – is one of our core values. As a senior leader I needed to model this change process. I understood that by undertaking this journey myself, I would be in a better position to support staff and students. I believe that any change starts with me! I can’t ask others to do something I couldn’t do myself.

What strategies did you bring to the change process that helped you get buy in from the staff?

There are a number of key strategies we have and are implementing to support the change process.

Create a compelling WHY

We started with an initial staff meeting and our PLD facilitator presented the staff with a compelling picture of the WHY of change. Looking at educational practice over the last 200 years created a confronting and enlightening picture for our staff of how much the world has and is changing, and how little shift we have made in educational practice as a society over this time. We recognised that a traditional teaching approach − quite teacher-centric, isolated and privatised, is unlikely to meet the needs of children growing up in a 21st century context.

Harnessing the power of early adopters

In 2022 our school was invited to join a Community of Practice (COP) with other Tārai Kura schools. We asked for volunteers to join a group that would participate in the COP and help to drive the change process with us. The team was a lovely mix of enthusiastic supporters of change, through to those more reticent, but open to new learning and exploration. This team of volunteers met regularly throughout 2022 to attend hui, iron out ideas, trial new approaches and plan a series of staff meetings to support staff in their learning. As a team, we felt like we were making it up as we went along. We debated ideas and challenged each other. It is a real testament to the strong culture of trust and support that in a year of ongoing disruption the team remained committed and successful in delivering its plan.

Responsive leadership

Throughout the change process our senior leadership team was actively involved. We monitored the change process, controlled the pace of change, and ensured that we evaluated everything we did through the lens of the impact it would have on our learners.

Empowering staff

At one of our first full staff meetings we began by asking staff to identify the ‘super power’ that they could bring to this mahi. Starting from a strengths-based approach allowed staff to identify what skills and attitudes they already have on board and can bring to the table.

Modelling the way and valuing risk taking

Throughout the year the lead team shared their learning at staff meetings and in informal conversations. They modelled their own openness to trying something new. They shared their mistakes and retakes, and celebrated small wins.

Setting a clear direction forward: “Being explicit and holding people to account”

Throughout the year of experimentation, I (Sheryl) made it clear to the staff that the school was moving towards collaborative practice, and a more student-centred and responsive pedagogy. Whilst the lead team were leading the way and going at a gentle pace with staff, there was a clear expectation and constant message that, “we were all in this together and this is the way the school is moving”.

In Term 4 all teaching staff were asked to develop an inquiry around one small aspect of collaborative practice. They could choose who they worked with and in what area they trialled ideas. At an end of year staff meeting all staff shared their inquiry findings. This took place over staff drinks and we celebrated every staff member’s effort. It was well received and we were able to identify trends and key learnings to take our practice to the next level.

What key advice would you offer another school embarking on a similar change initiative?

We have learned a great deal about change leadership and here are some key tips for those on a similar journey. We started this journey when we were not really sure when our build would even start! One thing we worried about was when to peak. We worried about starting too early. However, to make the deep changes to teaching and learning approaches, we needed to challenge people’s dearly held beliefs and this took time.

Start early: Value time in the sandpit

Change happens through conversations, giving people research to read, and sharing examples of practice. Teachers need time to “wallow” in the learning pit, to find their way out and to work on a plan to move forward. Starting early puts less pressure on staff. “Hurry up to go slow!”

Value those early adopters

Provide early adopters with the support and push as required. Be warm and demanding.

Eventually, everyone has to get on bus

Set a clear vision of where you are heading and the expectations you have for people on the journey. Start from a place of familiarity – a strengths focused approach, and take time to celebrate the small wins.

There is great research out there

Know what to read and where to start. As a leader upskill yourself and be prepared to lead the process to get that first group of willing followers on board. Then develop a team approach, and be adaptable and responsive to new learning.


Ōwairaka District School is well on its way to bringing about evidence-driven changes in ways that will encourage and empower school staff to navigate the change process together for the benefit of their learners.