Kairo McLean was overhwelmed at his official whakatau/powhiri as the new principal of Aorangi School in Rotorua at the end of last term and not just because it had been delayed for more than three months because of Covid-19.

It had been hectic start to his new role as he got used to the added responsibility of being a new tumuaki at the small school at the foot of Ngongotaha maunga.

The 36-year-old after all had not followed the traditional route into the principal role. He spent five years in an Auckland secondary school, four as the head of PE at an indigenous school outside Alice Springs in Australia and then the past four running the Awhina Activity Centre that was attached to Rotorua Boys’ High School.

“I was a bit of a wild card for the principal role and I definitely did not follow the route that most people take to get here,” he says.

“I also didn’t start out in teaching wanting to be a principal. That spark just grew as I moved up the chain and became a manager and then a senior manager and I saw the impact you could have on motivating and caring for staff and helping them grow.

Aorangi School tumuaki Kairo McLean at his whakatau/powhiri last term.
Photo(s) A Gifted View – By Liz Coppard

“Then when this job came up I was encouraged to apply for it by Chris Grinter (Rotorua Boys’ High School principal) and he gave me the best piece of advice I got – ‘just speak from your heart’ – so I did.”

Having been appointed to the role last year, Kairo says he found the administrative workload and budgeting tough to get his head around in the first term – something he recognises many of his colleagues also battle with as work demands increase, especially during Covid-19.

As a small school – Aorangi started the year with 80 students – he says they do not qualify for additional administrative support, something he felt would have been invaluable and he’s pleased to see they are a crucial part of the claims for the new collective bargaining agreement and the wider Te Ao Kei Tua | Creating our future campaign. 

“That was tough, the first term,” he says. “I did really struggle with it, even with the ability to ask a number of other principals for help and resourcing from the Ministry.

“I would have also liked to have seen a more formal peer support network – I mean principals do help each other but we’re also competing for students to get more  funding and I think that’s just not the right model.”

He says dealing with increasing administrative work demands means that many principals, not just new ones like him, are stretched, working long hours and often finding they are being forced to catch up on their work in leading the learning and curriculum.

While Covid-19 ruined much of their plans for term one, he says he was pleased with the way his staff and community responded, especially when the virus swept through the school and they were forced to switch to solely online teaching for two weeks.

But he says they managed to keep the free school lunches programme operating, by setting up a drive-through station and also expanded it with community support to provide meals for families struggling.

Building that community support has proved to be successful. He says there are now more than 30 new students at the school for the second term and more expected.

He says that’s because the trust with the community is growing. And this term, with the Covid response setting at orange, they’re planning to hold regular Friday film nights and invite whanau along to watch movies with their tamariki.

Aorangi School tumuaki Kairo McLean at his whakatau/powhiri last term with Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick. Photo(s) A Gifted View – By Liz Coppard

Kairo also expects to hold more educational opportunities in the natural environment – “kids don’t mind the outdoors” — and has already invited kaumatua along to help teach the tamariki about local culture and history.

“I already feel lighter this week,” he says. “I now feel that I can concentrate on the teaching and learning and the wellbeing of my staff and students this term.

“My goal is to spark the love of education and learning in these tamariki. To give them the literacy, numeracy and social skills they need to succeed.

“And really just to make them aspirational.”

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