Updated: Feb 17, 2022
When I called Mark to make an appointment to interview him, he laughed when I said I had to be back home in time for the school bus.
‘Goodness’, he exclaimed, ‘no problem, I’m not that interesting! This won’t take long at all.’
He was wrong, so wrong. Because Mark Ellis is indeed very interesting.
When I arrived at Rakaia School Mark was at the reception desk, chatting to his staff. I expect he does a lot of that. He has been the principal here for just over 15 years and I sense a warm camaraderie among the staff.
During my visit Mark explained his focus in life is aligned around Service. Service to his family first, then school, the Fire Service, until recently the sport of karate. He explained at the heart of all that is Relationships and Communication.
The playtime bell goes and he asks if I mind we walk around the school. As a mum of two school-aged children I am always interested in comparing other school grounds to others. As well as a pride in the well-kept grounds, I was struck by his natural interaction with ‘his’ children. I lost count how many hugs he received. One girl, bearing the biggest smile, was thrilled to hand him a Christmas gift, the first of many I expect. When he asks a child if they’re ok it is not a flippant question, he physically gets down to their level and if he senses hesitancy he asks again, hand on the shoulder. He genuinely cares for each and every child in his school. He embraces diversity and fights for additional funding to enable him to support extra needs children.
Back in his office and I ask him about his background. Principal at Lagmhor, Mayfield, now here. But he doesn’t say much about his past, he’s far more interested in the present and future. He steers my eyes to a framed photograph displayed on the side table. ‘He’s the light of my life, my grandson. My focus is for him to grow up in a safe and kind world.’ Mark has a deep wish of instilling kindness into the world.
And that brings the topic onto safety and kindness in the online world. The world his grandson, and his pupils are living in. Us “oldies” reminisce about thumbing our way through the encyclopedia to learn information, whether it be for a school project or satisfy a curiosity. I scoff at today’s youth who merely need to ask Google but, hey, Mark’s on their side. They have this huge technological advantage and they have the right to use it, in fact, they must to get ahead. What Mark stresses is that it’s his duty to teach the kids to verify the information Google brings up. Don’t trust everything! Just because Google or Wikipedia tells you, doesn’t mean it’s correct. He is passionate about teaching kids how to identify when information is trustworthy, inaccurate, an advertisement or even a prank. He tells this “oldie” there’s nothing wrong with kids on tablets, there are many educational apps. Where there are issues, he says, is the apps like TikTok or any app / game with chat functionality. Where the choice of language used is often unsuitable, inappropriate, and unkind. Which leads to online bullying, mental health issues and face-to-face communication withdrawal.
Navigating his way through Covid lockdown, Mark struck up a conversation with parent Neysa, aware of her IT skills and was thrilled to find they shared a passion to make the online world safe for our tamariki, a mutual interest in digital wellness. Hey, not just for our tamariki, what about their parents and grandparents who are left behind. Once upon a time parents would be delighted when their child was sitting quietly, reading or writing. Nowadays we should be more alert, what are they reading? Who are they ‘conversing’ with? Mark points out that information which a few years ago 16-year olds would be faced with is now widely seen by 11-year olds. They need to be taught how to deal with that information. How to deal with inappropriate and even disturbing interaction.
Mark was delighted to hear about Neysa’s STOP, BLOCK & TALK® strategy and embraced this mantra at his school. He wishes the whole community to embrace this easy-to-teach strategy.
Which led to the creation of the Digital Waitaha Charitable Trust. Mark is so passionate about this Trust that he put his hand up for the role of Trust Chair. With his management expertise the Trust is well placed to make a positive mark into our community.
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- Coby Snowden, trust scribe