New Principal at Freemans Bay School

John Elliott talks to Cindy Walsh about her new role.

You have come back to Ponsonby with very high wraps. How has it been coming back ‘home’ to work and live close by?

I have lived in the Ponsonby community for over 20 years and it’s a community I love and have a strong interest and investment in. I loved my 12 years at Takapuna Primary School as Principal and frequently encouraged teachers and staff members to be brave and embrace opportunities that come along.

It was time I paid heed to my own advice and so I applied for the Principal position at Freemans Bay School. I had a long-held admiration for the leaders and school community because of its inclusive culture, for its leading position in future-focused, innovate education and for its commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

I felt it would be a privilege to support in the sustaining of this great practice and lead the future change that education would bring in this amazing school. An added bonus was being able to walk to work and therefore do my bit for the environment that I am passionate about caring for, along with keeping fit and healthy and connecting more closely with nature at the beginning and end of my day.

Are the brand new Freemans Bay School buildings living up to their hype as a wonderful 21st Century learning environment?
Absolutely! What a privilege to work in such a stimulating, enriching and engaging learning environment. Well done to the Ministry of Education, RTA Architects, Watts & Hughes Construction, Sandy the visionary leader before me and the brave, creative and forward-thinking Board of Trustees, staff and community.

Research shows that the learning environment does matter and that there is a strong link between the design of the spaces in which young people learn and better learning outcomes. It is inspiring to work in a space that further enhances and enables our commitment to the 21st Century pedagogies of digital and collaborative learning.

Please tell PN readers some of the things you and your staff have been doing with students during the lockdown. What have been some of the highs and lows?

Student, parent and staff wellbeing has been at the heart of the decision making around our design for learning in the home. We have some basic principles/goals that have guided us.

• To provide structure, routine and a daily personal connection between children and teachers, which will support children’s wellbeing.

• To provide simple, uncomplicated tasks that are manageable for children and families.

• To set challenges that are fun, engaging and promote supportive relationships in the home.

• To set learning opportunities that are creative and based on the experience of being in the home.

Some important components of this have been the daily face-to-face connection with the teachers and students through audio-conferencing and the feedback gathered from students and families about what is working well and what isn’t, so we can be responsive to this.

Schools have been presented with an authentic opportunity to look at learning and the curriculum differently.

I am just so proud of the enthusiasm, creativity and wonder with which my teachers embraced this opportunity and highlighted for me the optimism, hope and care that is prevalent in the education world. One sad thing for me is the further highlighting of the inequities in our education system and I can only hope this is a catalyst for some serious policy progress around this in the future.

You have many less than affluent families in your catchment. What have been the technology challenges? Has it prevented some students from benefiting from distance learning?

About a week before we went into Alert Level 4 we surveyed our community to find what students did not have access to a device and the internet. We then distributed around 40 school laptops to students who needed them in the two days leading up to lockdown to ensure equity.

We also promoted the home-learning TV channels, digital safety, breaking up on-line time with physical activity and art/craft, and some hard-pack resources (books/activities) were also sent home for our younger students. It was helpful having dedicated IT staff members that whanau and staff could connect with if they were having technical difficulties or challenges when interacting with the on-line platforms.

Do you think we should return to Level 3 asap? How should we weigh up the health of our people versus the health of the economy?
The health of our people is the most important thing to consider and I think the Government is doing an exceptional job at holding this at the forefront of decision making.

We will be going to Alert Level 3 in the very near future and I feel so good about being able to contribute to the health of the economy by partially opening our school to those families who, due to the nature of their business, cannot work from home and so need their children cared for at school. Some say this is ‘babysitting’ and I say, yes it is and bring it on. I embrace the fact that our school can help care for our young people and families and contribute to our people’s wellbeing.

How are Jacinda, Grant Robertson and education minister Chris Hipkins doing in your estimation? You can be as political or not as you please!

I admire these incredible leaders who have remained so calm, confident, well informed, empathetic and committed to the goal of stamping out the virus despite the broad range of perspectives they are barraged with every day.

The Ministry of Education has been clear, consistent and responsive in their communication and guidance to schools during this crisis. I feel incredibly lucky to be here in New Zealand receiving the intelligent, empathetic, moral and measured response to this crisis.

What else would you like our readers to know about Freemans Bay School and Cindy Walsh?

I am only as good as the people that surround me. I have an amazing team of DPs, teachers, staff, board members and parents that all contribute collaboratively to creating a culture of inclusiveness and an empowering, engaging and enriching community that is Freemans Bay School. I also have a loving and supportive husband and family and friends in the background looking after me so I can be the best I can for such a complex and demanding role.

I know I will thrive in this community and I feel incredibly happy to continue to support our beautiful young people to grow into healthy, happy and responsible citizens of our community, of New Zealand and of the world. (John Elliott)