Pathways-ED: Karen Sewell – Success on every step of the ladder

Stuart Middleton
EDTalkNZ
3 November 2011

Sometimes when a character retires from a job, the clichés flow and foremost among them is the phrase “the end of an era”. Occasionally it really is. Last week Karen Sewell was officially farewelled from her position of Secretary of Education and I had the feeling that this was one of those occasions.

Speakers, which included cabinet ministers both past and present, educators, administrators and a cross section of our world, spoke in glowing terms of the quality of the forty-five years of public service that she has given. Of course, forty-five places her a few years ahead of my time in education and that is how it has been.

When I started out as a teacher of English, Karen was already prominent as not only a classroom teacher of extraordinary skill and flair but also as a leader among professionals. As a member of the National English Syllabus Committee (more often than not misnamed as the New English Syllabus Committee), she spread the word about the values of (shock horror) oral English and shaping and moving and viewing and… (enough they cried, ‘tis the end of civilisation as we know it!)

As we gradually crept up the ranks, Karen was always up there ahead of us – HOD English and not afraid of new understandings about the subject and how it might be taught. When the Conference of the International Federation for the Teaching of English was held in New Zealand for the first time in 1990 it was Karen who led the organising committee and was greatly responsible for a conference that was different by being uniquely rooted in the cultures of New Zealand and the Pacific. This was a surprise for those delegates who were looking forward to another gripping discussion on the value of transformational grammar and inclusions / exclusions from the canon of literature!

As a Deputy Principal and a Principal, she continued to show that she was someone who did things differently largely because she was unafraid of difference. I recall Karen was representing someone (was it the PPTA or Principals? I forget) on the Board of Trustees when I was interviewed for and subsequently appointed as Principal of Aorere College. She phoned me later in the day, a thoughtful gesture, and wished me well. Her call finished with sage advice – “enjoy today, it could be the best day in the job!”

I had learnt other lessons from Karen on the fine arts of educational leadership. On one occasion previous to this I had visited her school to see a trainee teacher give a lesson. I commented to Karen that I really liked the plants and the goldfish in her office. “It is always a good idea to have something living in your office other than a fourth form boy!” Later when I shared with her a concern I had with disruptive chatter around the staffroom she cautioned “Never pay attention to grumbling in the corner.”

But it was when Karen went to Wellington that she showed skill and character that would outshine us all. First the Education Review Office. Following Judith Aitken into the role of Chief Review Officer (i.e. CEO) she showed that there really was a role for the ERO that was enabling and empowering, that encouraged teachers and schools in reflective responses to their performance. Under her leadership the ERO grew in stature to have the role that it has today – challenging but without rancour or controversy. I think that through that period, it was the ERO that largely kept alive the notion of a national system while rapid competition swept through most of the rest of it!

Then it was on to the NZQA following a period in the life of that organisation that had been marked by a level of public setback behaviour followed by a timid patch right when it needed decisive leadership. Under Karen that was what it got and she laid the foundations for that organisation to play the critical role that it does in our education system now.

Finally (and where else was there to go?), Karen was appointed Secretary of Education.

Karen’s career to this point has been cumulative. She took the qualities of a great teacher into her leadership roles in the schools sector and she took her grasp of what mattered in classrooms and schools into her distinguished career as a public servant in Wellington. And “public servant” in this case means a lot more than simply being on the state payroll.

Her sense of “public” was of a community that is inclusive – she lived inclusiveness and didn’t simply exhort others to subscribe to it. Her commitment has always been to an education system that served a public regardless of their relative wealth, whatever their aspirations and from wherever they situated. She was never afraid of ideas.

When all the farewell speeches are over, there remains simply only to say, thanks, arohanui and go well but not too far away.

 

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