Governing in crises: Rural school board experiences of urbanisation during COVID-19

Dr Wendy Choo, Dr Jennifer Tatebe, and Dr Lina Valdivia (University of Auckland)

In 2020/2021, small and rural Aotearoa New Zealand schools had to tackle the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation in their local communities on top of cobbling together a COVID-19 response for their school staff, children, and families. In this blog post, we share how South Auckland, Christchurch, and Tauranga rural school boards of trustees (BOTs), especially the principals, led their schools to navigate the pandemic.

School governance in Aotearoa New Zealand

School governance in Aotearoa New Zealand is unique in that each individual school has a locally elected school board of trustees. Parents and local community residents form the majority of the board. They stand to be trustees for three year terms. A mandatory seat is reserved for the school principal and another seat is designated for a school staff representative, which is most often a teacher elected via an internal school election. The board may also add several parent/community representatives to fill particular areas of expertise as needed. For example, expertise in finance may be required – or in the case of our research, it would be advantageous to have a board member with construction, project management, or facilities experience.

Together, the elected parents and community members, the principal, and the elected school staff member are responsible for the development and implementation of the school’s policy framework, asset management, the school charter (school mission and values, strategic aims, and annually reviewed targets and actions for the year), monitoring the school’s progress as per the charter and policies, implementing the National Education Guidelines, and employing the school principal.

Our research

This blog post is based on data drawn from a longitudinal study that began in 2019 to examine the impact of urbanisation on rural schools in Aotearoa New Zealand. Phase two of the study, which began in 2021, coincided with the onset of the pandemic. As a quick keyword search on Google Scholar – and this blog! – will reveal, rural schooling research is extremely limited in Aotearoa New Zealand, with much of the existing research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s. This blog post highlights the governing experiences of rural school BOTs, a group whose voices have rarely been heard.

The challenges of leading during the pandemic

Governing amidst the uncertainty and fears that COVID-19 brought to families, children, and staff posed a major challenge to BoTs, including very experienced rural school principals:

I can’t underestimate or probably can’t overemphasize how much of an impact COVID has had. […] For me, last year was probably the most difficult year I’ve had in school leadership. This is my sixteenth year in school leadership. This absolutely was the hardest. […] I can’t really see any way that it could have been made easier. I think it just comes with the territory.

Making decisions based on the “rural way”

This is not surprising. A number of BoTs described the impact of the pandemic on their schools as “profound” and “big”. What kept the BoTs going despite the challenges was their belief in the “rural way”, the belief that rural communities are resilient and that parents, teachers, children, and the local community would eventually tide over the crisis together, just like the many challenges before:

That truly is the rural way. It’s just kind of like, ‘We’ll sort it out. It’ll be fine and we will resolve it. But yeah, look after yourself.’

When limited internet connectivity posed a challenge to online learning, and when teachers, families and children were stressed and anxious about the uncertainty and isolation of lockdowns, BoTs relied on the “rural way” to provide the guiding principle for their governance decisions. They prioritised “kids being safe and healthy” and reminded staff and students to look after themselves.

Buffering the impact of the pandemic

During the crisis, rural school principals were the key intermediary between the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the school community. They passed on communications from MOE and worked with the BoTs and staff to distil policy implications for the school. BoTs were very aware of the central role the principal played in supporting the school population and mediating communications:

It was challenging, but we were very much buffered by [name] [i.e. the principal]. She was dealing with the bulk of the work as well as trying to support us and keep us as connected as we could with our community.

Leading the crew to battle the rough weather

Staff and students wanted the principals to assume the role of the captain—to set the course and speed and to direct crew members so that the school could battle the rough weather and heavy winds brought by the pandemic. Principals pointed out how the school community looked to them for direction and a sense of reassurance, even though they were not always sure of what lay ahead:

I think our community needed to know that we had this under control, and we knew what we were doing even if we didn’t really. I think they needed to feel confident in us. […] They need to know that you’re in charge and that you’ve got this under control.

Therefore, the principals did what they could to live up to the expectations and hold the fort. Drawing on whatever information they had, principals worked with the BoTs to set up a course strategy and did their best to hold the course while keeping track of how staff and students were orienting themselves to the new context:

You’re in that constant state of flux around not knowing what is coming. You had to prepare for something that you didn’t know about and then try and be kind of sort of semi-ready. […] You’re trying to get ahead of the game a little bit to alleviate it [i.e. the stress] for teachers and keep the ships sailing in the right direction and negotiating all the waves, and actually making sure kids are still kind of getting some learning done.

The stress of “the captain goes down with the ship”

But holding on to the maritime tradition of being a captain who goes down with the ship can bring significant stress and pressure to the principals, who often put aside their own needs to support others in the community. One rural school principal highlighted the juggling and balancing act she performed as she led the school through the pandemic and the humbling reminder she had for herself:

I guess my biggest challenge in all of these things is being realistic because as a principal … you want to support your families to get the best that they can, and you’re also juggling the needs of your teaching team as they deal with their own families and navigate their own way of working through COVID. You’ve got multiple stakeholders that are involved in this process. […] my biggest learning out of all of that is that my capacity has a point where I have to understand that’s as much as I can do. I think I did a really great job as a principal but I don’t know that I did a great job as a mother during that period.

Conclusion

Overall, the study highlighted the fact that the role of rural principals in supporting their staff, children and families to navigate the crisis has been critical, but also extremely stressful for these school leaders. Given the strategic importance of leadership in times of crisis and the structural challenges rural schools face, it is perhaps high time that we think about how we can better support rural BoTs and school leaders in their governance roles.


Wendy Choo is a Professional Teaching Fellow at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland. She holds a Master of Education (Curriculum and Teaching) and a Master of International Studies, both of which proved to be fundamental to her PhD work on citizenship in Myanmar. She currently specialises in the teaching of international students and is exploring the field of international education in New Zealand.

Jennifer Tatebe is a Senior Lecturer in the sociology of education at the University of Auckland. Her work is informed by her teaching experience in primary, secondary, and alternative education settings in the United Kingdom and Canada; and professional tertiary roles in Student Development and Cooperative Education. Her research and teaching examine the transformative potential of education in disadvantaged contexts by exploring the socioeconomic and political contexts of these educational spaces and their influence on teaching and learning.

Lina Maria Valdivia is currently a Project Lead of education programmes at the North Asia Center of Asia-Pacific Excellence and a Research Assistant at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland. Her PhD work investigated teacher-advice networks in a multiple-case study of Japanese and New Zealand high schools, during which she developed a new framework for analysing the impact of school climate on teacher collaboration in secondary schools.

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