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Mona talks about leading in a small community

Mona Stewart is a nanny, mother, weaver and a secondary trained teacher. She grew up in the small township of Omahu in Hastings. At the end of 2016 she decided to retire from teaching only to be approached by the chairperson of Te Kura o Mangateretere, that was facing closure, to be its tumuaki.  After much thought and coaxing from local whānau, Mona accepted the challenge.  She is caring, passionate and excited about the next chapter in her teaching career.


Story photographed by Tyler Dixon


Mona Stewart 2



You recently decided to retire from teaching.  What made you change your mind, not only to stay in the profession but also to take on the challenge of being tumuaki of a primary school when you’ve worked in secondary for so long?


Because of the call from the whānau, asking me to step in and help for a short time.  I thought I was going to be a relief teacher.  I was told, I would be teaching 15 tamariki.  I thought “Oh, I can do that!” Then, I found out that it was an acting principal position.  I made a promise to whānau that I would help. It looked like the school was going to close and families didn’t want this to happen. 


Mona Stewart 4



Apart from a sense of obligation to whānau, what else made you continue your career journey?


Passion! Seeing children grow, seeing where they are headed, seeing what they achieve are the best things I’ve experienced in all my years of teaching.  Our motto here in my new school is, ‘Learners today, leaders tomorrow’. I want to build their belief in themselves, their self-esteem, so they become leaders. I came back for the love of teaching and watching our young ones grow.


It’s 100% Māori here.  If we can get 100% loving, learning and succeeding, then that’s 100% that aren’t falling through the cracks. I need to be a role model, we need to be the model for our Māori tamariki. It’s a priority for me to change their thought patterns, to show that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that they can be children now because there is plenty of time for them to be adults.  They need to enjoy the good times now, as children.




Mona Stewart 5



What is, or are, the challenges of taking on a principal’s position? Is it about understanding legalities, logistics, compliance?


The children and curriculum are my priority; making sure the children are happy in their learning. This is the time for them to dream big! And so, it’s important we get that right at the beginning and get them asking: why are they coming to school? At the end of the day, I want all these tamariki here for learning. This is proving quite challenging because a lot struggle with learning.


We need a lot more whānau involvement too. Whānau are reluctant to come in. We try to get information to whānau so they can be part of their children’s learning. We want to share the ‘goodness’ and show them how fantastic their tamariki are. It’s another strategy in driving our motto. We had a leadership assembly just recently, and only three families attended, out of the thirty. So that is a major challenge. I suppose it’s an achievement that we managed to get that many here, but the ideal is for more of them to come into the school.


My office is open 24/7. Even though I’m teaching, whānau are welcome to come in and join me, and talk to me while their tamariki are working. When they do visit it creates a relationship with tamariki. They learn who those nannies, and parents, are. Some don’t have that luxury. 




Mona Stewart 7



You come from a really rich whakapapa, from Omahu. Thinking back to your relationships with your kuia, koroua and their tikanga, is that something that would break down some of the barriers to learning in your kura?


Yes. Totally. Past experience in other schools has proven to me that it makes tamariki feel safe. This is a whānau! Some are from Omahu. Some from Waimārama. Some from Ruahāpia or a number of surrounding marae. So, they’re from all over the place. But knowing who they are and where they come from builds self-esteem and that’s a priority here. We have to make that strong. I believe, one of the ways of doing that is by initiating some of our marae strategies, our kawa and tikanga in the kura. It’s so important for them to have a standing. Because if they don’t know their links, how can they stand in front of everybody else and try and awhi them and be a leader? I believe if we don’t start here in the kura, where is it going to start, and how will they be able to affiliate to anything?






Mona Stewart 6

Given your experience so far, if someone else was contemplating applying for a tumuaki position, or taking on a school that was in the same situation as your school, what would your advice be?


Go for it! Go for it, because you’ll learn on the way. The journey is the most important thing. It’s about digging deep, and realising your potential. It will push you over and make you think this career is not for you, but at the end of the day if you can come out the other side, you’re richer for it. Our tamariki are the most important thing. So, just go for it!


It’s the best learning experience you could ever have. The rewards are there. You just have to find them, to realise why you have come into teaching. I’ve left my run late, I know that. To our young ones, don’t leave it late! Go in early as a principal - you are the ones we need to change the systems of learning for our tamariki. You are the ones with the new ideas. But you need support people there to awhi you. Like these nannies are here with me. So, go for it. Do it while you’re young!


But make sure you’ve got a solid support team behind you.



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