Palmerston North Boys' High rector Tim O'Connor talks to Jimmy Ellingham about his decade at the school and his move to Auckland Grammar.
Socks up, hair cut above the collar, no gel, shirt tucked in, call adult males ‘‘sir’’ and stand when an adult enters the room.
This is the daily way of life for Palmerston North Boys’ High School’s 1700 pupils – part of a set of standards on which rector Tim O’Connor does not compromise.
The man who next Friday steps down as head of the school after a decade says such rules work and he is prepared to defend them.
“If people outside want to have opinions, then that’s fine.
"What we find is that every time we made a strong stand on something and it did end up with media coverage the school just got stronger and the parents did rally around us and the boys stood up a bit taller.”
O’Connor knows people think you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. But he says if small stuff receives attention, the big stuff won’t happen.
It’s not hard to imagine him taking a similar stance at his next appointment as headmaster of Auckland Grammar, which begins next month.
Both schools have critics that accuse them of being “all chalk and talk”. O’Connor says this is far from true and he points to innovative teaching and the diverse sporting and cultural activities available.
As well as breeding a succession of rugby and cricket stars, Boys’ High’s music and drama department has its share of successes too.
Back in 2002, when he arrived in Palmerston North, it took just a few hours before a fresh-faced O’Connor got a late-night work-related phone call.
But it wasn’t from an irate parent or over-eager colleague wanting to discuss the vagaries of the new NCEA system.
It was emergency services saying the school’s just completed Speirs Centre was on fire.
“The day that the keys were handed over to me from [predecessor] Dave Syms, I got a phone call about 10.30pm, saying are you the rector of Boys’ High. I said ‘no, oh, hang on, yes I am’.
“Flames were coming out the side door. It was $1.1 million worth of damage.”
Straight away O’Connor was in the Manawatu Standard talking about the arson, before he had even properly started.
Then in his first term in charge, three pupils died, he appeared on the Holmes television show about a rugby dispute with Hato Paora College and then on Breakfast to talk about the school calling in drug dogs to inspect pupils.
“I remember Dave Syms ringing me and saying, ‘hey, don’t worry, it’s not like this all the time’.”
In 2006 the school continued to attract nationwide attention as tuberculosis took hold and O’Connor was in full crisis management mode – even driving pupils to hospital in a mini-van.
The school never closed, as attendances thinned. One of the classrooms was turned into a medical room for checkups.
After that, school life returned to normal and six years later O’Connor admits he’s comfortable.
“I wasn’t looking for a new job,” he says.
“I was just completing 10 years at the school and I did have in the back of my mind, how long do you stay without becoming crusty?
“I’d never want to outstay my welcome and no-one tends to tell you when you have. I’ve got another 20 years of my working life. There’s no doubt I love this place and what we’re achieving and the relationship with the boys.”
Traditional boys’ schools are pretty black and white places.
They can be rough and boorish and when O’Connor arrived at Boys’ High he created some ripples when he stamped out practices such as seniors picking on juniors at the College House boarding hostel.
Now, O’Connor wants to be remembered for creating a more “inclusive” school culture, without changing the traditions.
“We’ve shifted from being an environment of discipline to an environment of young men managing themselves. Discipline is a last option.”
He knows some people see it differently. “We’re not too concerned about those perceptions.”
The popularity of the school means it must be doing something right, O’Connor says, and he knows boys come to the school for competition and to beat other boys.
“The boys who come here largely want the best. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be the best, but hopefully we can make them be their best.
"There’s a huge loyalty among the school population. Lots of boys want to be part of it.”
O’Connor, who says he has a “100 per cent belief” in boys and state education, points out that all single-sex boys’ schools seem to be full to bursting, yet all new public schools are co-ed.
No matter the type of school, all offer the controversial NCEA qualifications that replaced the old School Certificate and Bursary a decade ago.
NCEA is getting better, but requires teachers to put in huge amounts of time outside the classroom, O’Connor says.
“The commitment that’s now expected of teachers – I don’t think it’s reasonable and I don’t think it’s sustainable.
There’s also a danger that with all the internal assessment requirements, teachers over-assess rather than actually teach.’’
Boys’ High and Grammar both offer the more exam-based Cambridge qualifications, and, at Grammar, 95 per cent of the boys sit these.
“If Cambridge exams lower their fees a little, I think you’d find a lot of schools in this country, whether they are liberal or conservative, would seriously consider them.
“NCEA is, in my opinion, just over-assessing.”
O’Connor moved to Palmerston North when he was 8 and his dad, Mike, was appointed deputy principal at Awatapu College.
Mike O’Connor went on to be principal there and at Queen Elizabeth College, before arriving at Boys’ High to teach maths in his semi-retirement.
O’Connor went to school at Boys’ High before training as a teacher.
His first job was at Rutherford Intermediate, Whanganui.
He moved to Wanganui Boys College, before becoming head of English at Wairarapa College, deputy principal at Nelson College and then Boys’ High’s eighth and youngest rector.
The last move wasn’t at first popular with wife Anne, also a teacher. “Anne just about killed me when I said I was going to apply for Palmy Boys’.
We’d bought this old house with a view of the city and the harbour.
“After gutting the house we were just finishing [renovating] it when I saw the Palmy Boys’ job. I thought, ‘that’s my old school, I’ve got to apply for that’.
“She said, ‘don’t apply for that, you might get it’. I said, ‘there’s no show in hell’.” Perhaps it was his relaxed approach to the application process that helped him get the job, O’Connor says.
“From the start I realised it was a different place to the school I went through, but I pretty quickly felt the weight of the responsibility to build on what Dave Syms did.”
The Boys’ High job is the first time he has stayed in one place for more than five years and O’Connor says he likes a change.
“Sometimes I do think it might be nice to sit back, but I don’t think I could sit round for too long.
“I’m extremely comfortable here. I love what I do and I could carry on doing it.”
He remembers Tim Miles, a former Vodafone executive, speaking at the school about “oh s... moments. They are something that can scare or excite, and O’Connor says applying for the Auckland job was one of these.
So was deciding to enter teaching. When he was a pupil at Boys’ High he says he was an average pupil and never thought he would be back teaching, let alone in charge.
But with the end of year 13 approaching, he was encouraged to consider education as a career.
From then on his rise was rapid.
“I hope I’m remembered for making decisions that are in the best interest of the school. If I stood on some toes, so be it.”
TIM O'CONNOR QUOTES:
■ ‘‘Have a look at the experiences I have had, rather than at age. That’s where the focus is,’’ he says when appointed Boys’ High rector, aged 33.
■ ‘‘It’s farcical for the Ministry of Education to push this through in such a slap-happy manner,’’ on the introduction of NCEA.
■ ‘‘If a student is under 16 then I will take legal action against the parents for supporting their son’s unreasonable absence from school,’’ he says on plans to prosecute parents who take their boys on holiday during the school term.
■ ‘‘It allows us to set standards of appearance. We’re saying when you come to school you are here for one key reason, and that’s to get educated,’’ he says when asked about the school’s no hair gel rule."
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