Sandspit Road School

School leadership team
Robyn McDougall-Winchester (DP), Sharyn de Jonge (Principal), Christine Hutchinson (DP)

Understanding each person’s values and experiences enabled Sharyn to show empathy and provide the best possible support to her people. For her staff, this meant she always saw the person first and the role next.

Sharyn drew on that relational approach to address the high levels of anxiety when school returned after the first lockdown and built a foundation for successful returns after each subsequent lockdown. To start, she split the school vertically to enable a natural distribution of all ages and help with maintaining the required distancing in the playground, and buddied teachers and classes in vertical bubbles.

A positive long-term outcome of this has been an enhanced school culture. Sharyn says this had been something the school had been working on but the pandemic forced us to work differently and this has strengthened relationships and collegial respect across the school. Silos have been broken down and there are now cross school groups of teachers leading initiatives on a variety of strategic areas. “The school is really humming and there is a lot of discussion about what makes a good team,” she says.

Sharyn built a bank of positive experiences for teachers and support staff by scaffolding activities to build their confidence so that they were in turn able to support students and their whānau. Maintaining daily positive communication was a key part of this. This included having daily check-ins online to replicate the staffroom chat and ensuring everyone had a wellbeing buddy and that all buddies had shared with them resources based on NZ Mental Health Foundation Five Ways to Wellbeing.

A private staff Facebook group enabled regular updates and celebrations and this is still going strong. Equally important was including staff in decision-making, using an online survey that enabled all voices to be heard. Staff and parents were much more able to manage the uncertainty of the pandemic and be more flexible when they had regular information, and the Ministry’s Bulletins were invaluable for not only providing this but also providing transparency. Sharyn would share the bulletins with staff and highlight relevant items.

There have been some unexpected wins that have emerged from the whole experience.

While the absence of parents in the school grounds has been a loss, through the online communication and education parents are much more engaged and knowledgeable about how and what their children are learning and more confident about how they can support them.

Another positive has been the restructure of the daily timetable and the changed playground. The usual sports and games were not possible while maintaining 2 metre distancing so bikes, scooters and skates were allowed. While some trepidation about this there are fewer playground issues, students are returning to class more focused having been more physically active. As one student observed “school feels like a real kids’ space”.

An unexpected change was the success of the neuro-diverse learners in the playground and classroom. With fewer people and less noise, sensory issues were minimal and they thrived. 

There were challenges. Information came thick and fast and Sharyn felt the pressure of knowing that people expected her to have all the answers, even or especially when information changed often and quickly. Sharyn said for her this was one of the biggest challenges, and she worried that she might miss something important. She found the use of the government’s COVID visuals really helpful in managing this.

Another area that has been strengthened has been the online learning and communication platform. This was something the school had been working on prior to the pandemic but needs forced faster implementation. This created some additional workload for staff but by providing ongoing support and PLD implementation was able to go ahead and the strengths of this digital platform were proved in the online learning environment.

As the school returns to normal Sharyn is keen that they do not return to the old ways of doing things and to build on the positive outcomes some of which are identified above. Work is focusing on getting students back and the school has been trialling the attendance service with considerable success.

Preparation and planning for the full return to normal includes working with older students and their role in supporting students on return, planning on how to support the neuro-diverse learners so they can continue to flourish, helping friendships that developed in the vertical grouping environment to be supported and maintained and supporting students who started school during the pandemic and have not known anything but half the school in the playground at any one time. Having double the numbers of students in their school playground will be quite an adjustment for them.  

Most of all Sharyn is keen to see parents and the community back in as an integral part of the school. “I feel we are blessed to be part of students’ learning journeys and that parents allow this.”

In all this time Sharyn has seen her role as the leader as strongly based on a values approach. She realised early on that she needed to be calm and healthy and she modelled strategies that helped her achieve that. This was much more authentic for staff than the weekly wellbeing newsletter.

“I needed to lead and I needed to respond to whatever was thrown up at any given time - even when I might feel a slight ripple of hysteria under the surface! It was challenging at times knowing that staff and parents expected the leader to know everything – even when I had only received the same information at the same time as they had all received it.”

She also called on colleagues – her local associations and more experienced principals and was never afraid to ask for help. While it was important to maintain expectations it was important to support staff and have them in the best space possible so they could support children.


About the school

Sandspit Road School



School type

Y1-8 State Full primary

School Roll



Sharyn de Jonge

School website

Sandspit Road School

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