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Waihī principal Alistair Cochrane is retiring at the end of the 2023 school year. Photo: ALICE PARMINTER

Principal’s pride in students’ success

Alistair Cochrane is hanging up his red pen at the end of this year, satisfied in the knowledge of a job well done. 

The Waihī College principal has been in the top seat for 22 years, and spent five years as the deputy principal before that. He’s seen many changes over the course of his tenure. 

Alistair began his career in Taupō teaching economics and geography, before shifting to Waihī. It’s the students who have kept him in education for so long. 

“I’ve always got a huge amount of intrinsic pleasure from watching other people develop and grow,” he said. 

“I bump into [former students] at different times and we’ve got kids who have gone off and achieved extremely highly at university level … and we’ve also got kids who have gone and got themselves a full time job and are working and have a young family, and are just as successful in their own way.

“I guess that’s the bit that I’m most proud of, that the majority of kids that come out of this place actually have a pathway forward in their lives.”

The move into leadership was another chance to be influential in his students’ lives – although he missed teaching directly, Alistair said he relished the opportunity to shape the educational space of the school. 

“The range of programmes that is available to kids now is much broader than it ever was,” he said. 

“I’ve pushed over the years for what I call a collaborative approach to education, where children don’t necessarily learn a subject in isolation to all the others; we try to integrate the learning. The whole idea is that on any given project, there are aspects of maths and literacy and science and arts, and it’s all woven in together.”

Alistair said the project-based model helped kids apply their learning in a more natural way. 

“Employers don’t necessarily want kids with a specific set of academic knowledge, what they want are kids who are open-minded and prepared to learn and apply their learning. We weren’t offering that learning disposition just by teaching in silos,” he said. 

“That’s been a bit of a focus of mine over the years. Some of my teachers love it, some of my teachers hate it [laughs].”

The collaborative learning approach is just one of many strategies Alistair has employed within the school. Recognising that many students weren’t heading for university, he ensured there were other pathways to success. 

“I took a building class a couple of years ago … we built all the staff outdoor area and those picnic tables and a deck. Every single one of those kids got their credits, but they also got a job. And so they all went straight out of my programme, into apprenticeships out there in the real world. Now, as a teacher, that was so cool to see that,” he said. 

Now, Alistair has time to think about what he would like to do next. 

“I guess I’m looking for something that has less balls in the air at any given point and on any given day, because as a school principal you’ve got numerous things happening all the time.  But I don’t think I’ll be able to stop,” he said. 

“I’m a bit of a home handyman, and already some of my neighbours have asked me what I’m doing next year and can I build their fence? And I might!”

Alistair still plans to keep a close eye on the school, and he’s excited to see the direction his successor takes. 

“I think there’s some real value in actually a new person coming with a completely different approach to leadership. I’m really excited for the school,” he said. 

“[But] It will be really hard to leave. I’ll miss this place – for 25 years I’ve driven up Moresby Ave. I’ll miss the people. And the kids, I’ll miss the kids most, just because they’re young people growing up and that’s the reason I got into it in the first place, and my passion for that has never changed.”

By ALICE PARMINTER, Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ on Air