Principal Profile - Narelle Umbers, Samuel Marsden Collegiate School

Why have you chosen to come to Samuel Marsden Collegiate School?

The opportunity to lead a school of Marsden’s quality, with the added bonus of a move to New Zealand, was simply too good to pass up.

How would you describe Samuel Marsden Collegiate School?

The Marsden community is a very warm and welcoming one.  I have been overwhelmed by the kind and thoughtful way that I have been welcomed to the school.  I arrived to my office to find the most amazing array of handmade ‘welcome gifts’ from the staff including creative, beautiful, humorous and practical items introducing me to Marsden, Wellington and New Zealand that I will keep and treasure.

Marsden schools have extensive green, beautiful campuses with world-class learning and co-curricular facilities. They provide a very special learning environment for students.

I see that Marsden is much more than a step up to university and a career. We believe the ultimate goal of education is to lay the foundation for a life of meaning, accomplishment and genuine happiness. At both Karori and Whitby we support our students to be the very best they can be, in their academic and co-curricular pursuits.

Marsden schools are part of the Anglican Diocese of Wellington and open to children of all faiths and cultures. In a secular society, we are guided by Christian values and a belief in spirituality - that there is more to life than just existing. We invite, equip and encourage our students to explore the richness of spiritual life for themselves and make their own life decisions.

What attracted you to the school?

Marsden’s vision, mission, philosophy and values are spot on from my perspective and I just love the four pillars which underpin them: Excellence, Resilience, Creativity and Giving – there’s a refreshing uniqueness about them.

Marsden’s motto, ‘Ad Summa’ could certainly be my own. Since childhood I have been motivated to achieve excellence in everything I do. To have the opportunity to apply this passion for excellence and innovation to the education of Marsden students is a privilege.

I was also encouraged by Marsden’s comprehensive wellbeing strategy, the growing presence of positive education, and the desire of the school to embrace the contemporary pedagogies driving the all–important 21st century learning agenda. I am excited and confident about the opportunity that I see ahead for Marsden to remain innovative; a thought leader during a period of rapid change in schooling.

What do you aim to achieve as Principal?

Marsden is a school with a rich, 140-year history.  Over the years the traditions of learning, inquiry, analysis, and lively debate have produced strong willed women (and more recently men from our Whitby School) who are not afraid to be different, and who leave school with a sense of social justice, a sense of responsibility and a code of ethics that is Christian in inspiration and humanitarian in practice.

As the twelfth Principal of Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, I feel a very strong sense of responsibility to honour that past and continue those traditions, but also to do what Marsden has always done so effectively: ensure that the school adapts quickly to changes in society so it is educating students for ‘their world’.  That means accelerating our drive to ensure that we are preparing our students for the ‘Age of Talent’ – that they are no longer just learning answers in order to pass exams, they are learning the skills required to succeed in the future workforce of ‘their world’. We aim to develop a shared language to describe the skills and tools to measure growth in skill development so that our staff, students and parents can discuss progress in this area as easily and comfortably as they now discuss grades or NCEA outcomes.

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

I loved school, and I loved Mathematics, so the natural choice for me was to become a Mathematics teacher, but until relatively recently I had not considered school leadership.  I remember a conversation about eight years ago with Dr Heather Schnagl, my Principal at Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar, which set me on my way. We were discussing a short term replacement role that I had undertaken as Curriculum Coordinator when she said to me “You know, you could do my job one day”. That was not something I had ever considered and I think at the time I just laughed her comment off, but several months later I went and had a serious chat to her about what I might need to do to achieve that.  I received invaluable support from Heather and Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar in obtaining a Master of Education degree and seeking a position that would allow me to take the next step. Stuart Johnston, Principal at Peninsula Grammar also provided inspiration through his positive and kind leadership style and his passion for innovation, excellence and improvement.

Describe the pathway your career has followed.

My pathway has been a little different to most principals as I have spent a significant part of my career working outside the education sector. I trained as a teacher after completing my Science degree and initially taught Mathematics in a state school in Melbourne. While teaching there I studied for a Graduate Diploma in Computer Education, and this led to a move from teaching to the IT sector where I enjoyed a 15-year career working for a large insurance company. I started out as a computer programmer, and worked my way up through systems analysis and project management to senior leadership roles within the IT department, leading large teams and managing significant programs of work with multi-million dollar budgets.

After 15 years in the corporate sector the lure of the unique type of community that exists in independent schools drew me back and I was given the opportunity to re-commence my teaching career at Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School in Melbourne.  I spent 10 years in a number of leadership roles, before moving to Peninsula Grammar as Deputy Principal.

The experience I gained in the corporate world in finance, human resources, change management and project delivery has proven invaluable as I have moved into more senior roles in schools.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my experience outside education, since moving back to schools I feel I am back where I was always meant to be.  My true passion is not for writing computer code or delivering projects, or even solving mathematical problems, it is for developing people. That is the core business of schools, and that is what I love.

How would you describe your leadership style?

My ‘signature strengths’ are honesty, love, judgment, perspective and teamwork.  My leadership is characterised by these and I highly value the place of kindness in leadership, and the security and transparency that good process brings. One of my most satisfying leadership roles has involved the capacity building of staff. When exposed to targeted professional learning, exemplar pedagogy, self and peer reflection, and held accountable to data-driven goals, I have consistently seen teachers lift their performance and that of their students. 

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

Coming from Australia, which has one of the highest levels of enrolment in private education in the OECD, I take for granted the right that parents have to choose where and how their children are educated.  I believe that every child is unique, and every family is unique. A strong independent education sector is critical in ensuring that choices are available, providing different types and sizes of schools with various educational philosophies and religious affiliations. In any market place, competition helps to increase the quality of the overall offering available to customers and this is indeed the case in education. Competition between government and independent schools, or within the independent school sector, is a healthy thing, as the outcome is invariably increased quality of learning and better educational outcomes for our students. 

At Marsden we provide a choice, providing single sex education for girls from Years 1 – 13 at our Karori campus and co-educational education Years 7 – 13 at Whitby. Often girls do better in a single sex environment. They are less concerned about what boys think, will take risks, speak out and feel unembarrassed about pursuing subjects like the sciences, mathematics and economics. They are less afraid to shine, and less afraid to make mistakes. At Whitby we provide the option for a co-educational environment and because the school, by international standards, is small, students there are a close-knit group who strongly support each other and the opportunities for leadership exist for all students.

Independent schools in Australia and New Zealand face challenges and opportunities in the competitive enrolment environment.  We aim to deliver a special ‘product’ that provides value for money to parents, who often make significant sacrifices to afford the fees. Like all schools we need to constantly update teacher skills to make the most of rapid technological advances, deliver programs that keep pace with global and social change, and help young people learn to cope with the social pressures that challenge their wellbeing.  The opportunities for independent schools come from our ability to be agile and innovative in addressing these challenges due to the autonomy we enjoy.

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

When talking to parents about the benefit of an independent education, I draw on the stories of students who I have worked with over the years who have thrived in the independent setting, including our own three children.  I talk about the young people who have developed into strong, independent and service-minded individuals who truly believe that they have the power to change the world and who are now actually out there doing just that. I talk about the students who have found belonging in being part of a community where it is cool to work hard, it is cool to want to be successful, and it is cool to play sport and play the lead in the school musical. I talk about the students who have achieved far beyond their own expectations and those of their parents because they have been surrounded by a nurturing community where they have been individually known and supported to be their very best, whatever that may mean.