The Importance of Tradition in Challenging Times

Principal Speaks: Dawn Ackroyd, Napier Girls' High School

Te Kura Tuarua mō ngā Kōhine o Ahuriri

Napier Girls’ High School is one of the oldest schools in New Zealand – it opened in 1881, so we celebrate 138 years as we enter 2022.

Our kuapapa is ‘Inspiration from the past, learning, contributing, empowering for today and tomorrow’. It is the inspiration from the past, acknowledging our Founders and honouring traditions that anchor us to something bigger than us, something that has stood the test of time. Over the past two years in the unsettling times of the pandemic it has been even more important to honour, uphold and celebrate these traditions.

Traditions bring about a sense of belonging – bringing people together, a source of identity – they tell the story of our school and where we have come from, they connect the generations and helps us feel we are part of something unique and special.

Traditions offer both comfort and security in times of change. They also create lasting memories which our alumni speak fondly of. The traditions remind us that we are part of history, it defines what our school is, shapes who we are today and helps towards who we are likely to become.

In the work that we are currently doing on Culturally Responsive and Relational Pedagogy (CRRP), ka mua, ka muri – walking backwards into the future, assists us in honouring the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in all that we do.

Over the last five years we have had a focus on holistic education, with developing a relational culture with an emphasis on hauora. We know if we get the wellbeing right the rest will follow. Growing up in today’s world provides many opportunities but also many challenges for our youth – we are tasked with assisting and navigating these challenges with them.

Each year we have a theme, last year it was – mahi ngātahi – in its simplest form it is the unity of people working together towards a specific goal. Expanding on that, it is about engendering collaborating with collective responsibility, accountability and commitment to support and care for each other throughout all endeavours. Our 2022 theme is – mana tangata – about the strength of the people.

Two of our core school values – whanaungatanga and manaakitanga – are about relationships and connections.

Deep in the heart of these relationships is reciprocity – enhancing the mana of each other. Manaakitanga transforms mana through acts of generosity that enhance all and lead to wellbeing of all, as well as nourishing one’s own mana and wellbeing. It is these two core values that have assisted us and continue to do so to get us through these challenging times.

A story of true inspiration from the past is that of Napier Girls’ High School’s third Principal, Anna Elizabeth Jerome “Bessie” Spencer – 1901-1910, an Old Girl herself. Bessie became the first student to graduate with a degree. She was appointed Principal when she was 29 years old. The school at the time had 70 pupils. She became the first President of the Old Girls’ Association, which she founded, in 1908. Bessie became the first woman on the school’s Board of Governors (Board of Trustees) from 1931 to 1945.

In 1916, just after the First World War broke out in 1914, Bessie went to England where she joined the Women’s Institute’s Street Patrol and nursed shell-shocked victims.  Upon her return to New Zealand and Rissington, a seed was sown by Bessie, about setting up a group to support women. Bessie and her good friend Amy held a meeting at which the Rissington Women’s Institute was found. She is nationally remembered for her founding of the Country Women’s Institute in rural New Zealand. The New Zealand Federation of Women’s Institutes celebrated their centenary last year. Today, our school, the city of Napier and the whole of New Zealand pays much gratitude to Bessie Spencer, an “inspiration from our past”. In Napier, if you walk down Shakespeare Road, opposite the Cathedral you will see a statue of Bessie Spencer.

NGHS students with the Bessie Spencer statue.

Founders’ Service, one of our traditions that we hold here at school, was established by Miss Yvonne Walker, Principal 1989-1998. We hold a special Assembly where we acknowledge our early Founders – a cake is cut by the youngest student in the school together with the President of the Old Girls’ Association. All students, as they leave the Assembly, receive an anniversary pen and chocolate. During the service the school hymn and school song are sung.

Over the last five years, with our focus on developing a relational culture, staff have undertaken professional learning and development around:

  • Culturally Responsive and Relational Pedagogy
  • Restorative Practices
  • Growth Coaching

All of the mahi assists us on our journey to be more inclusive, culturally responsive and relational in all that we do.

In 2017 we became an accredited “Investors in People” school. This was affirmation of the mahi that we are doing with regards to empowering our people to be the best that they can be. “Investors in People” is a standard which consists of a framework against which an organisation is attested, including continuous improvement, leadership, employee recognition, development and wellbeing.

One of our Old Girls who we are very proud of is Emma Twigg – a great success story; a story of perseverance, resilience, sweat and tears, and never giving up! We came together as a school to support and to celebrate Emma Twigg rowing her way to Gold at the Tokyo Olympics.

The cheer in the hall was deafening, there was a lot of yelling and a few tears of joy as Emma crossed the line to claim first place.  

As reported by Gianina Schwanecke, HB Today: “It was an Olympic best with Twigg blitzing the field and taking an early 500m lead at the start. Twigg has previously won Gold at the World Championships as a single sculler in 2014 but this is her first Olympic medal. It was Twigg’s fourth Olympic Games, with two previous fourth-place finishes.”  Emma is an inspiration to all of us. She was our Head Prefect in 2004 and has remained connected to her school.  

Emma Twigg on her way to Olympic gold.            Image: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

A value of traditions is that of benevolence – as a group we develop a predisposition to be helpful to others in need and to enhance the lives of others in our community, and an example of this is our annual Gift Service – this occurs at the end of the year where we give thanks for the year and farewell our school leavers. Each student and staff member presents a gift to the Year 13 students which are then distributed to various community organisations.

Feedback from one of our organisations this year:

“Our parcels were delivered late last week to over 70 families, consisting of over 175 children and over 100 adults. The feedback from social workers, family team and budget advisors was that the people showed relief and expressed their gratitude at being able to provide something special to their families. Some were a bit emotional.”

On Leadership

I am into my 18th year as a Principal, and my 6th year as Principal of Napier Girls’ High School – it is a privilege to be involved in the lives of young people. Being in Education is one of the most rewarding careers to be involved in – yes, it has its challenges but the rewards far outweigh the tough times.

I am very much about servant leadership – in my privileged position, what can I do for our staff and students to enable them to do the best that they can, to encourage them to be the best that they can be? The four leadership traits that we need to lead with, in these current times, are stability, trust, compassion and hope. It is about putting the needs of others at the forefront. That is what we do in education – we want to make a positive contribution to society. It is about working collectively: “My strength is not as an individual, but as a collective – E hara taku to, it te toa takitahi, he ta takatini”.

I grew up in the North East of England – times were tough. We emigrated to New Zealand in the early 1970s – I am grateful for the opportunities offered to me. I know first-hand the value of education and what a profound difference it can make to the lives of others.

I lived in Titahi Bay so to attend Wellington Girls’ College I caught a bus, then train and then walked up Piptea Street and then reverse at the end of the day. A particular science teacher was my inspiration to become a science teacher myself. This teacher was passionate about her subject, firm but fair, and took an interest in us – very relational. As educators, we must never underestimate the impact we have on those we teach. It is profound!

It is a privilege to be Principal of Napier Girls’ High School and with that comes a responsibility for me to be the best that I can, so I can do the best for our community.






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