For the past 27 years, Soana Akolotu Pamaka has devoted her considerable energy and skill to one incredibly lucky school.
She taught at East Auckland’s Tamaki College on section in 1990 and the next year, as a new mother, she accepted a position at the school as an English teacher. Her wisdom, infectious good nature, innovative approach and commitment to raising student achievement were immediately noted. Soana wasn’t particularly ambitious, and yet she was swiftly and repeatedly promoted into leadership roles. In 2006, she was given the school’s top job and became New Zealand’s first Tongan secondary school principal.
While this achievement was a significant milestone in New Zealand education, Soana once told the book ‘Pasifika Woman – Our Stories in New Zealand’ that she didn’t consider the fact she was Tongan to be “such a big deal”.
“Being Tongan is just who I am, it’s not a big deal. I just concentrate on the fact that I’m the Principal of Tamaki College and on what I need to do to make the job more manageable. The Tongan community is proud of me but I find it all very embarrassing to be quite honest, it’s not me. I much prefer to be behind the door doing what I do.”
In the 1990s, Tamaki College had a reputation as a tough school where only the toughest would survive. The Decile 1 Tamaki College student population still faces a range of socio-economic challenges, but this is a school on the rise.
School leavers exceed national results for Maori and Pasifika students at NCEA Level 2. The school has a Service Academy, which provides a military style programme for senior students who wish to pursue a career in either the armed services or the emergency services, and a Trades Academy for students who wish to seek an apprenticeship or to gain further education at a technical institute. Senior students get the opportunity to undertake research alongside university scientists. There is a homework centre. There is a collaboration with TeachFirst NZ which offers opportunities for teachers to train ‘on the job’.
Tamaki College has developed data tracking, mentoring and the utilisation of one-to-one digital devices in classrooms (in conjunction with the Manaiakalani Education Trust). The digital device initiative has placed Tamaki College at the forefront of the digital teaching and learning revolution. The school is regularly visited by educators from New Zealand and abroad keen to see ‘flipped’ classrooms in action. And the School Health Centre has been bolstered with a multi-disciplinary team to support student needs.
These various programmes and innovations are in place at Tamaki College because Soana has made it clear she is open to considering any new approach or tool that might benefit her students. She encourages her staff and school community to think broadly and speak up if they see any way to give the students of Tamaki College a winning edge.
Under Soana’s tenure as Principal, both roll numbers and academic success has steadily increased at Tamaki College. The current Better Public Service targets require that 85% of students leave school with NCEA Level 2 as their minimum qualification. Under Soana’s tenure, the 2017 figure at Tamaki College was 98%. Colleagues say this demonstrates the success of all the threads Soana has drawn together to support students.
As a leader, Soana supports innovation. She empowers staff to play to their strengths, while encouraging them to expand and grow in areas that challenge them. She is described as a “builder of people”. She recognises potential in staff and urges them to “build the plane as they fly” if they identify an opportunity for innovation or growth.
Staff say Soana, is a visionary who has clearly articulated her intention. She sums it up as: “If we get it right as a school, then the whole community will benefit”. And she has lived that ethos for 27 years, and counting. Soana lives in the school’s Glen Innes community and has shared her skills with many organisations in governance roles, including ASB Community Trust, Teach First New Zealand, the Tamaki Redevelopment Company and, most recently, Te Papa Tongarewa – The Museum of New Zealand. In this latest role she has blended her commitment to New Zealand with her background as a historian. Community involvement also extends to Soana’s role as Vicar’s Warden at St Mary’s Cooperating Parish in Glen Innes. She will often lead Sunday morning services.
Soana describes her family as her “oxygen”. She is married to Samiu and is the proud mother of Havea, an engineer, and Paul, Sela and Mino, who are all studying at Auckland University.