Big shoes, Sir

Last updated 11:05 28/12/2013

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Sitting at large wooden desk watching the school's Featherston St entranceway, in an office surrounded by leather-bound books and plush couches, Palmerston North Boys' High School rector David Bovey looks at home.

You'd never guess the 43-year-old has led the region's largest all-boys' secondary school for only one year.

More than 1700 students call him "Sir" and 150 staff report to him, 112 of those teachers.

Bovey took charge of Boys' High at the end of last year when the longstanding, highly respected former rector Tim O'Connor left to head Auckland Grammar.

He put his hand up for the top job because it's one that doesn't come around often - he is the ninth man in charge in 110 years.

And, although he never pictured himself at the helm of Palmerston North Boys' High - he always had his eye on the stewardship of his old stamping ground at Napier Boys' High School - it's a position he loves.

Bovey went to Napier Boys', where he admits he was a "high spirited" teenager who enjoyed his seventh form year.

"I didn't necessarily do as well as I should have at school . . . some have suggested that me becoming a teacher was a bit like the old adage ‘poacher turned gamekeeper'."

He was accepted into law at Victoria University, but changed his mind last minute and worked for Inland Revenue.

It was a hard and fast way to learn that life in an office wasn't what he wanted.

"It was a hell of an eye-opener. There was a lot of glide time and my little voice told me that wasn't the right thing to do."

Two years later he started a double major in English and history at Massey University, travelled overseas and, after being turned down from teachers' college on his first attempt, finally settled into a career in the classroom.

"When I finally got round to going to university, I was only going to do something that I really loved rather than doing something I felt like I had to be doing.

"I'm not going to lie and say I had one of those burning desires to give something back through teaching, I thought I'd enjoy it and I have really enjoyed it."

He first taught at Boys' High between 1998 and 2002, before doing a five-year stint at Lindisfarne College, in Hastings, and returning to Palmerston North Boys' High as deputy rector in 2008.

In the middle of all that, as a former Manawatu and Hawke's Bay representative cricketer, Bovey also played in England for the Bourton Vale Cricket Club in the Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire league.

Despite a short spell in a co-education school in Britain, Bovey says he's a big believer in boys-only schools.

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"There seems to be a bit of a renaissance of single-sex education and I have to say I am a bit of a boys' school man myself. I just think for most boys - and you can never say all - but for most boys it really works."

His first year in the job has naturally thrown up some taxing times, among which Bovey lists the bureaucracy of the education sector, juggling a work-life balance and more demands on educators.

"When Tim left, he said to me: ‘Dave, I can tell you some of the things you have to do but, until you do them, it won't mean anything to you, so I won't bother telling you anything.' That was bloody handy, huh, thanks for that, but he was right."

Bovey says the face and nature of teaching has changed, with more focus on the bureaucracy and the book work.

Teaching as a profession is struggling to attract people, especially men, at a time when society seems to demand more male role models, he says.

"In a time where there are more blended families and more single-parent families, we get a number of young men who come to this school who have never had a significant male role model in their life and they're 14 years of age. Now that's no criticism of gender balance in teaching, but it's just a reality of the classroom."

Part of being modern teacher goes beyond just the knowledge that can be extended during school hours; teachers have to be involved in a extra-curricular activities and be those positive role models for students, he says.

In terms of upholding the historical values of Boys' High, Bovey sings from the song sheet and the school's strict standards still stand - socks must stay up and hair cannot drop below the collar.

"Nothing has really changed on that front, but I guess people could never accuse us of being ambiguous, at all the information evenings we say, ‘Look, these are the rules, and, if you don't like them, you don't have to come here'.

"We know different schools suit different people and we're lucky in Palmerston North to have a range of choices available."

That view has, and always will, draw criticism of the school. But it doesn't come from the people who go to the school, because they know what they're buying into; it's from the others who see Boys' High as antiquated, Bovey says.

"Sometimes the perception out there is we crush any sense of individuality. But we don't. By it's very nature there's a necessary amount of conformity, but I don't think boys' creativity has to be stifled just because they have to have a haircut."

Being a traditional boys' school in most senses doesn't mean it has to be archaic, he says.

"I think that's one of mistakes some people make - there's all different types of educational philosophy and ours just happens to be we respect the traditions of the school and we think they're worth maintaining and others that don't tend to agree, that's their prerogative.

"It's very easy to sit on the outside and make offhand comments, like sometimes we get accused of being arrogant or being elitist, but in my experience all we are is a state school trying to do our very best by the boys and one of the things that I really want is to give our young men the same level of opportunity that any school has, regardless of whether they're a private school, a state school or low-decile school."

Bovey says the school regularly reviews its teaching system to ensure it doesn't stagnate, but some things will never change, such as its ideological values, like the insistence on manners and conduct.

"Some people think those are small things and you shouldn't bother with the small things, but our attitude is the opposite; if we take care of the small things then the big things won't surprise you as much."

There have been a few minor shake-ups - "nothing ground shattering" - such as a few new teaching programmes and teaching positions.

"What I've found after being in the job for my first year is I can look back at a number of experiences I've had during the year and reflect on how I dealt with those things, and there's always ways to do things better, but that's part of the learning.

"That may sound a bit Dr Phil, but what I do know is I have enjoyed the year and it's gone so quickly."

But he does miss s the teaching and the students.

Most days he's in the office by 7am, and finds himself more desk-bound with more paperwork than before.

And with four children at home - Olivia 9, William 7, Henry 6, Siena, 4 - and his wife, Victoria, sometimes it's hard juggling it all.

"There's some weeks where you might be out three nights a week with school commitments. It's a balancing act sometimes and I don't always get that right.

"It's very rare that you get to clear your head of school business, but that's the nature of the job."

Bovey says he sees himself behind the desk for a long time yet and, coupled with the strong support in the community from old boys and the school staff, he feels he's on to a winner.

"I'm lucky to have fantastic staff who do there job really well. Go on, put that in, it'll earn me brownie points," he jokes.

"But, on a serious note, there is a huge amount of institutional knowledge and wonderful academic staff here.

"The high points have come along at unexpected moments, sometimes something grandiose where you think, ‘Wow, that was good'. It's just in the little things, it's in the way a student deals with a particular situation and it reaffirms everything we're trying to do."

So how does he think he matches up to Mr O'Connor?

"I lost count the number of times people said, ‘Oh, you've got big shoes to fill', so much so that finally at one of the year 9 information evenings I said, ‘No I think Tim was about a 9 and I'm a 13.' "

- © Fairfax NZ News

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