Taneatua School principal Marama Stewart sounds a little bit out of breath down the phone from her school in eastern Bay of Plenty.
“Sorry, I’ve just spent the last 30 minutes roller skating with a bunch of five-year olds,” she says.
“We have someone come in every Friday just to give them a few lessons.
“Can you hang on a minute?
“‘You’re looking for? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think she’s on the other side of school, I’ll come sign her out’.
“That’s just one of my jobs on Friday. I’m also the school administrator.”
The 42-year-old has officially been the principal (and plumber, kitchen installer, finance and HR manager, building supervisor, mentor and chief social media influencer) at the school for the past three years.
Originally from Whakatane, she has been teaching since 2005 and mostly worked in schools in the central North Island, including stints in Waiouru and “way out the back of Taihape – real sheep country”.
“It’s taken me more than a decade, but I told my husband we finally made it home,” she says with a laugh.
Admitting she rarely sits still – “I get bored” – she rattles off all that she has had to deal with on a recent Friday – a day she says is normally typical.
“Let’s see, I had to try and figure out how to unclog the pipes, been having a little fight with a bus company, trying to find out where the roof is leaking, dealing with an influenza outbreak… Oh, wait.
“‘No. They’re up at Rex Morpeth playing Rippa rugby. They won’t be too far away’.
“Sorry about that, just a parent came to pick up one of their kids and I forgot that class was still up in Whakatane. Where was I?”
She says that the way her mind works – jumping and dealing with multiple problems at the same time – was what got her into trouble when she was a child.
She was “a nightmare” at school because she got distracted easily. It’s why she wanted to become a teacher – to make education interesting for kids like her.
“Being a teacher is never dull,” she says.
“They’re so authentic. And resilient. And cool.”
Aside from being an increasingly busy principal, she has also developed a penchant for, and large following on, the social media platform TikTok (@hi_im_the_principal).
Introduced to it by her husband she thought it was just videos of people dancing and she thought, “‘I can’t do that’.”
But after finding some threads about crafting, then cooking, she thought she’d start showing what life is like for principals in Aotearoa.
One particularly popular storyline last January showed her designing and installing the kitchen for the healthy lunches in schools programme – because she was “bored just doing the work” — but she also spends time discussing staffing issues that form the basis of the principals’ Te Ao Kei Tua |Creating our Future campaign.
“I spend a lot of my time saying how I’m trying to get more learning support for my kids – every child that enter our schools should get the support they need, and they’re not,” she says.
“There is a lot of undiagnosed autism and ADHD in our schools and these children are waiting for up to two years to get seen.
“We also have kids who need speech and language support and getting their eyes looked at because there are a lot of health issues in our area that stem from poor housing.”
She says that she’s lucky to have a “great DP”, who takes a lot of the administration work off her hands, although she’s still required to do a lot.
“I hate doing audits. I can do them, but I’m a teacher,” she says.
“Dealing with property issues also causes me frustration – at the moment it’s hard to get a tradesperson to come out and even look at why the roof is leaking. And they can’t get the necessary materials to fix it anyway!”
She says her school of 137 and its adjoining Puna Reo was hit early by the Omicron variant of COVID-19. It forced them to close for a week because 11 staff were isolating, but the outbreak was over by late March.
The onset of colder weather in the second term, however, has seen the school suffer some recent absences.
“It’s why I want to see Te Ao Kei Tua | Creating Our Future address the staffing shortages in primary schools and bring us some equity with secondary schools.
“I would have loved to have a school nurse. Because they would’ve recognised those sniffles that were going around meant we were on the cusp of an outbreak. And it’s just torn through our school.”
The nurse she says, would also help with other community health issues.
With many of her school’s parents working, it’s hard for them to get time off to take sick children to the doctor and the school staff often step in and ensure they make their appointments.
“I’d also love to get a counsellor, because they will help our kids …
“’Mum, I scored a try’. ‘You got a try darling? That’s awesome’.
“Sorry, that was my son. He’s eight and was up at Rippa.
“That means the kids are just arriving back.”