Hobsonville Point Secondary School Principal, Maurie Abraham


Last year, while visiting New Zealand, a dream was born to teach in a Modern Learning Environment (MLE) school.

The seed was planted the day Peggy Sheehy and I visited the Hobsonville Point Secondary School. There was something extraordinary about the space, the faculty and the students that was immediately evident. As we started the tour with the school receptionist, we were soon greeted by a cheerfully dressed gentleman who introduced himself as Maurie Abraham and offered to show us around. Maurie explained the school philosophy. He admitted they didn’t have all the answers about the best way to design curriculum for the modern student, but they were willing to experiment, fail and try again until they figured it out! Awesome!! He invited us to interview students, which we did. As we engaged in conversation, Maurie quietly stepped away so the students could talk freely. I was incredibly impressed by the respect for the students that this gesture implied.

It was quite a bit later into the tour when I asked Maurie what he taught. He informed us he was the principal. He enlisted some self-deprecating humor and made a point that everything we were seeing was created through team effort. I was struck by his casual confidence but lack of ego. Maurie’s pride was evident when he spoke of students, staff and parents working together to build something special. He spoke to us at length about HPSS’s vision and how they carefully recruited faculty with a deep desire to create change. Maurie explained that desire alone is not enough and emphasized the importance of creating a safe space for for faculty to thrive in such experimental conditions. I was impressed when he spoke about the importance of making a safe space for faculty to take risks, fail and iterate.

As Peggy and I visited with students, faculty and observed classes, it was evident that what Maurie was showing us wasn’t some marketing ploy, it was the real deal! One of the highlights of the day was visiting with faculty during their weekly after-school tea to mark the end of the week. The faculty was genuine and generous. They freely and honestly shared their perspectives about building a new kind of school and made inquiries about our jobs and philosophy.  It was great to meet Deputy Principal, Claire Amos who had enthusiastically invited us to visit HPSS when she heard, via Twitter, we were in town and wanted to learn more about NZ schools. I met Specialised Learning Leader, Steve Mouldey, a self-proclaimed “curriculum hacker” who is easily as geeky about pedagogy as I am! I’m crossing my fingers that both Claire and Steve will make it to SXSW next year to share the incredible innovation that is taking place at HHPS with a US audience.

We met so many incredible teachers during our visit including a young learning coach, Daneille Myburgh, who was in the midst of organizing the first #edchatNZ Unconference. Impressive!  As I visited with faculty, I recall thinking that I would do almost anything for the opportunity to work with a team like theirs. It seemed incredible to work with an entire faculty tasked with the creative challenge to construct new kinds of learning opportunities relevant for today’s students.

Two weeks later, Peggy and I returned to Hobsonville Point Secondary School to attend Danielle Myburgh’s unconference. Of course, it wasn’t really ‘her’ conference, it was organized and hosted through the efforts of many in the #edchatNZ and HPSS communities. It’s just that I’m still blown away that a teacher so young had the agency, confidence and support to take on such an ambitious project. It speaks to the supportive environment in which she works.

The calibre of conversations taking place at the unconference floored me!! By that time, I had visited other schools and read the NZ National Curriculum. It was becoming crystal clear that something extraordinary is happening in New Zealand! They are re-imagining learning, the learner, and what it means to be a teacher and they are doing it on a national scale. I have always been told, over and over, that the way I teach is great but not scalable. Yet, that was exactly what I witnessed taking place in New Zealand.

I started to allow myself to dream. Would it be possible for a teacher like me to teach at a MLE school in New Zealand? I was encouraged by some of my new international colleagues that it was a distinct possibility, given my pedagogical philosophy and practice.

I returned to the states with my new tattoo on hand (literally) and a new dream. I knew within the first few weeks of resuming my position that in order to continue to grow as an educator, I needed to go for it! After 24 years of service at The Elisabeth Morrow School, it was time to step into a new challenge. That was not an easy decision as it had been a school that I loved for years. At EMS, I had been mentored by exceptional faculty and was given the opportunity to mentor exceptional faculty. It was the place where I honed my craft and developed my wings as I grew with new assignments and opportunities. Most importantly, I was given a great deal of trust and freedom to create curriculum and explore new ways to keep learning relevant. But, as with all good things, there comes a time to move on.

I won’t lie, that part has not been easy. As a new school year starts here in the States, I am mourning the loss of a community that was instrumental in shaping me as a teacher. I already miss the students I leave behind and the colleagues I will no longer work with. But growth does not come without loss. That’s a hard truth that I’m feeling now. So I let that sadness wash over me to clear space for the possibilities that are in front of me.

Do I have a teaching job lined up in New Zealand? Not yet. The operative word is: yet. I’m giving it my all as I seek a position for the 2016 NZ school year which will start in January.

Next week, I leave for a two month working tour of New Zealand. While there, I will explore possible job opportunities. I will also visit schools focused on creating modern learning cultures and blog about the amazing innovations in learning happening in NZ. The highlight of my visit will be leading workshops and delivering a spotlight session at the ULearn Conference as well as a workshop at Permission to Play.

I’m not sure what lies ahead, but I’m open to all possibilities. I look forward to what I will learn as I follow the learning to New Zealand!

Thanks to Becky Hare, Tara Fagan, and the WONDERFUL folks at CORE Education for all of the help they gave Peggy and me during our visit last year. They graciously helped us visit schools and learn about the National Curriculum. They even gave us the opportunity to contribute to the conversation through EdTalks!

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei ~Maori Proverb

Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain

Marianne Malmstrom from EDtalks on Vimeo.

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