Profile: Penny Tattershaw, Principal, St Michael's Church School

Why have you chosen to come to St Michael’s Church School?

I was previously Deputy Head at The Cathedral Grammar School, and when I left my idea was to take a year off to write. I have one and a half children’s novels written, and a couple of chapter books. However, a surprisingly large number of people, several of whom I greatly respect, thought I should apply for the St Michael’s position, so I went ahead.


How would you describe the school?

St Michael’s is a tardis! Everyone expects a small, inner city school but the reality is a building in three large wings, like the Holy Trinity! And on our northern boundary we have the magnificent wooden church of St Michael’s and All Angels, which is very much part of school life.

St Michael’s is the oldest primary school in Christchurch, founded in 1851, but the last seven have definitely been the toughest. The February 2011 earthquake damaged the buildings and devastated the roll. Many parents worked in the city centre, and suddenly it no longer existed. Despite this, the passionate and loyal St Michael’s community continued to support the school, and this year has begun with excitement and promise.


What attracted you to the school?

St Michael’s is an Anglican church school, and so firstly, it was my faith. Secondly, there is a serious job to do. I have been entrusted with the stewardship of a community of pupils, staff and parents who have had to endure too much. I hope I have some abilities and experiences that can help; and I like a challenge!


What do you aim to achieve as principal of St Michael’s?

St Michael’s has been educating young Cantabrians for 165 years, since the days of the earliest settlers. So right now, we have only one aim and responsibility: to save the school! With just 47 pupils at the opening of the school year, (there were 190 on Earthquake Day), the immediate challenge is to attract new pupils. The exciting thing is that we are. We already know that in Term 4 we will open with 60 – and our advertising only starts in April.


Tell us about your choice of career as an educator.  Were there any enlightening moments or inspirational people to set you on your way?

I always wanted to be a teacher - it’s been a vocation as much as a choice. My parents are my inspiration. Neither is a teacher by profession but each is by example, passion, expectation and love.

Four extraordinary teachers shaped my life. Mrs Cullen at Gore Main Primary taught me to work. Mrs Waddell at Gore High taught me Latin, and Latin challenged me to think. Mrs Waddell was the teacher I would aspire to be: firm, fair, funny, clever and infinitely caring.  Dr Walsh-Atkins at Bromsgrove, in England, taught me to think and to challenge the premise of the question – both well enough to get into Oxford. And once there, Mr Burn, then the world’s leading expert on English Land Law, taught me that great teachers always have the humility to keep learning from their pupils and their subject.


Describe the pathway your career has followed.

I skipped the last year at Gore High to spend it at school in England. I got into Oxford University to read Law. After three years of sport with Law on the side, I knew I still wanted to teach, and landed a relieving job in a prep boarding school in Scotland. A term became a year, and I was sold: prep school teaching was for me. I completed my PGCE at Exeter, in History and Outdoor Education. Five very happy years followed at Bromsgrove School in the Midlands before a return to New Zealand in 1994 to find out where ‘home’ was.

I was a reliever at St Margaret’s College in Christchurch, and then took a maternity leave cover position at The Cathedral Grammar School, which began a 22-year association with the school.

During this time, I also had fun producing educational resources for 3-4 year olds, coaching 1st XI Hockey for Christ’s College, running the CanSail sail training charity on Lyttelton Harbour and working for Canterbury Rugby.


How would you describe your leadership style?

I would hope that servant leadership would be mentioned if you asked my colleagues. I love to hear people’s ideas, no matter how left field, and I find staff are motivated by a good game of ideas tennis. In a small school, there is no room for an ‘I’ in ‘team’, so keeping everyone informed, involved and positive is crucial. 


Can you share your thoughts about independent education – in New Zealand and internationally?

When I first joined the independent school world in 1984, it was as a 17-year-old pupil in the UK, and I was astounded by the opportunities available. I don’t think the fundamental role of our schools has changed since then: we strive to educate each child to his or her very best. What has changed are the demands, in part fuelled by our own desire to do not only well but better. The opportunities offered by the school I attended in 1984 are paltry by comparison to the extraordinary choices and facilities its pupils have today.

It’s now a very commercially competitive world, but we must never lose sight of our fundamental responsibility: to educate each child to his or her best. The earthquakes in Christchurch taught us that: we taught in tents and barns and church halls. It’s about the essential foundations and values we give our children, not the flash facilities and the added extras. Our clientele knew that and many stayed loyal. We also gained new families who looked beyond the surface and found the substance.


What encouragement would you give to parents considering a private education for their children?

Despite the constant cries that the world is changing, children still need and have every right to an essential foundation in the basics, across a subject range appropriate to their age. With smaller classes and specialist teachers, independent schools can deliver that foundation. This academic excellence, together with a culture of co-curricular activities and commitments, offers a wealth of opportunities, building confidence and creating a sense of expectation in a supportive environment. To have such schooling, underpinned by values based in faith and good global citizenship, is a great gift.