There are not many people who can manage 85 teenage boys in a boarding school environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 15 years, but Neil Muirhead is one of those rare people.
The former Housemaster of Williams House, Clark House and School House, resigned at the end of 2021, but his 23 years teaching at St Paul’s Collegiate School, 15 of those involved with boarding, helped shape the formative years of hundreds of students.
“I have so many fond memories of my time at St Paul’s. It’s often the little things – a card or an email from former students. Little bits and pieces that tell you, okay, I played a positive role there,” says Neil.
Neil is teaching in a part time capacity at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and says he stepped down from St Paul’s to take on a role that would allow him more family time.
Neil joined St Paul’s in 1999, after initially immigrating from South Africa to New Zealand in November 1994. He had completed a reconnaissance trip to New Zealand in 1993, and visited St Paul’s, including
meeting the then Housemaster of Williams House. Immigrating nearly two years later, Neil initially taught in Te Puke and later Auckland, but when a role finally came up at St Paul’s in 1999, he jumped at the
He was initially employed at St Paul’s as a mathematics teacher and taught statistics and calculus during his time, including a year as acting Co-Head of Department. Neil also took on the role of Deputy Housemaster of Clark House before becoming Housemaster of Williams House. He had two further spells as Deputy Housemaster of Clark House before taking on the role of Clark Housemaster in 2015.
During his tenure, Neil spent 15 years involved with boarding at St Paul’s.
"The thing I enjoyed the most was the connections I made with the boys. Connections that were made
generally just by being present with them."
“You’d wander into a dorm and just chat to the boys. You’d be chatting and get distracted and then realise it was past lights out time. The key to managing that many boys was always building relationships with them.”
The role was not without its challenges, however. Through sheer hours of being present with the boys Neil turned Clark House into a calm, safe environment, with good structures.
“So much of what we do as teachers is building relationships and it’s something St Paul’s does well. With the boys, the other staff, and the parents,” says Neil.
His calm manner and routine setting appealed to students’ sense of decency rather than taking punitive measures.
“It was certainly demanding because you’re constantly on call but the successes you experience along the way make it all worth it,” says Neil.
Staff remember Neil as the Mr Fixit of St Paul’s boarding, always leading from the front and leaving staff feeling obliged to match his energy and effort.
Garth Littlejohn who was Deputy Housemaster of Clark House described Neil as an unsung hero of St Paul’s.
“To do 15 years in boarding alongside his sporting and academic commitments is a phenomenal achievement,” said Garth.
The respect Neil gained from students was evident as, over time, invites to 21st birthday parties or drinks at the local watering hole arrived from young men whose lives were influenced by Neil’s input.
“Teaching has been very good to me. It has been 40 years in total so far, including my time in South Africa. It certainly takes a bit out of you, but I say that with a smile on my face,” says Neil.
His time teaching maths at St Paul’s also saw him help shape students who struggled with the subject.
“I remember one student in particular, he struggled with the concepts, but he came back to a leavers function and told me it had all finally clicked when he left school,” says Neil.
Neil says teaching mathematics is more traditional than many subjects and he has thoroughly enjoyed teaching the Cambridge course for that exact reason. While digital technology has provided a huge amount of material for teaching, he says many students still need basic instruction in maths to navigate
the principles and ensure a solid foundation.
“There will always be students that will excel at certain subjects or find some subjects easier than others but it’s our job as teachers to give them the grounding they need to succeed,” says Neil.
Alongside his teaching and boarding commitments, Neil also had an impressive history in sports coaching at St Paul’s. Five seasons coaching rugby (including three years as Master in Charge), six seasons coaching cricket, 14 seasons managing tennis teams, three seasons coaching athletics, 12 seasons coaching girls’ first XI hockey and a further six years with the girls’ second XI.
“I guess I am happiest when I’m busy to a large extent,” says Neil. He enjoyed his time coaching hockey the most and says one of his hardest farewells was with the second XI girls’ hockey team. It was always a close-knit group. Each year many of the girls were playing hockey for the first time. This provided its own challenges but every season the girls stepped up and produced a season that both players and staff could be proud of.
"To see players go on to regional or national representation was always fulfilling, but also to see players
start their hockey at St Paul’s and go on to play a significant role in hockey outside of school gives me a buzz."
His time coaching sport also allowed him to continue to build relationships with the students.
“Sport allows you to create relationships with the kids that are quite different to the classroom and if you can form those relationships outdoors you can bring them into the classroom as well,” says Neil.
While his time teaching, coaching and mentoring boarding students has been rewarding Neil says it is a situation where, ‘you get back what you put in.’
“There are always ups and downs but the vast majority of time you are working with great people with kindness and warmness, and these are the type of people that are part and parcel of St Paul’s,” says Neil.