Christine Allen is the Principal of Carmel College in Auckland, New Zealand, and has over 30 years of teaching experience to her name. This is her story.
As fits the profile for a K-12 school principal, Christine Allen is passionate about education, providing opportunities and enhancing the lives and wellbeing of the wider Carmel College community. However, as a former student of the college, such responsibilities fill a special place in Christine’s heart. Since making the career decision to join the teaching ranks, rising to be principal of her beloved Carmel College has been her unashamed career goal.
Christine began her career in 1990 and was keen to make a difference. As she grew in her understanding of how schools worked, it became clear that she needed to rise through the teaching ranks to affect lasting change and make an impact. As for becoming a principal, exploring different classrooms beyond the walls of Carmel was essential.
Some sage career advice set Christine on the path that would take her to the position she enjoys today. Adding IT skills, as well as her specialisation in the English department, and undertaking a Masters in Education was the first step. This led to a head of department role.
“It really opened up my eyes and gave me the theory to frame my practice,” explains Christine. “I was able to work out that I’m not just teaching because it felt good; there were areas, and bigger ideas, that I could examine and look at. Those were things that actually helped me to grow as a leader.”
After undergoing several job changes at the level of deputy principal, burnout led Christine to make the decision to step away from teaching momentarily and take a sabbatical in IT. Fortuitously, this segue into the commercial sector didn’t distract her from K-12 education; instead, it reignited the old flame.
“What the break did was recommit my love of leading learning. I took timeout and thought, ‘No I want to get back into education’. This is where my passions are.”
In the time since her lightbulb moment, Christine has been deputy principal at four different schools, principal at two Catholic girls’ schools and principal in two different schools in two different cities. Not surprisingly, this experience has armed her with volumes of leadership and teaching insights, as she shares with EdSmart.
EdSmart: What would you say defines you as an educator?
Christine Allen: “Probably my passion for girls’ education and my commitment to Catholic education. What I like about Catholic schools is that it’s value-based education. It makes it easier in some ways. When you have people enrolling in your school, you make it very clear they understand they’re signing up to an explicit set of values that is part of our everyday life. As I say to my new students, ‘It’s not just framed words on a wall; it’s a lived experience’ so it’s much easier to get the community together because everybody has that common faith and understanding before they actually come into the school.”
“In the 1990s, the slogan ‘Girls can do anything’ was everywhere. Today, it’s still about giving girls opportunities to do things that they might not have considered before and making them be the best that we could possibly make them into.”
Your shift away from the classroom at one point in your career sounds as though it was a very important step for reinforcing your love of teaching?
“I thought that I could do more things in that world and I could go places because I was in IT as an educational specialist. But I remember sitting at my desk one day thinking, ‘In five years’ time, I’ll pretty much be doing the same thing that I’m doing now, just with different clients’. When I’m in the classroom and I’m teaching, every day is different. It hit me that working with young people, especially young women, was where I wanted to be.”
“Sometimes, you have to step out and realise what you haven’t got. I’ve never looked back, and I’ve never looked outside education again.”
Would you say there’s been someone who’s mentored you along the way?
“I’ve had multiple mentors at different stages of my career journey. The first one would be my mother who didn’t finish secondary school because, in her day, there was a cost and her family couldn’t afford it. She left school when she was about 14 and regretted not being able to finish because she knew she had the intelligence to do it, just not the opportunity.”
“My mother always stressed to us the importance of education, especially higher education after you left school. It wasn’t till her late-40s/early-50s that she went to university and got her degree. That was a huge personal milestone for her. It reinforced in me the desire to continue my education in a formal way. So, that’s why I went back and got my Masters.”
“I still think some of my teachers have made a difference in my life – but I never told them. There were a couple of teachers that really inspired me in the way they taught and the way they supported me. There was a teacher who taught me here at Carmel and then became a mentor of mine as I went through my teaching career: Dame Sister Pauline Engel. She was a principal here at Carmel at one stage, and she offered me my first teaching job!”
“Sister Pauline called a spade, a spade. She wasn’t a holy pious nun and her language was quite interesting (laughs). She said to me, ‘I’m working with you; I want to support you to become the principal of Carmel at some stage.’ She wouldn’t say that to make you feel good; she would only say it if she actually thought you could do it. I respected her interest in me and her support. That gave me the self-belief to think, yes, I can do this.”
“I met another woman, Linda McQuaid, who was the Vicar General of Auckland Education. She mentored me when I was in my first deputy principal role, and I knew that having those two women as support for me and believing in me gave me the strength and the belief that I could actually become a good principal.”
How did you become principal of Carmel?
“My first teaching job was here at Carmel and then I became a head of department. During the time I was teaching here, my daughter came through, so I’ve been a student, a parent and a teacher at Carmel. To get into any sort of leadership position, though, I had to leave Carmel but the plan was always to come back.”
“My first principal’s job was in Hamilton. I remember telling Sister Pauline that I got that job and she said to me, ‘I’m going to give you this little cross – it’s a Mercy cross. Hang it on your wall in your office and look at it. You say you’re a Mercy girl and you’re coming back here.’ I probably would have been happy to stay at my previous school because I really loved that school too, but this was where my heart was. It took a little bit longer than I thought it was going to take but Carmel College is where I felt like I belonged.”
What would you say the school look like under your leadership?
“That’s an interesting question. We were always getting good academic results but, to take the students to the next level, I removed the gatekeeping that used to be here. Now there’s no streaming – classes are mixed ability. You can imagine some departments were quite adamant that this would not work but our results — our merits and excellence that we have in our NCEA system — have increased in the five years since we took away streaming.”
“We also had prerequisites. If you wanted to move from this year to the next year in a particular subject, you had to get a particular grade and a particular standard. If you didn’t get that, then that subject was effectively cut off from you forever. I just had this idea that, if we really do believe girls can do anything, then what you did when you were 15 shouldn’t determine your entire life outcome.”
“Because we get good academic results, there’s often anxiety and stress among some of the students. They all want the really top results and, sometimes, they push themselves way beyond what they really should be doing, so we’ve worked an awful lot on the pastoral focus. We’ve moved to vertical year groups in our form classes, which has really created that family atmosphere. You’ve got older girls, younger girls – big sisters, little sisters – doing the same things.”
“The girls have an Atawahi (form) teacher and a house dean. Technically, if they don’t leave or there’s no staff changes, they will be the two people that know you from the day you come into Carmel to the day you leave. They are the two adults that are travelling with you for the seven years and that doesn’t change.”
“We’ve also worked hard on student leadership. We’ve really worked on that in terms of streamlining it and giving them real opportunities to run all sorts of student-led events, activities and initiatives. The girls get a real sense of belonging and leadership.”
“What I love about my job is that I know I’ve made a difference to some people’s lives. My board chair, as an example – I taught her and now she’s my board chair! So, I say to the staff, ‘Be kind to your students because they could end up being your employer’.”