A Nayland way of life farewelled

WELL REMEMBERED: Charles Newton, former principal of Nayland College.
WELL REMEMBERED: Charles Newton, former principal of Nayland College.

Charles Newton may have departed after 15 years as head at Nayland College, but he has left plenty for the school to remember him by. CHARLES ANDERSON reports.

About eight months ago, while the students of Nayland College were enjoying their holiday freedom, Charles Newton was starting to clear 15 years of memories out of his office.

That office is not his any more. It does not even have his name on the door. But after 15 years it is clear to most people involved with the school that Newton has left his mark. He easily might not have.

Charles Newton winks for emphasis. He makes a comment, nods a little and his left eyelid almost instinctively drops. Perhaps a nod to something he knows and you don't.

When he was a student in the Marlborough Sounds he thought about becoming a lawyer rather than a teacher. It took a comment from his own principal to urge him into thinking about education as a career. Then, at the age of 39, when he accepted the job of principal at Nayland College, he had already applied to another school. Of course, he won't say what it was.

He was an outside chance at Nayland, just "a kid from an area school". So when he was appointed "there certainly would have been some raised eyebrows", Newton says, and winks.

It is likely there were not many raised eyebrows when he left, though. Fifteen years in any place is a long time, as a principal, especially so.

"You can only stay so long in a role, it's not the sort of thing you can do forever, it's too intensive," Newton says.

"It's a hell of hard work," Newton says. "It's a huge responsibility but also such an exciting challenge. Nothing I ever do will be as exciting, but I'm not worried about that."

What Newton was worried about what he says was the hardest part of the entire process of standing aside was saying those words for the first time: "I'm leaving." He had to work himself up for it, sit on it for a few days. "When you say it, you can't change your mind."

It may have been simple irony that a passionate surfer made his career initially in the entirely un-coastal Twizel and then tidally challenged Nelson but Newton was not about to let the opportunity pass him by.

"It's an honour to be asked to lead such a committed group of people," he says. "People who put a huge amount of their life and energy and passion to do the very best they can for the kids."

Newton speaks with particular fondness about the students.

"They are just great, they are fantastic young people and we are continually made proud." Newton uses the first person plural a lot. Not in a regal way but in reference to the community the students belong to and the community he is a part of. When a visitor recently came to the school he asked some senior students what they felt about the school. The answer? "We feel valued," they said.

"That is a very, very powerful statement, they feel part of the school, and that they are listened to," he says.

"The Nayland way" is how this is described. Initially the phrase was about how all students had rights which had to be earned by meeting certain responsibilities. "We are open and upfront about that," Newton says. But after winning the Goodman Fielder award for New Zealand's best secondary school in 2001 that phrase was expanded to mean something more. It was philosophy, a mindset and a distinctly Nayland way of doing things.

"The school has an inclusiveness about it, that reflects Charles' way of including everyone," says chair woman of the board of trustees Liz Clark. "The school dares to be different and that is Charles' innovative way of meeting everyone's diverse needs."

Part of meeting those needs is being responsive when a student might not entirely live up to those responsibilities. In those circumstances, ("kids do stuff up, we all stuff up") Newton says it is no longer acceptable to ship them out the gates and bid them farewell. "Nayland is a school that will give kids a second chance and sometimes maybe a third chance," he says. "We feel strongly our obligation is to give those kids the best education they can get and part of that is being a functioning citizen."

Nelson MP Nick Smith a former minister of education has also passed on his gratitude for Newton's way of doing things. "[He] made a revolutionary contribution to New Zealand education that I and every other minister of education over the past two decades would acknowledge," Smith wrote in a letter to the board of trustees.

Newton does not have his office any more. "It's an adjustment but I will get used to it. As principal you are always rushing because there is so much to focus on. I am looking forward to spending more time to work on fewer things."

One thing that is bound to take up his time is his passion for information communication technology in education. So it is helpful that ICT is a hot topic around the country at the moment. "It's a watershed time," says Newton.

He believes technology is where the future for education lies and his future is inextricably tied to it. At Nayland, he was at the forefront of developing initiatives which put the school ahead of many of its peers.

For a long time ICT was used to do things that had always been done in a classroom, the technology merely enhancing the process. "But now the landscape has totally changed," Newton says.

"People use the analogy that a doctor from 50 years ago would not be able to practise if he came into a modern-day surgery. But if a teacher walked into a classroom they say he or she could do pretty much the same thing. I don't buy into that. The old ways don't wash, they don't work any more."

What does still work, and what has to work for a school to be successful, is the team that a principal calls on.

Newton says the overriding emotion in leaving Nayland is one of guilt. A feeling that you are letting people down who you have asked so much of. "They all work incredibly hard to implement this vision and have done amazing things."

He describes Nayland as a family, one that has dominated his life often more so than his conventional one.

"So it will be nice to spend more time with my wife and friends, and to read something other than to do with work. It will be nice to go to movies and stay awake, nice to go to bed and sleep."

In the end it was right to call time on what he calls the pinnacle of his career.

"For that short tenure you are given one of the ultimate responsibilities, the hope is you hand it on in a stronger position than when you started."

When Newton draped a korowai or maori cloak over the new principal Rex Smith earlier last week, he handed on that responsibility. Did he hand on the school in a better position than when he started?

With a wink, Newton answers, "I think so."

The Nelson Mail