The new principal at Gordonton School was a cop, rides an Indian Scout motorbike and played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. Keith O’Donnell takes time out of school to talk to Annette Taylor. This story featured in our first issue of community magazine Home Range. Here it is for those who like things online!
THE FIRST WEEK on the job was a blur. “I met so many kids, parents, teachers, visitors and friends of the school that I lost count. It was great to receive such warmth and welcome from everyone.”
Born and bred in Whanganui, he spent 17 years with the NZ Police, and was a leader on the Armed Offenders Squad. This, he says, involved him in a range of critical incidents, including the Raurimu massacre in 1997.
“Policing is a job where every day you go to work and deal with negative things – victims, offenders, the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the bereaved, the hurt. One of the things I enjoyed was training police officers in the use of firearms, special tactics and safety. A career in education beckoned.”
He was frustrated at the number of young people falling through the cracks and turning to a life of crime, and the police unable to stem the tide.
“I always believed it was better to be the fence at the top of the cliff rather than the ambulance at the bottom. In 2001 I left the Police and entered Massey University to become a primary teacher. Here, I felt, I could make a real difference.”
After graduating, he taught for six years in Whanganui and then took on a role with Methcon Group, a company delivering drug and alcohol awareness education to secondary schools and community groups, with a special focus on methamphetamine.
While satisfying and useful, he missed the classroom and kids and returned to teaching at Hamilton West School, where he became deputy principal and completed a Master of Educational Leadership at Waikato University.
During all this, he has played a wide range of sports, including softball, cricket, basketball, soccer and rugby, and stays physically fit.
“I’m a keen motorcyclist and love riding my Indian Scout, which my wife Mary says is ‘a little loud’. “ The couple have five children, ranging in ages from 32 – 16, and four grandchildren.
He was also a semi-professional musician for 20 years, playing guitar and bass in bands where he sang lead vocals.
“I tried my hand at theatre and a highlight was playing Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. I love seeing kids on stage performing – developing confidence and competence in the arts and I hope to share my enthusiasm with the students.”
Working at a rural school always appealed. “They have a unique culture which isn’t replicated in city schools, along with a dedicated and willing community, keen to be involved. Gordonton School provides all of that – and is only 10 minutes from town. It’s the best of both worlds.
“The first thing that strikes you about Gordonton is its setting, the trees, the grounds. As you enter it just gets better with friendly, smiling students and dedicated staff.
“I also really like the fact that it’s a full primary school. That gives plenty of scope for developing student voice, agency and leadership responsibilities. I’ve been asked a number of times ‘why did you want to work at Gordonton? My reply is ‘who wouldn’t want to work here!’”
Keith will spend the first term getting to know the students, staff and community, as well as the practices and processes.
“As well as this the task of forming solid professional relationships with all the stake-holders is paramount for them also getting to know me. That way any changes or adjustments can be made from an informed perspective and focussed squarely on improving the learning outcomes for our students.”
He feels lucky taking over a school in very good heart – “This is due in whole to the work of Principal David McNair, his staff and Boards of Trustees. His 21 years at the helm has grown the school and positioned it well for success. David left big shoes to fill but also a very fertile and promising context in which to set about filling them. I wish him well in his very well-earned retirement.”
There will be challenges. “We are witnessing quantum changes in the educational landscape at all levels in our county, perhaps more than any time since Tomorrow’s Schools was implemented in 1989.
“There has been tinkering over the ensuing years since that reform and we have seen ‘initiatives’ aplenty such as Charter Schools, National Standards and Innovative Learning Environments come and in some cases, go.
“Simply put, a current education system exists to prepare today’s learners with the required knowledge, skills, dispositions and attributes to take their rightful place in what is undoubtedly an unknown future.
“My over-riding mandate is to place and maintain Gordonton School at the leading edge of that process and maximise the potential of our students to embrace and conquer their own futures.”
But today he is just happy to be at school. “Every day is different, I’ve been pinching myself since I arrived. It’s everything I’ve worked for and it’s very exciting.”
Home Range magazine is produced by Number 8 Network.
If you have an idea for a story or would like to make a comment, get in touch with Annette!