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Lisa on relationship based leadership

Lisa Larwood is of Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga, Tūwharetoa, and Ngāpuhi descent and the director of the Teen Parent Unit (TPU) in Flaxmere, Hastings.  She believes that as a leader she needs to stay true to herself, and her values, to ensure improved outcomes for her students. She follows a relationship-based model in the unit and believes this is the key to success for the TPU whānau.


Story photographed by Tyler Dixon

Lisa 2



Why the Teen Parent Unit?


While I loved being an RTLB, it’s difficult to effect change. You can support teachers to effect the change, but I wanted to look at the systems that were creating the issues. I wasn’t prepared to just ‘fix children’ because they don’t actually need fixing – things need fixing around them. This position sounded like me, so I enquired. I’d worked in Flaxmere College before, as a reliever. After being interviewed by the two deputy principals and the principal, I was awarded the position.  With just one term to set up the unit before opening, this was a challenge but one I was up for. We’ve just had our first ERO visit and the results were really positive, which affirms what we are doing here.





Lisa 3



What are the highlights of your role?


Being a Nan to all the new moko!  Seriously though, it’s so lovely seeing the girls achieving. ERO commented on the networks and genuine friendships the girls have created with each other. We opened in term 4, and I spent the whole of that term with the girls, establishing values and embedding them into the unit.  Now, I’m very careful about introducing one new girl at a time because they need to understand who we are.  We run a drama-free unit, which is difficult with young teenage girls who are also sleep-deprived mothers. But it’s about having open and trusting relationships with them so that I can quickly talk to them when they bring drama into our space. We use techniques such as restorative practice and circle time to really embed that relationship-based practice.


Lisa 4



Sounds great!  What are some of the challenges of this type of model?


If staff are not relationship-based practitioners, it’s difficult. Staffing is really important. Initially, I run a high trust model with staff and then put systems in place if things aren’t working.  We have a number of staff from the main school coming into the unit for a variety of reasons. All the girls are on individual programmes so it’s about finding the balance between face-to-face support and other forms of support. So it’s crucial that they are able to work with the girls and vice versa. I ask for teachers to come to us here at the unit if there are timetable gaps. It is really awesome to have a variety of teachers for the students to relate to, young and not so young, male and female. But at the end of the day, whatever the reason, it’s about the students.  If the relationships aren’t there, it’s a huge challenge.





Lisa 5

In your ‘Teacher Journey’ video, you mention staying true to yourself, maintaining trusting relationships, and having strong interpersonal skills. Do you still believe this is important? 


Yep, I absolutely still believe it. However, I can only control myself.  I can’t control others.  So, for me, to maintain strong relationships you need to be transparent. Here in the unit, the organisation of meetings is sent via email - so it’s process driven and documented. I’m a systems and processes person, so it’s about staying true to myself and making sure it’s all about the students.



Lisa 6



In a 2015 interview you were quoted as saying, “As a leader, change is what we are about.” How has that helped you overcome the challenges in your role?


We’re here to improve outcomes for students. We’re always looking at the evidence to do that. After establishing the TPU, and having just had ERO, I am reviewing our outcomes and making changes to try to improve them. So, everything is driven by leadership. If you don’t drive change to improve your outcomes, then you stay the same. In the beginning, once we had established good, trusting relationships, we set the girls individual, structured programmes. The outcomes weren’t positive!  Success rates went down and so did attendance.  So as the leader, I set up staff guidelines to change this. The guidelines are very specific and include guiding questions to ask students, to ensure that they really engage with their programme.  It’s a good thing to model what you need, in order to support each other and continually create change.  




Lisa 7



Everything you’ve discussed today is about being an agent of change, what would be the one thing you want to achieve before you move on in your career? 


That’s a hard question.  There is much more to be done in my current role in the college, than there is in the unit. However, my area of responsibility at the college is Year 7-10 Achievement and helping to set up systems to support staff.  As well as this, there’s work to be done to determine what is ‘best learning’ for the Year 9-10 students. So, there needs to be change in the way things are done. We have an ‘Effective Teaching Profile’ and it’s about creating a Flaxmere way for student and academic mentoring. So, consistent practice is really important and I’m part of setting up systems and co-constructing programmes to support all staff.  Not an easy task, but another way of making change.





Lisa 8



The retention of teachers is a major concern. What would be your advice to our precious teachers, to keep them working for our tamariki?


Learn how to say ‘no’. If whānau understand when the pressure is on at work, they become your support and do it because they just ‘know’. So, it’s about ensuring the support system is there.  If you don’t have that, then you need to learn how to say ‘no’. If, like a lot of us, you can’t do that then you need to be extremely organised and systematic so things don’t get overwhelming.

Another bit of advice is that it’s not about you, it’s about the students.  If someone advises you and suggests that change needs to be made, then heed that advice. It becomes difficult if you choose to ignore good advice.  Take it, plan your next steps and make sure you get to know your students. Build those positive relationships with them, then the learning will happen.


If you enjoyed Lisa's kōrero, you can also listen to her Teachers' Journey.







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