“Do you mind if I tell you a story?” Glen Denham asks.
The newly-appointed headmaster of Wellington College has gathered colorful stories throughout his varied career – first as a national basketball player, then as a teacher and principal.
Denham was a Tall Black for 16 years in the 1980s and 1990s – 11 of these spent as captain – and has been rated as one of New Zealand’s best players.
“I wasn’t very good,” Denham says, laughing, “just tall.”
* Basketball great and celebrated principal appointed as new Wellington College headmaster
* Slam-dunking cancer: How basketball great Glen Denham found his true calling in education
* Principal smokes at school prank week: ‘It’s not funny, it’s wanton vandalism’
He has come from 15 years leading low-decile schools in the UK – some of those as an “executive principal” of several south London schools – then eight years as principal of Massey High School in West Auckland.
Now he’s leading the 155-year-old Wellington College, one of the country’s oldest schools, as its first Māori headmaster.
“My mother, bless her soul, I think she would be proud,” Denham, Te Arawa, Ngāti Rangitihi, says.
Denham hopes to see out the rest of his career at the college.
In his first week in the role he is outside the office doors early on, telling students to smarten up.
“Boys, boys, boys, pull your socks up boys,” the headmaster tells them. “Good, good, good, good,” checking them off as they file past, straightening their black socks.
Uniforms are important, Denham says, for being about “pride, aspiration.” He implemented them at decile 4 Massey to some controversy in 2015, but says it instilled a change in students’ behavior and self-perception.
The blazer is the korowai. “When students leave, I tell them to wear it on the inside now… you take it with you.”
Denham admits he’s got tough shoes to fill. He’s taken over from Gregor Fountain, who has a reputation of an inspiring history teacher and educator, cited as a defining influence of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
When asked why he wanted to lead Wellington College, Denham goes back to his own education at King’s High School in Dunedin, which he says fostered a sense of self-belief in him.
“Mr Simpson, the rector, told my next eldest brother Peter, ‘you’re not going to the freezing works, you’re going to university’, so that allowed me to go to university. We were poor Maori kids. There weren’t many Māori kids in Dunedin, and once Pete went [to uni]we all went.”
He wanted to return to boys’ education, providing aroha and a sense of belonging to every student.
Aroha turned around the third worst-rated school in the UK – Oasis Academy Shirley Park in Croydon – to an “outstanding” rating while Denham was chief executive.
He knocked on the doors of the 20 naughtiest students, he recalls, and told the families he loved them – but that they needed to respect the rules. I have approached the head of the local south London gangs, asking them to stop lingering outside the school gates to recruit.
His goals differ for decile 10 Wellington College – a school that received the highest level of donations for a state school in 2019.
High standards of academic achievement are important, Denham says, as is hiring the best teaching staff for the students.
He is keen to see a building academy programme, like the one at Massey High, where students learn to build a house on school grounds as part of their lessons, then sell them to Kaīnga Ora.
Denham is not in favor of dropping NCEA Level One, despite other high-profile schools such as Wellington Girls’ College and Scots moving away from the assessment to focus on other learning in year 11.
“I’ll have to talk to the board, but I like NCEA Level One. It gives kids a marker for how they are doing.”
The challenges children face at the school are different from those in Croydon or West Auckland, Denham says, including the challenge of high expectations. Feeling at home at school is crucial.
“Everyone has a place here. It’s important no matter what you’re interested in or where you come from, you belong here.”