WORDS LAURA TUCK / PHOTOS SALINA GALVAN
Being sent to the principal is usually a daunting experience, but walking
into Thea Kilian’s office at ACG Tauranga, and being greeted by her beaming smile is quite the opposite.
“I’ve never raised my voice to a student,” she says. “I can be clear on expectations, but I’m a firm believer in modelling the type of respectful behaviour we expect from the kids.”
Thea has only recently been appointed principal at ACG Tauranga. Her warm, down-to-earth nature and wealth of experience (including working with seven Auckland principals to improve student outcomes, and more than six years as a deputy principal) have seen her hit the ground running.
“I’m loving Tauranga,” she says. The people here are always smiling and
I’ve had nothing but support. And I can always find a parking spot!”
After renovating their home on Auckland’s North Shore earlier this year (“There’s nothing more therapeutic than a nail gun!”), Thea and her husband Shane moved to the Bay of Plenty with their children Dannan (13) and Aleksi (11). “We sat down and made the decision together,” she says. “We’re not the type of family that lets things happen to us
– we like to forge our own journey, whatever the circumstances”
Thea’s eyes light up when she talks about her kids – both her own and her students. “I love the strategy side of education and the intimacy of the classroom, so I jumped at the chance to marry the two,” she says. “Whenever I’m feeling flat, I spend 10 minutes with the children and my energy levels shoot through the roof. The positivity, the inclusiveness, the taking care of each other – these values are entrenched in our school, which is great, because they complement my own educational philosophy beautifully.”
Thea’s philosophy includes a holistic approach to education, with a focus on mental wellbeing. “We’re living in a 24/7 world, so it’s important for kids to understand their minds as well as their bodies,” she says. “We talk about dopamine levels in our brains and why this chemical makes us feel happy, and also that it’s okay to feel sad sometimes.
“Talking about the importance of sleep, nutrition and exercise isn’t about jumping on a bandwagon – it’s about packaging simple concepts in a way that kids can access. It’s important to give students a sense of control over their emotions – it empowers them. It’s something I want for my own kids.”
Growing up in South Africa, Thea realised school wasn’t always a happy place for children. Her antidote? Set the bar high but give them the tools and support they need to succeed.
“I consider myself lucky to have the most phenomenal parents who believe in education,” she says. “When I was 13, my friends started to ask me to help them with their work, and I’d do it because I loved that moment when everything clicked and suddenly school wasn’t so tough anymore.
“As a mum,” she adds, “I personally believe the Cambridge Curriculum is the best education I can give my kids. We’ve got students of all backgrounds and abilities at ACG. Some are naturally gifted, and others are less academic, but with teacher support and a lot of hard work, they absolutely flourish.”
She may be at the helm of one of New Zealand’s top co-ed schools, but Thea remains incredibly humble and connected to the core of her career, which is, of course, the students.
“I once taught a young girl who never spoke in class,” she says. “I tried everything but never seemed to get through. On the last day of school, I walked into my office to find
a lovely bunch of white roses. Shane is the only person who buys me white roses, so I assumed they were from him, but the card was from her. It read: ‘I know I struggle to connect, but thank you for being the one teacher who never stopped trying.’ It was a beautiful gesture, and it taught me to remember that it’s not always about the end result – it’s about never giving up.”