Local Folk - Alon Shaw

Alon Shaw

Alon Shaw served as principal of Mahurangi College from 1970 to 1993, guiding the school through periods of major transition and change. He is retired now and although still in love with Mahurangi, decided to return to his roots in Canterbury. Before he left in February, he spoke to James Addis …  

I grew up in Fairlie, South Canterbury, and I always enjoyed school. In particular, I enjoyed the sport. At Timaru Boys High School I was captain of the First XI cricket team and captain of the First XI hockey team. I continued to play both until I was 50. At one point I, along with  all my children, played hockey for Rodney. It was only when I saw one of my friends, who was younger than me, get hit on the head and knocked out with a hockey ball that I decided it was time to get out of it.  
Did I always want to be a teacher? Well, I enjoyed working with motors and my father was a mechanic.

But my mother wouldn’t hear of me becoming one, too. I could either be a teacher or a lawyer. So, I went to Canterbury University and became entranced by geography, which eventually steered me towards becoming a teacher. I specialised in both historical geography and geomorphology – the science of landforms. I wrote my thesis on the historical geography of South Canterbury from the moa hunters to the mixed farm - looking at the changes in landscape as a result of European occupation.

After graduation, I went to Christchurch Teachers’ College. The first school I taught at was Napier Boys High. There were six other old Timaru boys on the staff, including the principal, so I felt quite at home there. I taught English and social studies and became a housemaster. Some find their first year of teaching tough, but I enjoyed it. I was used to boys having grown up in a boys’ school and, as a former boarder myself it was easy to adapt to being a housemaster. I knew the routines and what boys would get up to – like raiding watermelons from nearby farms. I had to put a stop to that. The farmers would get a bit upset.

I was about 25 when I married Audrey. We first met in primary school. We were friends then, but not close. One night I was back in Fairlie during the school holidays. I got a call about 9pm from a friend who was at a dance in Albury. He urged me to come and join him and mentioned Audrey would be there. My father was not very pleased but I managed to persuade him to let me borrow the car. I spent the night dancing with Audrey. We were both teachers and both interested in sport. We seemed to click pretty well.

After Napier Boys, I taught at Waimate High School. The rector there was a Dr Perry, who was very old school, a strict disciplinarian. He was a short man but feared by both staff and students. When he called you into his office he would lock the door behind you – there was no escape! In fact, he insisted on having a key for everything – even the big roller for the cricket pitch. That was because on one occasion it was discovered on the main street in Waimate. Dr Perry was not impressed and forever afterwards it was locked and chained to a tree.

From Waimate, I went to Upper Hutt College, where I learned a lot more about educational philosophy and administration, and was responsible for mentoring junior teachers. To teach well you have to have the right personality. You must be well prepared and your lessons must be interesting. The greatest difficulty individuals have as teachers is the whole business of controlling kids in the classroom. I don’t know if there is a secret to that. It’s a personality thing. Students in schools can see through weaknesses in a person extremely quickly and exploit it – and you must put a stop to that. I think time out is an effective punishment – particularly when kids have to stay home. I think it’s good for parents to know something has gone wrong. I’m glad the cane was banned. I used to get it at school and I don’t think it changed me much at all. If you cane a boy the parents may never know because the kid will keep it quiet.   

I interviewed for principal of Mahurangi College in 1969. There were 64 applicants, only five people were interviewed and, at 35, I was by far the youngest. I didn’t expect to get the job, but I did. The first few months were tough. The deputy principal and his wife – the senior female on the staff – left to go to Kaitaia. I ended up being the principal, the deputy principal and the “senior woman” on staff all at the same time. And it’s tough being a newcomer to an area. The staff knew everything about the school, and I felt I knew nothing. I did my research and read up on Warkworth beforehand, but there was no Google in those days and it was quite difficult to start with. Nevertheless, the students were great. I knew most of them by name in the early days partly because there were fewer of them. When I started in 1970, the school had a role of 301. Boys were still wearing caps and the girls wore berets. Neither headgear was popular. The two things I managed to do in the first year was abolish caps for boys and abolish Latin since hardly anyone was taking it. Of course, I should have abolished berets for girls at the same time. That was a mistake, but I did manage to do it in my second year. My other major task was to transform the school from a Form 3 to 7 school to a Form 1 to 7 school. I had to talk to primary schools, primary school parents and the NZEI to persuade them that this was a good thing. Not every primary school principal agreed with me but eventually school boards came around to supporting the idea. A Form 1 to 7 school means younger children have access to specialist teachers for things like physical education, music and art, which they don’t get at primary school.

Mahurangi College became a Form 1 to 7 school in 1974 and the school roll rose to 640. This was a good thing, because as the roll grows, a school gets access to more resources. When I first went to Mahurangi College there was no swimming pool, no art room, no gymnasium and no engineering block. But by the time I left, the roll was just under 900 and the school had managed to acquire all these additional facilities. Other improvements came with reforms we introduced in the 1980s, notably the whanau system and sustained silent reading. Students from all forms would be represented in a whanau. Older students learned to take care of younger ones and assume leadership roles and responsibility.  Sustained silent reading, where students sit quietly for 20 minutes and read, occurred in whanau groups immediately after lunch – it raised reading standards significantly, especially for students in lower forms. The best moments of my teaching career have been to see students go on to do great things – to see them winning scholarships or working in a space programme in the United States or becoming a doctor. Many students who went through Mahurangi College have done exceptionally well.

Mahurangi has been a wonderful place to live – nice community, all the facilities you need, brilliant beaches and lots of people actively working to improve the environment. I refer to all this as the “magic of Mahurangi”. But as the population grows, you notice changes and when you retire you become less visible. I used to walk into the centre of Warkworth and knew most people. Now I sometimes feel I hardly know anybody. The population growth is one of the reasons I’m heading to Geraldine – and to get away from the traffic. The population of Geraldine is just under 3000 – a bit like Warkworth was in the 1970s. I’m not a city slicker, I’m a country bumpkin at heart. But we will miss Warkworth and Snells Beach and all our friends here. And I will certainly miss Mahurangi College.  

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