Principal of Waipukurau School - Hawke's Bay
- Master of Education
Back in 2017, Bex Skerman made national headlines as the youngest female to be appointed a school principal in New Zealand. She was 26 and a recent graduate of a Master of Education from the University of Waikato.
As a classroom teacher in New Zealand and overseas Bex was always drawn to lower decile schools and she increasingly became interested in why students weren’t achieving as they should. She decided to investigate.
“My mum completed her Master of Nursing when I was a teenager and I saw her passion for her research. I decided I could do it too. I had developed a very particular interest and passion working with our Māori students, and I wanted to know how schools could provide the best opportunities for them and ensure those opportunities and successes reflected what their whānau and they valued, not what our system assumed they valued.”
University of Waikato education academics had developed Te Kotahitanga, a programme that centred on relationships, between students and teachers, schools and their whānau. For her Masters degree Bex researched student stand downs and exclusions, what led to these, and how effective they were, particularly for male Māori students between the ages of 10-14, the highest risk group.
“The main reason these students were excluded was identified through Te Kotahitanga – that they felt there was no relationship within the school they were in and in most cases the students felt the teachers did not like them. This theme came through multiple times through different evidence sources and pieces of literature. As a result of my Waikato study, everything I do and know connects back to relationships.”
Bex’s first school as principal was Bridge Pa, a small school, predominantly Māori, in the heart of Hawke’s Bay wine country. She led Bridge Pa through substantial growth – the role more than doubled as the school began to attract pupils from outside the area as word spread, often through the children themselves, that their school was cool. They liked being there.
“I loved my time at Bridge Pa – for me it’s my second home. I am proud of what our team created and proud of our students there. They are like my extended family. There was an atmosphere of positivity, whanaungatanga and responsibility. Students knew each other deeply and teachers knew their students deeply. We were a team and we all worked together for a shared purpose which was to do what was best for our learners and their families, this was our ‘why?’.”
At the start of 2020, Bex made the hard decision to leave Bridge Pa to become principal at Waipukurau School in Central Hawke’s Bay, a larger school that offered new opportunities and challenges for her.
But genuine, positive relationships will always be at the heart of what she does. She thinks more time needs to spent during teacher training to ensure incoming teachers understand just how important relationships are and how they can be approached in the classroom, the school and community.
“I don’t think this is something you can easily learn on the job. I’ve seen how hard it is for teachers to begin at a school and attempt to build these relationships. They need to be better prepared. I also think it would be helpful if schools were consulted more often about what would benefit beginning teachers before they come into our spaces.”