An extraordinary job
For Gregor Fountain taking up the role of principal at Wellington College last year was a homecoming of sorts. A student at Wellington College himself, he completed a history degree at Victoria University, trained at the Christchurch College of Education and took up his first teaching job at Morrinsville College. From there he taught at St Paul’s Collegiate in Hamilton and Rosehill College in Papakura before returning to Wellington College as head of History and deputy principal.
He took up his first principal job at Paraparaumu College before returning to Wellington College to take the helm “back here where it all began.”
“The role of principal is an extraordinary job. You see people at their best and their worst, from celebration to tragedy. To be able to do this work at my old school, giving back to the community that has grown me, is pretty special," he said.
A hard decision and new challenges
Leaving Paraparaumu College was a hard decision for Gregor. However, he could see some important things happening in his old school and couldn’t resist the opportunity to become involved.
“It’s a really important time to be thinking about gender and masculinity and it seemed this school was moving into some new spaces with that and I wanted to be part of it,” he said.
“There was a sense of taking some of the skills and ideas I developed at Paraparaumu College and bringing them back to the community.”
Gregor was also happy to be returning with his partner and three sons to Wellington. “While we loved living in Kapiti, we’re really excited to be coming back.
Paraparaumu and Wellington College have obvious differences, with Paraparaumu being co-ed and Wellington a boys’ school, but they both have community at heart.
“Paraparaumu was a lovely community school, a local school for the local people. I enjoyed living in and being part of that,” he said.
Wellington College on the other hand had “an amazing sense of belonging” but of a different type. “It’s a commuter campus. Our boys come from all over the city but there’s a really strong sense of belonging.
Finding the CoLL values
One of Gregor’s first major projects as principal was to find a set of values that would connect the school and its community. Through community-wide consultation, Community, Oranga, Learning Together and Leadership, were chosen as the school’s COLL values.
Developing these took most of last year and now the school is building them into its strategic plan and reviewing the curriculum to make sure they are being represented. “It’s been really exciting to see these values embedded and amazing to see groups within the school using them too,” Gregor said.
He described a parent at a tournament with a school hockey team tweeting a photo of the students cooking a meal with the hashtag #learningtogether- one of the COLL values. “ It’s wonderful to see members of our community framing them in that sort of way.”
The values were coming out in other school areas too, Gregor said. “This week I noticed at the board of trustees meeting our student representative using one of the values to make a point. ‘If we believe in this then…’
In both of his principal positions Gregor has been quite active on social media, particularly through Twitter and video. “Ten or 12 years ago I did a social media workshop on how kids were using Facebook. I came back and thought that if I wanted to connect with this generation of kids I needed to get using social media.
Initially Gregor started using Twitter as a means of taking part in national debates but when he Googled himself before applying for the principal job at Paraparaumu he got a bit of a shock. “There’s a difference between how people say things in public and how they say them on social media. The tone was different to how I would say things in the community.”
When he became principal at Paraparaumu he decided to leave the debating behind and focus on the positive side of what was happening at school. He created the @PCPrincipal Twitter account which shared positive news and weekly videos. Adding the Twitter feed to the school’s website helped freshen it up too, he said. “It instantly captured the things that were happening as they happened. It helped build a community to celebrate success.” Paraparaumu College’s current principal Craig Steed is carrying on the account, which Gregor is very pleased about.
Gregor has started a new Twitter account for Wellington College @WC_Principal. “it’s more about getting the school’s messages out to the public and the parents. The kids might not use Twitter but they know about the feed. They will come up to me and say ‘Sir, take a picture of this for your Twitter!”
Gregor’s advice for principals thinking about using social media is to have a reason for doing it. “You should have a positive focus and things to share with the community.” Information being shared should be linked back to the school’s own website if possible. “Communication has changed and people want to share information. The idea use of social media is to get people back to your content.”
Principals and PPTA
As a history teacher Gregor has been impressed with PPTA’s involvement in the history of educational change, through constructive advocacy for students and the curriculum. His involvement with PPTA has largely been through the association’s support of subject associations and in particular the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association.
Gregor also believes it is important to support the association’s campaign for teacher’s pay and conditions. “As a principal it is to my advantage that we have as many talented and qualified people as we can wanting to teach.
“Principals have a whole team of people behind them. At both Paraparaumu and Wellington College I have had a team of staff behind me that do a lot of the mahi that allows me to be a big picture thinker and have a relational focus.”
Gregor is also very grateful for the efforts of the New Zealand Secondary Principals’ Council in terms of his own pay and conditions. “I really value my colleagues who are taking the lead on these things,” he said.
A special former student
When you first become a teacher you remember your first classes very clearly, Gregor says, so when asked if he ever expected one of his students would be a future prime minister, he has a clear picture in his head when he answers “absolutely.”
Gregor taught Jacinda Ardern at Morrinsville College in the mid 1990s and knew she would become something special. “She was someone who was always community building, looking out for the people on the edges and pulling them in. She was someone who was looking for and developing a set of values to guide her. I remember having a conversation with her about the Tainui settlement, which was happening around that time, and thinking she was someone a bit different. She really wanted to get her head around the whole thing. I absolutely thought she was someone who would change the world.”
What Gregor didn’t expect was a telephone call when Jacinda became prime minister, asking for him to accompany her to her swearing in. “I didn’t expect that she would recognise me, and her other teachers, as the people who helped get her there. When she invited me it felt like we were really valued. It’s hard to think of a more satisfying experience than going with the PM to their swearing in.”
Principal or headmaster
When Gregor took up his position t Wellington College he made one change straight away, he switched from the traditional ‘headmaster’ title to principal.
When the college board advertised the job it was for a principal to make it clear that any gender could apply, he said. “When I was offered the job I was asked what I wanted to be called. I thought they had already made a decision, but it was over to me. I decided to stick with principal even though there could possibly have been some negative reaction to that”
When he received a message from a former student it confirmed he had made the right decision, Gregor said. “He (the student) said choosing principal showed that, while the school doesn’t have a female principal right now, it could. That confirmed it for me. This is not about tradition. I’m not anti-tradition at all. This is absolutely about gender,” he said.
Schools belong to the kids
Gregor believes that schools belong to the students. “People think they are working for me but really we all work for the kids. So that they can have the best possible experience, feel safe and included and can lead us in the future. This generation of students have a lot of problem solving ahead of them and high school needs to be where they begin to develop those thought processes. We need them to know we care. We need a community of people who are going to recognise the people on the edges of our society and bring them in.”
@PCPrincipal - Paraparaumu College Twitter feed
@WC_Principal - Wellington College principal Twitter feed