Our people: Finding the right balance to be a successful principal

Bernadette May with year 3 and 4 pupils at Tai Tapu school. Photo: Geoff Sloan ​
Bernadette May with year 3 and 4 pupils at Tai Tapu school. Photo: Geoff Sloan ​
Bernadette May is the first female principal at Tai Tapu School in the Selwyn district. She spoke to Devon Bolger about her passion for education and well-being.

How has your time at Tai Tapu School been so far?
It has been incredibly rewarding. I started in October of last year. I think it was good to have the one term last year, especially with Covid-19. The parents, the students and staff have all been so welcoming. I came from a very large school, St Martins, and I just look at the students we have here and they are really uniquely caring and community-focused. The community has made my start here feel very very positive. I also found out I am the first female principal in 152 years of the school being open. We all celebrate that fact in the office, it is very interesting indeed.

How did you end up with this position?
I was probably ready to be a principal about eight years ago. I have always lived in Selwyn and have visited the school in the past and I really liked the feel of it, I love that it is a 150-year-old school but it is unique because the buildings are less than 10 years old. At the beginning of last year, we talked as a family and I decided I would start putting my application in for principalship. I only applied for one job and it was this one, I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I was very fortunate that when the time was right and the job came up, I achieved that goal. I feel very blessed.

How does it feel to be the first female principal at Tai Tapu School?
I feel really privileged to be the first female to be appointed principal at Tai Tapu but also regardless of gender, I feel really privileged to be the principal.

Bernadette May with the school's restored bell from 1931. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Bernadette May with the school's restored bell from 1931. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Could you tell me about your career in education?
I came into education slightly later, I worked in science before. This is my second career. When my husband Darryl and I decided we wanted to start having kids, I wanted to be knowledgeable about it so I went to university to get a degree in child psychology. A little bit extreme I know, but I did it. Then when the kids were ready for school I decided to train as a teacher with absolutely no intention of going into teaching. It was just so that when I was talking to the teachers I would know what they were talking about. However, once I was studying I just loved it. I realised I had found my passion and that felt really good. I first started as a teacher in about 1998, so a while ago now, and it all went from there. I spent five years teaching then I was made acting deputy principal at Elmwood School. I stayed in that deputy principal role and then moved to St Martins School, I was there for 13 years.

What are the differences between working in a city school and now a semi-rural school?
I think it is the heart of the school. There are certain things that happen here that you would never get at a city school like pet day. It is also their very strong connection to sporting events and being physically active. Having said that, the parents are also really passionate about their children getting a well-balanced education, that’s not unique to rural schools but I think there is a set of community values and connections here that are fantastic. I would say that is the main thing.

What are your goals for the school?
We have four cornerstones that we are working on. We are looking at making sure we have really in-depth values at the school. The first is ako which is about learning and everyone being a learner. Then there is hauora which is about well-being, kotahitanga which is community partnership and our whakapapa which is about culture and identity. We have already been doing quite a bit of work on those things. They are our four big goals. To be quite honest, I jump up in the morning and feel blessed about coming here. That is not an exaggeration I genuinely mean that. I love working in classrooms and Im very passionate about well-being and kids having agency so they can direct their own learning. Some of the things that we have done here is to really raise the focus on our school council. We have an amazing team called School Spirit and its their job to find fun things to do around the school that gets kids physically active and makes them feel good about themselves.

Could you tell me about your family?
I have a husband and we have known each other since we were 16. We have been married for 37 years. We have three kids and seven grandchildren. My mum has a big family, she is one of 12 and my dad immigrated to New Zealand from Canada. He came here after World War 2. He was a merchant marine when he met my mum. I have one brother and my husband is one of four children.

How long have you lived in Selwyn?
We have lived in Prebbleton for 12 years and are now building a house in Lincoln.

Bernadette May during the Mihi Whakatau for the principal's welcome. Photo: Supplied
Bernadette May during the Mihi Whakatau for the principal's welcome. Photo: Supplied
What do you like to do for fun?
I mountain bike, I swim and I run. They are the three things that help to maintain my well-being. For relaxation, I paint and I love to read trashy novels, which is terrible but I do. My husband and I have travelled extensively but now we are looking for things we can do in our backyard. Each year we try to learn something new, last year it was fusion cooking and this year my husband and I are picking up a language and have chosen te reo. One of the things I have learnt over the years is for me to be extremely successful in the job I do, I have to have balance outside of it.

Do you have a favourite school subject?
I actually have a range of favourites. it is really interesting because throughout all of my high school education I was home-schooled and I loved the sciences and mathematics. I like all the sciences, physics, biology, chemistry all of those but I don’t actually like working in the scientific field. It is because it’s so isolating and I’m a real people person. Those are the topics that I love because they are so challenging and interesting. I also really value the arts and physical education.









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