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Life for a first-time principal at Queen’s High School, Dunedin

Di Carter is a first time principal at Queen’s High School in Dunedin, not far from where she was born and raised, but after a long time in very different school settings. Here Ms Carter tells of learning the ropes as principal, and how her time away helped her gain perspective on how best to serve her local community.

Coming to Dunedin as a first time principal at Queen’s High School in St Clair, Dunedin, a short distance from the beach, was in a way coming home. Born and raised in Timaru, most of my teaching career had been in the North Island. Prior to joining Queen’s two years ago, I had spent seven years as a deputy principal at Rotorua Girls’ High School. While RGHS had 75 per cent Maori, Queen’s is 25 per cent and this is extremely high for a Dunedin high school. Queen’s High School and King’s High School (the boys’ school next door) have won entry to the national kapa haka competition again this year. While many North Island schools can get funding from their local iwi, that does not seem to happen down here in the south. Instead, the He Waka Kotuia group has had to raise $50,000 just to get to Napier for the finals. This is a major achievement for such a small, dedicated group of tutors and whanau. 

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The school’s kapa haka group won entry to the national finals together with students from King’s High School next door

Even though I thought I knew a lot about education administration, nothing actually prepared me for being a principal. It is all those unknown things, and the stress and loneliness that no-one sees except the principal and their partner! Where would we be without them?

Today’s education requires innovation and new approaches to learning, and nowhere is that more evident than the use of technology in teaching. A lot of time is spent in making sure that Queen’s is able to provide the education to enable students and teachers to be ready for the world of digital exams – anytime, anywhere and any place – as NZQ is proposing for 2020. I am the first to admit that I am not tech savvy, but even I have to learn new and exciting ways of integrating technology into education so our students become independent critical learners in the digital world.

Queen’s High School has increased its student achievement at NCEA and this is a major focus for the staff and me as we strive for excellence whether it be for endorsements or getting girls to achieve their own personal best. Excellence and merit endorsements have also increased during the past two years, and a new Young Scholar badge has been introduced to acknowledge those girls achieving at a high academic standard.

Our motto is Empowering Young Women and that also includes empowering staff to develop leadership and lead initiatives in the school. A personal philosophy of mine is that the senior leader encourages and provides opportunities to lead and to gain experience. This is not always seen for what it is. Coming in and rocking the boat will always cause discomfort within the current staff. The direction given by the board might not be seen by all but the welfare of the students is always at the centre of any decision that I make for the school.

Educational leadership is not about having all the answers, the answers are everywhere. But sometimes it is about asking the hard questions, standing strong and tall on what you believe in, and learning the way to work together with the people whom that future will affect and that is our whole school community. Life is so crazily busy that as new principals, new or old, we frequently neglect to reflect critically because of the demands of day to day management. This is probably one of the biggest learning curves that I have found – finding ways to fit in my time at the end of a busy day, week, term or year. Reflections I know will help me to make more informed decisions for the future. The Ministry of Education requirements are many and varied, and the new legislation that has come in this year alone is mind boggling. Many hours have been spent learning about Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 and the Vulnerable Children’s Act 2014. I have also learnt a lot about buildings and maintenance and I now know that if it’s not on the plan, it doesn’t get done!

Other areas that I did not anticipate when coming to Dunedin was the need to call snow days! Yes, this actually happens – and the girls wait for them all year. For me, it is very stressful making a call to close the school because of snow or ice. Last year we closed the school because of the South Dunedin floods which meant the girls had to evacuate school at lunchtime, some having to wade home through knee deep water.

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A school trip to Fiordland National Park

I have so enjoyed my time as principal so far. Coming from Rotorua, I have a strong sense of purpose to address disparities and inequalities in the educational outcomes for Maori. This is one of the reasons why we are joining up to the proposed MAC (The Maori Achievement Collaborative) in Otago, as a way of addressing the changes needed by educating the educational leader, namely myself. Ako is so important in any educational setting.

During my time at Queen’s, we have changed the uniform to incorporate the Anderson kilt again. The current students saw it worn at the 60th Jubilee and wanted it back again. Student vote won, and now it looks fantastic as we merge it in. It was meant to have been just for the new year nines, but all year levels have bought it, even those in year 13. The ex-girls love it. A year 13 uniform was brought in as well as a rule to have hair tied back; what a difference this has made to the general public’s perception of our school.

Queen’s is a small school – 370 students – with a wonderful family feel, and staff want to find out about the girls’ passions and ignite them. That is what you can do when you know your students well. This year our year 13 drama class won the Otage UOSGCNZ Sheilah Winn Shakespeared Festival and then won three awards at the National Festival. The arts area is very strong here at Queen’s. 

I am proud to be part of many great innovations happening here; the strong InterAct Club that shows service to the community which includes weeks of “random acts of kindness” and also the Food Security Project which is run in conjunction with the Rotary Club of St Kilda. There is also the IES Fund innovation that Queen’s runs in conjunction with another local high school promoting Active Education and before that being a pilot school for Sport in Education (SiE). As I write this, Queen’s High School is the star attraction at the premiere of films for the International Science Festival hosted by the University of Otage, where year ten students filmed a project on global warming and even went to the West Coast to film at the glacier, all courtesy of the university and the MBIE. This was a project to get more girls interested in science in a roundabout way, and it was very successful.

Another successful innovation that has come about from the 60th Jubilee is the ex-girls’ EQUIPment scheme in which ex-girls mentor year 13 students. This is starting small but has huge potential. 

Life in Dunedin is good. The many hours spent at the school are rewarding in themselves, but seeing such wonderful, bright girls in uniform and looking proud means the world to me as it does to all the staff and the community-wide family that makes Queen’s. Queen’s girls are everywhere in this world and I mean that literally and, as the saying goes, “Once a Queen’s girl, always a Queen’s girl”. 

Queen’s High School is a state-funded girls’ secondary school, decile five, with 370 students.

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