Transformational leaders: the foundations of change – it’s not just about the buildings!

By Diana Wilkes

Transformative change in schools is at heart about having the courage to clarify beliefs and change adult behaviour. This was the common message shared by three inspirational leaders at our March 14 Webinar, The Foundations of Change – It’s not just about the buildings. Buildings do influence the way a change is implemented, but the building itself won’t make the learning visible, connected and co-constructed or transform the way people speak and relate to each other within a learning environment.

About our transformational leaders’ panel:

Barbara Cavanagh was Principal of three different secondary schools – Ngaruawahia High School, Te Awamutu College, and Albany Senior High School (Foundation Principal) prior to taking on the challenge of transforming Huntly College, which was her focus for this webinar.

“When change needs to happen you can make it. As Principal, you’ve got one job – and that’s to get the learning going in your school.”  ~Barbara Cavanagh

Lynda Knight de Blois shared how she achieved a massive turn-around at Glenview School in Cannons Creek, Porirua through building staff understanding and capabilities around neuroscience and trauma informed practice.

“One of the key things is the environment – and the human environment has to change.”  ~Lynda Knight de Blois

Maurie Abraham offered insights from leading Opotiki College, as well as his decade as founding Principal of Hobsonville Point Secondary School.

“The transformation of secondary school experience was achieved by being clear about our beliefs and bringing these to life in our everyday practice.”  ~Maurie Abraham

What were the drivers of change?

Barbara was shocked by what greeted her on her first visit to Huntly College – a run down school surrounded by barbed wire, with security guards at the gate, fights in the grounds and frequent visits by police. Teachers were under stress, lessons consisted of worksheets which students discarded as they left the classrooms, voices were often raised. Kids came to class but then ran away.

“So, as Principal, you have one job – to focus on the teaching and learning.” The focus for transformation had to be on curriculum re-design. “How could we have a curriculum relevant for these kids, now?”

The teachers told her that the students couldn’t read. She discovered no money had been spent on books for many years. Her answer was, “Well, we’re a school. If they can’t read, that’s our job. “

The first hour and 40 minutes of the day was now focused around reading, writing and maths – for the whole school.” Students and teachers were reading, reflecting and writing short stories, we used ‘Write that essay’ to teach specific writing skills. The Ministry of Education came to the party with $100,000 to spend on library books – this in itself was transformational. The school was now to be known as the school for leaders – and leaders are readers.

Rather than teaching traditional subjects, the curriculum was reframed around the I am a… concept – I am a lawyer, I am a Māori activist, I am a forensic scientist….’ Teachers brought in real world practitioners of the relevant vocation to raise student aspirations and show them what school is for. Students from Years 9-13 could opt into these units, with a massive improvement in behaviour and engagement arising from the presence of older tuakana in the classes.

Pedagogy also had to change. “We had to establish how to teach a good lesson. We designed this with middle leaders, then everyone had to do this.” This was supported by collaborative planning, with I am units being taught by 2 or sometimes 3 teachers. Teachers no longer shouted – they had learned new ways of relating to rangatahi.

Barbara confided that at one point she wasn’t sure if the transformation would happen “but it did, and I’m proud of what Huntly has become.”

Lynda’s school in Cannon’s Creek is nestled in native bush, but 7 years ago it was not a tranquil learning environment. The school was at a low point. “We had large numbers of kids coming in with disregulated behaviours. Staff were stressed and we were not coping well….At some point we realised the cavalry were not coming. We needed to do something differently and look within.”

Lynda is another ‘leader who is a reader’. Reading Dr Bruce Perry’s book, ‘The boy who was raised as a dog’, gave her the fresh insights she was seeking. She and her AP were “pretty blown away by what we were reading and the connections we were making to the children and families in front of us.” A book study with the whole staff led to ongoing professional learning, particularly with Dr Bruce Perry, whose work on the impact of abuse, neglect and trauma on the developing brain has influenced clinical practice, educational programmes and policy across the world. The teachers now have a rich understanding of how to work effectively with young people through his model of neuro-sequential networks.

This led to a huge reduction in behavioural incidents serious enough to be recorded. Baseline data in 2016 before they started this work recorded an average of 9-10 incidents a week – around 400 a year. By 2022, there were only 5 such incidents and in 2023, none.

“Our transformation was around learner well being – social and emotional engagement. It was for the children, but it has had a massive impact on us as adults. The adults were the change, but it also benefited us, with a massive reduction in stress. Now, we enjoy coming to work.”

Maurie’s starting point is his own moral purpose. “I’ll not give up on anybody.” As Principal of Opotiki College he also knew he had to find different solutions. He started every year by looking at pictures of the 14 students the school had served least well in the previous year and asked how they could do better for these rangatahi. Restorative practices were a key part of the answer. “Every kid needs to have a sense of belonging. If we want them to become responsible adults, we need to treat them respectfully and expect adult behaviour.”

Image by: Maurie Abraham

As founding Principal of Hobsonville Point Secondary school, Maurie had the opportunity to develop a new culture and curriculum from the Board’s initial mission statement: to innovate, engage and inspire. This was fleshed out into three principles: to innovate by personalising learning, to engage through powerful partnerships and to inspire through deep challenge and inquiry. “In my 40 years in schools, no kid was inspired by credits but every one of them was inspired when they got a chance to dig deeply into something that was of interest to them.”

Learning design was driven by these principles. Personalised learning meant co-constructing the learning with the students. Partnerships meant linking the learning to real people or organisations in the local or global community. Inspiration meant focusing on learning, rather than assessment – hence the decision not to aim for NCEA Level 1.

“Teachers are learning designers, but they need to do it in collaboration with the learners.” Maurie recognises teachers need to deeply understand their curriculum area and “die in a ditch for their learning objectives, but the context is up for grabs. Teachers need to share the learning objectives with the kids and then co-construct the context to find what will engage them in the learning.”

Weaving the school values of excellence, inquiry, innovation, connectedness and collaboration into the daily life of the school was another area of endeavour. For instance, projects undertaken by students in partnership with someone in the community were assessed against the values: the strength of their inquiry, how collaborative they were in their processes, how connected they were with their partner, how innovative they were in their process and outcome and their overall excellence.

Image by: c/o Maurie Abraham

The central stairs in the school showcase the Hobsonville habits – of being curious, creative, resilient, reflective, responsive, purposeful, resourceful, contributive, adventurous and compassionate. “We wanted to bring life to the front end of the NZ Curriculum, to the important dispositions that we believe young people need to contribute confidently in a changing world. We had two pathways to excellence, academic and personal,  and we wanted them to be present in our learning design.”

In what ways did physical spaces provide opportunities for, or challenges to, transformational school wide change?

All three leaders agreed that buildings can make a difference to the learning experience, but they are not the main driver.

For Barbara, the buildings should convey respect for the learners. “At Albany, I used to say the buildings don’t make a difference – but then I realised they do. A lovely big open space here, a kitchen here, beautiful toilets there…It’s the way every school should be. What we had at Huntly was just unacceptable. But, even in an old building, it helps to have new wall coverings, nice carpets, heat pumps, new furniture, to fix the leaks, to open up some spaces, so there are bigger rooms where teachers could collaborate. And, the outside too – we landscaped the grounds ourselves. It changes the way kids are if the buildings are respectful of the kids.”

Image by: Huntly College

Being in a newly designed school did make it easier for Maurie to bring to life his vision of learning being open, visible, flexible and connected – because the buildings were all those things. But, he soon came to the belief that it isn’t the buildings that shape the learning – what they do is determine the way in which it can happen. The important thing is to focus on the principles that drive the learning. Even in schools with single cell classrooms, there are ways that subjects can be connected, there are ways of co-constructing with kids, and there are ways of collaborating.

Image by: Lynda Knight

Lynda places high value on the outdoors environment. The Glenview new entrant Year 1 class spends an hour and a half in the nearby native bush 3 days a week. Currently her school is way over capacity so having suitable indoor spaces is a challenge. She does see benefits in having a built environment that is not overwhelming from a sensory perspective – whether this is auditory, sensory or general busy-ness. Buildings that provide opportunities for children to calm down, self regulate or co-regulate with adults, or spend time in the outdoors are beneficial. 

Image by: Lynda Knight

However, “one of the key things we learned on our journey is that it’s not the student that has to change – it’s the environment and predominantly the human environment that has to change. That’s what makes the difference for children in terms of their engagement and wellbeing, and lack of dysregulation. It’s about the adults changing.”

Image by: Lynda Knight

What advice would you give to school leaders seeking to implement school wide transformation?


“Be confident and clear about your own beliefs and values. This gives you the confidence to have the courage to take others with you. But, be open to learning because you might be wrong. Be willing to accommodate the views of others.”


“Build a strong foundation of relational trust and then you can take others with you. Don’t be afraid of knowledge building with your teachers – old-fashioned learning for staff. Make time for it. Prioritise it.”


“There are three things for me that have to drive change in schools: 

  • The first thing is the curriculum design. What’s worth learning for kids? What’s the delivery like? And, that leads to everything else.
  • The second one is building every single day the capability of teachers in your school. Don’t assume that teachers know how to plan really good and exciting lessons. It needs to be consistent for kids.
  • The third one is collective efficacy – that everyone in the school including the caretaker, the librarian and the office staff – they all know that this is the only voice you use in this school – a calm positive tone – and nobody yells at anybody for anything. And every single conversation with any kid in the school is about how they are getting on with their learning.”

You can watch a rough cut of the panel kōrero here.