Whenuapai School, living is striving: Supporting a shift toward collaborative approaches to teaching and learning.

By Carolyn Marino

Opening a new school is a huge undertaking. To execute it well takes 2-5 years of planning and coordination between the Ministry of Education, the Establishment Board, the Foundation Tumuaki and their team. However, this was not the case when the Whenuapai School Board agreed to a Ministry of Education request to open and operate a second school site (Trig Road) 2.4km away from the current school site. In this instance, the Whenuapai School Board and Senior Leadership accepted the challenge to plan for opening and operating a new school in less than 10 months! And they have done it!

For Adam Cels (Tumuaki), Molly Fletcher (DP), their senior leaders – Rebecca Archer (AP), Jill MacKenzie (LSC), and the teaching team, this has been a very hands-on, complex change process.

I met with Assistant Principal and team leader, Rebecca Archer and invited her to share her perspective of this journey to date, as she works with staff to support this change process. I would also like to acknowledge and thank Adam Cels, Molly Fletcher and Jill MacKenzie, for the insights and learnings they have shared with me along their journey.

Taking your senior students and staff and relocating them on a new campus to be run as an extension of a well established school, is a major undertaking. Can you tell us a little about the context in which this change occurred?

Whenuapai School is a state, co-educational, full primary school catering for school
Years 1 to 8. It aims to be the school of choice for the local community and Whenuapai Air Force personnel who want a seamless education for ākonga from new entrant through to the intermediate years.

Why a second campus? The area is currently facing rapid development and growth within and beyond the Whenuapai School Zone. Our current school site will reach capacity within the next 12 to 24 months, and our school redevelopment is unlikely to be completed in time to accommodate roll growth. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has not provided / completed a new school within the Massey / Redhills School Zone for the tamariki living in this new suburb of Auckland.

Prefabricated modern learning environment at Whenupai Senior campus — Image by: Carolyn Marino

Whilst committed to maintaining and running this well established, highly regarded school, the 2023 strategic focus has been on working alongside the MOE to build a new senior campus to take the pressure off the school and local network. The school’s key agenda has been to ensure a smooth and successful transition for ākonga, staff and community into operating a school, split across two sites that are 2.4km apart, for 2023 and beyond.

 Adam and the Board of Trustees were really clear about the vision of two sites, but one school. Fortunately, the school has well established systems of ensuring continuous improvement. They could draw on the work Adam has led to consult with the community over the last two years, to ensure the school’s vision, values and curriculum are fit for purpose as the school continues to grow. Adam has also built a strong senior leadership team that are highly competent and up for the job. Deputy Principal, Molly Fletcher, is well equipped to co-lead this initiative.

Mana whenua engagement. Working in partnership with mana whenua and local iwi has been at the front of the schools mind. While building a relationship is taking time, the school has been supported by a local carver who chose atua that reflected the local area to craft three beautiful pou at the entrance to the new campus. The leadership team shared, “We have been [keen] to ensure we involve iwi right from the start. We don’t want to “do to”, rather we would like to sit at the table “with” Māori. The teachers are actively looking for ways to continue to work through their curriculum choices with iwi, to focus on local projects as their local curriculum continues to take form.”

Ground breaking ceremony at Whenuapai senior campus — Image by: Carolyn Marino

Curriculum design. Being a full primary school the team are aware of the unique needs of young adolescent ākonga, and the opportunity to utilise a bespoke environment for their senior ākonga. This has motivated them to develop a specific curriculum that both consolidates the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, and offers their ākonga agency, choice and opportunities to follow their learning passions.

Rebecca expands on these ideas, “The shift in our senior curriculum has been huge and we have made deliberate decisions with regards to how we structure both our daily and weekly timetable to meet the specific needs of young adolescents. The cornerstone of our school are four whakataukī that underpin our curriculum decisions and drive our team. This work started well before the new campus idea was proposed, as the school consulted with school whānau. The opportunity to develop this campus though, has spurred us to action.”

Whakatauki drive teaching and learning beliefs at Whenuapai School — Image by: Carolyn Marino

Classroom design. The school’s Education Brief to the MOE project team clearly communicated the classroom design they were seeking in the senior campus:

Whilst we have teachers and a curriculum that promotes collaboration, we also need the ability to work with individual classes for periods of each day specifically in our core curriculum. Our ideal spaces will be truly flexible – able to be collaborative for periods of the day…to have students working with multiple teachers or peers but then shut down to a single classroom (78sqm) with no noise or visual distractions from neighbouring classes. It is vital that provision can be expanded and contracted to accommodate the needs of different cohorts as well as future expansion.”

What are some of the deliberate acts your leadership team have undertaken to prepare staff for this change?

Change management literature tell us that broadening the circle of leadership reduces the burden on a few people and deepens the accountability and buy-in across stakeholders.

Rebecca Archer (AP and team leader of the senior team) shares,

“As a senior leadership team (SLT) we bring a diverse range of skills and perspectives. Adam encourages us to think creatively and outside the box. We had such little time to undertake this change, and a number of complex problems to overcome and we wanted to ensure our students’ needs and our vision for learning was in the forefront of all decision making. We were able to delegate role and responsibilities to cover all bases.”

The SLT identified that they required teachers with specific skills and mindsets to make this shift and to champion the change process. To this end, they invited any Whenuapai teacher who wished to be considered as one of the first four teachers working at the senior campus to apply for the role.

“Everyone who wanted to work at the campus had to apply. We knew the mahi required would be over and beyond that of the already busy life of a regular classroom teacher. We wanted teachers who already demonstrated a collaborative approach to their work; who had the dispositions and attitudes of an ongoing learner; who were organised, open communicators; who welcomed and embraced feedback; who were willing to put in the extra mahi and could drive their own learning. We were very open and transparent about the workload this would entail this year.”

Rebecca explains, “Once teachers were appointed, Molly (DP) and I met with them regularly, to build connections with our team. Together we looked at the logistics of implementing a curriculum in collaborative and inclusive ways. We spent time exploring the question: What is a collaborative team? We encourage our new team to talk about how they respond to stress, success and failure. We used an emotional culture deck to explore our own responses firstly before considering how this might impact on how we might operate with others. From here we drew up a set of norms and agreements that we will continue to revisit. Everything we do is a draft – it is always a work in progress; we are always learning.”

Rebecca recently asked the question of her team: How much has your practice changed this year?

The teachers identified the following insights:

  • Working alongside each other sharpens our practice; not by comparing myself with my buddy but through giving and receiving minute by minute feedback and coaching.

  • I feel more confident about ‘who I am in the room’ alongside my buddy. I feel more confident to be me, and I don’t feel awkward any more about getting it wrong – it’s just another learning opportunity.

Rebecca recognises an openness in staff to discuss the elephants in the room before they become too big, “They come to me with issues to coach them through.”

Sustaining and growing practices requires deliberate behaviours – what’s next for 2024?

As the Whenuapai school roll continues to grow, the plan is to move the Year 5-6 team of teachers to the senior campus. The land is currently being prepared for the new prefabricated buildings to be delivered.

The SLT is aware of the need to work with all staff to move towards collaborative ways of working, regardless of the teaching and learning spaces they occupy. Already a number of the Y5/6 teaching team are showing interest in working in more flexible ways.

Having the Y7/8 team as ‘early adopters’ sharing their journey will support the school to embed cultural changes. By anchoring the values of community, ownership and improvement within the school’s culture, staff become more invested in the success and maintenance of the change.

What key advice would you offer a school looking to develop collaborative ways of working as a staff?

  • Know your WHY. It’s not about collaboration for collaboration’s sake. It’s about building teacher capability and improving outcomes for our learners. While the new campus required us to work in flexible spaces, we had already started the journey of working collaboratively as a staff in the junior school as a way of building teacher capability to raise student achievement.

  • When undertaking any change do ‘with’ not ‘to’ people. Prioritise buy in and take the time to develop and share the vision of change.

  • Strong leadership has driven our change process in ways that have kept ākonga at the centre.

  • Support teachers to develop structures and modes of delivery where they rely on working with others. Our Y7/8 curriculum offers a great mix of modalities so when collaboration occurs it is authentic.

  • Teachers need time to work together. In this first year of preparing and learning we have increased teachers CRT time to allow them to be released as a pair for planning together.

  • Through Tārai Kura we joined a Community of Practice where we could network with other schools on similar journeys to learn from each other, to visit other schools and explore other ways of working.

  • Encourage reflection.  Teachers are constantly in a state of trial and error. The learning happens when they stop and reflect and look at the impact of their actions.

  • Work to take the wider community with you on the journey. We have an open door policy and have our ears to the ground. When we are aware of rumblings or issues arising we are proactive and look for ways to better inform people. We held parent evenings about our senior curriculum changes. We consulted with whānau and are currently running a string of open days to welcome them in to see our new campus in action.

It is very early in their journey but already the strong foundations of a committed, akonga-focused, high performing team are emerging. What a great place from which to leverage change and embed reflective practice. We look forward to following Whenuapai School as they continue on this exciting journey!