Local Folk - David Macleod

Last month, David Macleod announced he was retiring as Principal of Mahurangi College after 18 years. He spoke to James Addis about his experiences at the school and how students have changed ...

When the Mahurangi College job came up I knew I had to apply. I was principal of Dargaville High School at the time and was not actively looking for another job. However, our family used to holiday in Algies Bay and we absolutely loved it here. All my boys were passionate about fishing and diving, and Mahurangi was right on the coast. The whole district had a good country feel about it, but it wasn’t too far from the big city and the university for my children’s further education.  

Of course, when you walk into any new job you see what needs to be done and initially it’s a bit overwhelming. You have to remember that you can only do anything one step at a time and need to take your school community with you. You must keep up with the play, but not try to attempt every new option that is available. Education Professor John Hattie’s work was becoming more widely known at that time, and we began placing greater emphasis on teachers differentiating their work and engaging individually with students – giving them personalised feedback on their learning rather than just a grade. That shift in classroom thinking was quite a big one – trying to be more closely acquainted with all our students and making sure none of them got left behind. In keeping with that personalised approach, I was eager to maintain a positive culture in the school. Two ERO review teams both subsequently commented on that – one in 2013 and again in 2016. Both sets of reviewers told our management and board that they saw Mahu as a high achieving and happy school, which was wonderful to hear, and they made many other complimentary comments.  I think the school is currently in a very good space with an exciting future ahead.

I was brought up in the Hutt Valley and went to Hutt Valley High School. During my sixth form year, my parents moved to Auckland and I spent two terms at James Cook High School.

I enjoyed my school days, but never thought I would become a teacher. My chief interests at that time were in the sciences, but when I visited a careers advisory service, they conducted some tests and concluded I would be better off going into business and business management. I don’t know if that was the right call, but I enrolled at Auckland University to study for a BCom/BA degree. When I finished my degrees in 1978, I applied for several jobs. At that time jobs were plentiful and I could have gone to work for any number of large firms, but I did not feel right about any of them. It was not what I wanted to do with my life. I put in a late application for teacher’s college. It was well after all the interviews had ended, but there was one last place available to train as a teacher of commerce. So, I took that, and I have never regretted it. I now cannot understand why I never thought of teaching during my school and university days, because it’s the most incredible career – working with young people and making a difference in their lives.

I started teaching back at James Cook High School for five years, and in addition to teaching commerce, I coached rugby and cricket. Were there tough times? Well, I certainly had some very tough kids and some very tough classes, but I don’t remember them as being tough times. I don’t ever remember feeling out of my depth or needing to have other people come and assist me. Of course, you don’t get everything right in your first few years, but you soon learn. I went on to become head of commerce at Manurewa High School for 10 years and coached the First XV there. From there I went to Dargaville High School and served as deputy principal for two years and as principal for a further six. When I became a principal, I did not do any more classroom teaching, which I missed enormously. To compensate, I continued to coach rugby and cricket for many years, which kept me in touch with the kids.

When it comes to the more difficult students, I believe every child is a creation of God who is valuable and important in their own right. To me, when I see a child going off the rails it’s a bit of a heartbreak.

It’s my job to deal with it, so at times, I have had to be quite harsh, but I like to do it in a way that ultimately is supportive for the student and the family as much as I can. It’s one of the reasons I’ve really enjoyed working with Springboard and its director Gary Diprose and his wife Michelle. It’s incredible what they have done in our community. Also Jon Williams, the local police youth aid officer, who has been phenomenal to deal with. Very caring. You’ve got to be pretty tough at times on the discipline, but you have also got to wrap that child around with a bit of care and a bit of hope for the future.

I think students have changed over the years. They are more informed and concerned than previous generations – particularly about the environment and the state of the planet. They are more serious. A nightmare for every principal a few years ago were the after-ball parties and binge-drinking parties.

There is still risky teenage behaviour, but today’s students are more careful. Binge drinking, teen pregnancy and smoking are all trending downward among today’s youth. The level of smoking and vaping combined is nowhere near the level of smoking there was 20 years ago. On the other hand, this generation is less resilient and more anxious about the world and about their own lives and their futures. I think our whole society is becoming too risk averse. Outdoor education poses a degree of risk but it helps build resilience, so it’s very sad to see some schools withdrawing from these due to the risks involved. We’ve got to be careful as a society that it does not become impossible for schools to do these things, with the threat of lawsuits hanging over everybody’s heads. We have some great outdoor programmes here at Mahu, which we are currently looking to expand, but the health and safety barriers are enormous.

Education has changed massively. Today’s students would not remember as many facts in their heads as previous generations did, but they have got more capability for researching and discovering information that they need. They are more creative in solving real-life problems. Formerly, students used to express most of their creativity through art or writing – poetry and so forth. Now they can also express that creativity through science and technology. Mahurangi College’s participation and success in the EVolocity electric vehicle competitions is reflective of that change. I get a huge amount of pleasure out of seeing the students succeeding and enjoying all aspects of their school life, whether it’s in their academic work or whether it’s in their technical, cultural or sporting activities. I’ve loved seeing the various school shows that we’ve put on through the years, and more recently it has been wonderful having dance in the school curriculum.

What happens when I leave Mahurangi College? Well, I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family and going fishing in my 5.7-metre Ramco boat. My wife and I have done most of the great walks around the country, and I’m especially looking forward to revisiting the Kepler Track. I’ve been a member of Mahurangi Presbyterian Church ever since I came to Warkworth and am looking forward to becoming more involved in some of its community service activities. We’d also be eager to do more travel if the opportunity arises. My eldest son and daughter-in-law are doing medical work in remote villages in South Sudan. We visited them in 2018, and they would welcome us back over there. Only about a third of children in South Sudan attend any form of school, and the schools, which teach in English, are crying out for help and support and guidance in so many areas. It would be wonderful to be able to go over there and contribute. But I know that there is plenty for me to get involved in here in our own Mahurangi community as well.

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