Lockdown chance to get acquainted

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The Covid-19 pandemic was a test for everyone involved in education. For a first-time principal that could have posed a challenge, but for new Poolburn School head Melissa Gare it was a case of ‘‘challenge accepted’’.

Melissa Gare has the poise and patience that are the hallmarks of a good teacher.
It was something she needed as she took on her role as new principal of Poolburn School amid a pandemic.

Dealing with pupils and their families in lockdown required lateral thinking and Mrs Gare had to come up with a solution for engaging with them via social media.
Her answer to keeping children in learning mode was to post daily family challenge videos to Facebook. She kept that engagement going by announcing winners at 7pm.

Her prominence on social media had a positive spinoff — it meant families got to know her far faster via digital means than ever would have happened in real life, she said.
‘‘They quickly learned what sort of personality I have, that I dress up, and they said they really got to know me.’’

Mrs Gare said 80% to 90% of families ‘‘really bought into it’’.
The family challenge-based approach was a way of working around differences in ages of children at home and made it easier for parents to manage, she said.

There was difficulty in knowing what children and families had access to in terms of materials, so she found a solution for that with the help of Alexandra Paper Plus and put together kits which she delivered to families’ mail boxes.
‘‘As teachers, we then knew what everyone had at home.’’
That was in return for something delicious they left for her, she said.
‘‘I got a lot of cake.’’

Five weeks after the term started, and at Alert Level 2, all 32 pupils, two teachers and she, as principal, were back in the classrooms, she said. In her case for the first time.
‘‘It was a very unusual start.’’
For her, the years 1-8 school was a natural fit and harked back to her start in teaching at Lawrence Area School in 2004. As she tells it, the sense of a school being a ‘‘community hub’’ is a natural fit for her and is something she enjoys. Poolburn School has been at the heart of the Central Otago farming community since 1888.

Originally from Tauranga, Mrs Gare met her husband, from Alexandra, while she was studying at teachers’ college in Dunedin.
After graduating, she took up a role at Lawrence Area School, where she taught new entrants.
She stayed there for four years before moving to Alexandra, where her husband took up a role in the family business.

The move required a change of schools and in 2008 she started teaching year 3 and 4 pupils at Cromwell Primary School.
In 2010, she became pregnant with her first child.
‘‘I resigned from my job at Cromwell Primary because I wanted to be a mother.’’
A call from Alexandra Primary School to take a teaching position for a term lured her back to the classroom.
That term ballooned into ‘‘eight years with a couple more kids in between’’, she said.
‘‘I decided I loved teaching — staying at home was not an option,’’ Mrs Gare said.
By the start of this year, she was co-principal at Alexandra Primary when the Poolburn School opportunity came up, she said.
‘‘I knew I wanted to be a principal and I love small communities so it was a great way to get back to that again.’’

Her proposed start date was term 2 but then the Covid-19 lockdown was announced and the Ministry of Education brought all appointments forward.
‘‘Overnight, I became principal of Poolburn School.’’
There was little handover, she said. She chatted with her predecessor and the school’s teachers via Zoom but the school itself was in full Covid-19 Alert lockdown.
Post-lockdown was her first chance to get her feet under the table as principal, but thanks to technology she already had a fair idea of whom she would be working with, she said.