Principal Bruce Kearney
Bruce Kearney describes a key part of his principal role is to gain a good understanding of the environment that the school operates in, and to make and implement necessary plans, while being calm and considered no matter what situations arise. “People need to feel comfortable that there is a plan and we are going in the right direction,” says Bruce.
Having recently joined Rangiora High School in term 2 2022, the majority of his experience with the pandemic has been at Kaiapoi High School. At the time of the first lockdown in 2020, the school had been identified with a probable student case of Covid. The school was closed immediately with no opportunity to distribute digital devices to students.
Being one of the first schools in New Zealand to be associated with a Covid case, Ministry of Education officials were motivated to control the situation as much as possible. However Bruce wanted to make sure that the school retained the messaging to the community and supported them as they also came to terms with being in lockdown. Unfortunately, during this time, the experiences the school encountered were not positive, especially when messages that came from the national podium were at odds with what was actually happening within the community.
Bruce recounts that once students were able to come back to school “they flocked in ... and charged through the gates”. He recognises that for some students learning from home and managing their own learning was beneficial, but it was clear that for the majority “educational outcomes and wellbeing dropped substantially and kids yearned to be at school, to be with their teacher and to be with their friends”.
It was at this point that the school made a commitment to not simultaneously run two different ways of teaching and learning. There was no expectation for teachers to do two jobs and be paid for one, with the school being either open or closed. Staff felt affirmed with this school-wide approach that “then empowered them to then empower the students”, says Bruce. Kaiapoi High School was one of the few schools in North Canterbury that did not roster students home or operate hybrid learning programmes, during the Omicron phase in term 1 2022.
The method applied by the school to manage the continuously changing conditions of the pandemic, was through detailed planning that was communicated to their community with the message that there could be changes made when relevant information became available. “It’s what kept us sane through the times when everyone found out what was happening on TV that night,” says Bruce.
Bruce acknowledges that throughout the most concerning times of the pandemic, it was challenging for everyone, including the decision makers. However, he believes that within the education sector, aspects of the communication process and specific decisions made that directly impacted how leaders performed their jobs, could have been more effective and in sync with the realities of what was actually happening in schools. “Finding out on television that masks were no longer compulsory in schools the next day, could probably have waited one day and been communicated directly with principals first. With students turning up the next day without masks we had no capacity to manage that.”
He was also frustrated with overly prescribed regulations to implement and in some cases pointless exercises to follow. “Identifying those students who had come within 1.5m of another student, and determining whether they were wearing a mask or not, was ludicrous,” states Bruce.
At Rangiora High School, student learning programmes are continuing as school based, despite ongoing student and staff absences. It has been important to maintain a sense of routine and look at ways to help move forward, work through the current situation and keep a view on the longer term vision. “You can’t survive by just focusing on getting through to the end of the week…we’ve got to get through the next five years’.” Bruce’s view is that when people have a closed vision, the danger is thinking, ‘I’ll wait until things get better before I start enjoying life’ and therefore their job will be incredibly difficult.
“We are talking about enjoying life and school, having fun, keeping school open, keeping routines, all those things that we would do with our students when they face adversity,” he says.
Bruce is firmly focused on making sure his staff are feeling good about what they are doing and the message that they are important. If they need time off, he gives it to them. If the vibe from the staff means that everyone needs space and time, then the school responds.
Leading the two schools he had been involved with throughout the pandemic has been difficult and stressful, admits Bruce, who is an experienced principal. If there are opportunities to check in with principals to see how they are going, then they must be taken. If there are opportunities to influence what is required from principals that will make their jobs easier, then they must also be taken.
About the school
Rangiora High School
Y9-13 Co-educational State Secondary