Master of all trades: Anna Fourie on the journey of a sole charge principal

Property manager. Counsellor. Administrator. Teacher. Planner. Sports Coach. The list of roles that exist within a school is endless and requires a team with a wide skill set to operate effectively.  But what about when you lead a small school – or one where you’re the only person available for these roles?   As sole charge principal at Ohura Valley Primary School, Anna Fourie has to be all things to all people in the community. And even if her school roll is in the single digits, that creates a massive set of challenges.    “Everything goes through me”  As Anna explains, sole charge principals are missing the support network that principals at bigger schools have access to.   “It’s a lonely job! I don’t have anyone to delegate to, to bounce ideas off or measure situations and decisions against. The board as well – it's a lot of people from farming families who have their own incredibly busy lives. Everything goes through me, and when the teaching of the children is the biggest priority, that’s where things like strategic planning can fall by the wayside.”   Upon beginning our Strategic Leadership for Rural Teaching Principals Programme, Anna began to adopt more of a helicopter view, understanding the importance of things like strategic planning – but that hasn’t necessarily made it easier to get done.   “The biggest breakthrough with Springboard, for me, was that I have to force myself to plan. When you are responsible for every decision, every action in the school, it’s hard to do – but in the long run it saves you so much work.”  “Realising that I have to dedicate time to it, and that I’m allowed to be wrong too! I’ve never been allowed to not know the answer to something but being able to talk things through with other principals or volunteers has been really important for me.”  “It’s just a case of finding the time to do it. I have to get off-premises to work on it, otherwise I get caught up in everything else. You need to lock me in a prison or something!”   Nine levels of teaching  Ohura Valley Primary School has a roll of nine students, coming from five families in the community. And while that makes for a far more manageable class size than many educators will be used to, Anna explains that is an environment of constant juggling.   “It’s nine students, but nine levels of planning. Every child needs something unique, so my day is teaching nine different classes at the same time in the same room. It’s a kind of difficult that’s hard to explain – what I would give to trade places with a principal from a larger school for a week!”   Coupled with Ohura Valley Primary School’s isolation, finding the resources to meet everyone’s needs can be difficult. But an early pilot to digital learning helped a great deal – and put them in a good position for when COVID-19 struck.   “We do a lot of e-learning, often with other small schools around the country. I teach the students the fundamentals of doing their own research from very early on, which I think is critical for adulthood. I’d say children from small schools like ours go out into the world so well equipped for independent life, they have to develop such resilience and learn to get along and learn with people from so many different ages, in a completely different environment to a classroom where everyone is at the same page and age.”   “That e-learning basis also meant we came through lockdown better than most. Te Reo Māori, sign language, web design – these things were already happening online so the shift to remote learning was comfortable in many ways, the students didn’t miss a single class.”  “One thing though, that I’m certain applies everywhere, is the screen time overload. Children got exhausted spending so much time on their devices, holidays disappeared, everyone got stretched to their limit. The Christmas holidays will be the first we’ve been able to enjoy properly in some time, it’ll be very welcome!”   Spreading the word   As Anna prepares for her SLRTP celebration and reflects on the most difficult of years, she hopes to share the learning that she has done with Springboard Trust.   “Springboard Trust is an eye opener, and nobody understands the importance of what you deliver. I have been promoting it so much with young principals I know – I wish I had it when I first started as a principal.”  “It’s taught me to stop and listen to other people’s needs, to knock on people’s doors. Find people who can help me with my ideas – even if I am responsible for all of these elements of the school, it is so good to know that the support I need is out there. I can’t praise it enough!”

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