Reflections of an Across School Leader

Some teachers might view remaining primarily in the classroom over the course of an entire career as something akin to a life-sentence.

Maybe I’m an outlier, but I relish the prospect and see it as a privilege.

My name is Dave Smale, and I’m an English teacher at Westlake Boys’ High School. I’m 46 years old and at the end of 2021, I will have been teaching for 17 years. I will also complete a four-year contract as an Across School Leader (ASL) for our local community of learning – Pupuke Kāhui Ako.

The Kāhui Ako policy has two key intentions – to raise the achievement of students and to provide alternative career pathways for educators. I believe one of its strengths lies in its ability to connect and partner educators across sectors, often from very diverse contexts. I believe another, is that it empowers teachers as leaders.

If I retire at 65, I have 19 years left in education. What are my goals for these remaining years; where do my professional motivations lie?

My primary hope is to be an outstanding English teacher, next year and every year until I retire.

Some might say, where’s the ambition? Why not aim to be a deputy, or a principal?

Without question, such leadership and administrative roles are essential. Having the best people to fill these positions is crucial to the success of any school. Indeed, many of my Pupuke ASL colleagues have gained promotions of this kind, and their contributions in their new roles will directly enhance the educational health of our country. But…

…for me, I see my goal as equally aspirational.

And, I guess, contained within this sentiment is a philosophy that I hope to have passed on to my community as I finish my stint as an ASL, the absolute value and importance of the classroom teacher. I feel it has been at the heart of all I that have tried to achieve.

Serving as an ASL for Pupuke Kāhui Ako has been incredible. Being one of its nine foundation leaders was a once-in-a-career opportunity. I feel fortunate to have worked with key figures in New Zealand and International education; people like Julie Saikkonen, Dr Brian Annan, Ritu Sehji, Dr Julia Tod, Anete Dezoete, John Marwick, Dr Denise Quinlan and Dr Charles Fadel.

In its first four years, Pupuke Kāhui Ako has made significant progress in an on-going journey to improve and enhance educational opportunities for our akonga. Our team has dreamed and actioned grand-scale community events, including: two Musical Galas, the Pupuke-Fest cultural celebration, and this year’s community-wide professional development day (COLAB).

On a smaller scale, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to develop resources and initiatives to celebrate the stories of our teachers (the Inside the Teacher’s Classroom podcasts), that support the wellbeing of our teachers (the Weekly Wellbeing Suggestions), and which support our senior students transitioning into tertiary study and the workforce (the Alumni Afternoon-Tea and the Inside the Career podcasts).

I feel every aspect of the role has made me a better teacher.

In my closing act as an ASL, I’ve listed below 17 thoughts I have on teaching; one for each year taught seems about fair.

I acknowledge that my lens is limited, having spent nearly all of my career in quite a singular context (a decile nine Boys’ school on Auckland’s North Shore), but I hope one or two points can resonate with others and stimulate conversations in their contexts as well.

17 thoughts on teaching

  • What a gig: Passing on your passion and expertise for content that you love to the next generation – what could be better?
  • The classroom is King: The teacher’s job doesn’t just take place in the classroom, face-to-face with our students, there are countless other demands; but it’s the only part of the job that really matters.
  • Expertise is King: Expert content knowledge is not, in and of itself, a determiner of an excellent teacher, but it’s impossible to be one without it. Being a life-long learner is a central tenet of our curriculum and, in my opinion, the majority of our professional development should be about enhancing knowledge of subject.
  • Feedback is King: As Dr John Hattie identified several years ago in a paper titled The Power of Feedback, providing effective feedback is “one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement.” There’s no need to be assessing or marking 24/7, but when you do, make it count.
  • Passion: Allow your passion for what you teach to be on full display – it will rub off.
  • Empathy: Treat your students with empathy, respect, and kindness. This doesn’t mean to be soft, or a push-over, but it does mean regularly considering things from their perspective.
  • Specialise: This is not a concept commonly associated with teaching and perhaps seems particularly incongruous in the primary/intermediate context. That said, there are ways to be a specialist, the best teachers are, and they add greater value as a result.
  • Empty the tank: American talk-show host John Stewart used this phrase once when delivering a tribute to Bruce Springsteen. It’s something I feel applies to teaching. Teaching is an active not a passive art form. We should aim to give plenty each day and each lesson because it energises our students, and it energises us. It also ensures that the tank is fill again the next day.
  • Things don’t change that much, so keep it simple: As much as we are sometimes led to believe otherwise, things really don’t change much in teaching. Sure, technologies evolve, and society modifies but discussion and questioning remain at the core of what we do. Throw in a few previously mentioned factors, like expertise and passion, and you’ll be okay. After all, Socrates was a pretty good operator.
  • An intellectual connection is essential: Irrespective of everything else, until you can get your students connecting with and, occasionally, inspired by the content, you’re battling.
  • Take the job seriously and not seriously at all: Clearly a contradictory statement but it applies. As my great friend and colleague Heath Nola often says: “we are shaping the minds of the next generation”, but kids respond well to a relaxed attitude and having fun too.
  • Be the example: Paul Veric, who was in my form class and a year ahead of me at New Plymouth Boys’, introduced this to be that school’s whakataukī on returning as principal a few years back, and I think it applies beautifully to teaching. Nobody is perfect all the time, but where we can be fair, patient, engaged, organised and positive around our students, they are more likely to behave in kind, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
  • Find your own mentor(s): This is especially important early in a career, but I feel it adds value throughout it. Seek out teachers you admire and be a sponge; watch how they approach every aspect of their day.
  • Be a great colleague: This is not anything exclusive to teaching but it’s an essential part of our role, and it’s crucial to the sense of fulfilment we go home with each day. Be kind, supportive, respectful and maintain a sense of humour. As our World Test Champion Black Caps exemplify – team first!
  • Maintain balance in your life: Wellbeing matters. The best teachers have a rich and varied life outside of the classroom which replenishes and adds fuel to their fires. Capitalise on the superior holiday allotment we enjoy over virtually every other profession.
  • Don’t be in any hurry to get out of the classroom: Those promotions will be waiting for you; you’ve got important things to do and important things to learn first.
  • Know that what you do really matters: My father, who was an accountant, not a teacher, reflected to me long ago that “a good teacher can have an enormously positive influence, whereas a poor teacher can do irreparable harm.” What we do really matters. Every student we influence positively is important, and over time they combine and evolve into a significant sub-section of the wider community.

I have loved serving our Pupuke community as an ASL and I look forward to watching it continue to thrive and grow over the coming years.

Scholarship English class 2020

End of year selfie time with my 2020 Scholarship English class