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The Star Latest Christchurch news at www. .kiwi 23 Our People Pursuing a love of learning St Thomas of Canterbury College principal Christine O’Neill announced last week she would be stepping down at the end of the year, after 15 years at the school. She spoke with Gabrielle Stuart Thursday June 1 2017 Christine O’Neill MOVING ON: St Thomas principal Christine O’Neill with year 7 boys (left to right, back row) Harry Tullett, Meihana Pauling, Noah Pearsons and Jackson Punting. (Front row) – Jacob O’Connell and Kaya Wiparata PHOTO: MARTIN HUNTER Before you, no other woman had ever become a principal of a New Zealand Catholic boys’ school. Did you think back when you first applied for the job that you would get it? Well, it was really bizarre, actually. I’m from family of four sisters, I have three daughters, and before this I had taught for 10 years at Villa Maria, a girls’ school. I had taught a few St Thomas’ boys while I was at Villa, which is why I applied for it, but I don’t think I seriously thought I’d get it. But I got offered the job in December. So I spent the holidays stressing about it, thinking what do I know about boys? Was it as challenging as you expected? No, since I started here, I’ve never regretted it. There have been challenges. There were plenty of male candidates that applied for the job, and most of the teachers here are male. But I found very quickly that you proved yourself in your performance. The men here were very fair and very loyal. I imagine it’s been a pretty emotional few weeks since you made the announcement you would be stepping down – what has it been like? Well, we had another lovely assembly this morning, with the boys all singing, and after that I thought what have I done? I don’t regret it, but leaving is going to be really hard. For me been a really hard decision because this is such a great community and I have dedicated a good part of my life to working here. But you know how people say you’re ready to go. The job is very complex and challenging and energy-draining. It’s like John Key said – not that I’m comparing myself to him, but I think the motivation is similar. The school is absolutely humming right now, and it’s time for another leader to step up. What have been some of the highlights? I’m really proud of the increased diversity in the school. When I started it was about two per cent Maori and Pasifika students, but now it’s about 40 per cent, with a rapidly growing Filipino community. Another real highlight is that this year 39 of our 41 staff have either completed or are completed post-grad study. It’s a big commitment and I don’t know of any other school in the country that has that happening. We’ve also put a lot of work into creating a restorative culture, working with young men when they make mistakes, to take the fear and blame out of it, and keep them accountable but work in a problem-solving way. It’s about being accountable as a school beyond the school gate, rather than just kicking boys out. Without fail, every boy who has gone himself into a tricky situation here has been honest and willing to take responsibility for it, and that’s right to even the boys who have been in and out of jail. To see boys like that turn around and graduate year 13 is incredibly satisfying, just as satisfying as seeing boys reach the pinnacle of academic achievement. What have been the biggest challenges for you? Last year there was the big battle around racism (When a Christ’s College under-14 rugby player was accused of racially abusing a St Thomas’ student at a game). It’s hard to take those stands, but I think that’s one particular incident where you’ve got to honour your community. It would be easy to let it slide, but that would be wrong. And we’re richer for standing up to it. You’ve faced personal challenges while principal – like your battle with cancer. How did you handle that while doing such a demanding job? It was a really hard time, but there were two things that got me through. I’m lucky to have really supportive husband and really rich family life, and without that it would be a really lonely existence. I also have a very strong leadership team, four men who work with me at the core of what we do here. We go through both our personal and professional journeys together, so that doesn’t mean we always agree, but that’s been a massive support. I don’t do my job alone. And if I’m ever feeling a bit down, because it can be a highly political job and you deal with all sorts of issues, but if I’m ever overwhelmed by that I just do something with the kids. They are so uplifting to be around. You do see negative stuff about teenagers in the news, but I have so much hope for the future because they are such a good group of kids. What were your own school days like? I attended St Dominic’s in Dunedin, where we were taught by Dominican nuns. It was such a paradox, because it was a semienclosed order but yet many of the nuns had doctorates or masters degrees. So they were giving lectures at the university, then zipping back to teach at the school. On the one hand nuns, but also highly educated, empowered, professional women. So I was given a very liberal education, taught to ask questions and challenge things, with no sense of constraint or having to obey religious rules. It was very different to most schools then, and in many ways closer to how we teach now. Did you get sent to the principal much yourself, as a child? I was a good girl at school. I was head girl and dux. But I can remember one nun, the music teacher in the priory, whose window looked out at the side entrance gate. Sometimes we’d try to slip out and get caught. Some girls snuck out for a smoke, and I didn’t smoke, but I did try to sneak out to get lunch. Why did you become a teacher? Well, I loved ancient language and classics. I really wanted to go into teaching because I loved learning. My first job was at Avonside Girls’, then I spent a year at Hillmorton High. Strangely enough, a lot of principals spent time teaching at Hillmorton, I don’t know what it is but the school seems to be a great place to learn leadership. Then I got pregnant with my first daughter, so I spent eight years out of the workforce until my girls were school age. Then I taught at Villa Maria. Did you ever teach your own girls in class? Were they allowed to call you mum? Oh, yes, that was hilarious. One used to call me mum, one used to call me Christine, and one used to awkwardly go “you there” she didn’t know what to say. So they each navigated it in their own way. But I taught them classics, so the three of us share a common love for classics and art, so that’s a really special connection. One now lives in Auckland, one in New York and one just back from London, in Melbourne, but we all talk regularly every week. My biggest achievement is not being principal, it’s my girls. Do you have any advice for other women going into maledominated roles? Well, I do think men underestimate how challenging it can be as a female leader or CEO going into a male-dominated workplace. They tend to use very male ways to connect, like discussing sports or rubbing shoulders in a rugby game. But I think it’s about being yourself, building your competence and expertise, and building authentic relationships. So what is the next step for you? You aren’t leaving Christchurch? No, I’ll be in Christchurch at least for the immediate future. My husband manages Community Law Canterbury and he does some really interesting work there, and we have a new house in inner-city so we’re committed to see the regeneration of the city. I’m open to whatever comes my way, and this gives me six months do some exploration. I would love to still be engaged in the teaching world, but equally there may be opportunities in another field. I’m passionate about youth justice, and working with Maori and Pasifika students. So I’m open to whatever. I’ve got another career in me yet.