Who Will Save the Day?

Today our current government announced that they would be spending $359 million dollars to instigate ‘significant’ change in the leadership structures within our current school system.  That while the government felt education in New Zealand was doing well, there was still a need for more change.  Groan.  As if there hasn’t been change enough in the past 7 years.

John Key outlined in his State of the Nation address that they want the very best teachers and principals guiding and supporting those schools struggling to provide successful education for our young people.  And they’re going to throw many gold-plated carrots out to those teachers identified as ‘the best’ in order for them to do it.  While I am an avid supporter of collaboration amongst colleagues, many alarm bells began to sound as the announcement was made.

Firstly, what constitutes a ‘successful’ principal?  The government have created 250 ‘Executive Principal’ roles that will allow ‘excellent’ Principals to be freed up two days a week to move around other schools obviously less successful than their own.  And they will pay them more to do this.  Furthermore, ‘Change Principals’ will be hired to target around 20 struggling schools each year to lift achievement in the school community.  But who determines what is ‘success’ that these role-model principals have achieved? Of course they will be interviewed.  They will no doubt be able to produce a raft of league tables, data outcomes and every predictable number under the sun to do with National Standards.  But who will measure their success in terms of the way in which they relate to their staff?  Are they number crunchers or people principals? Are they able to build relationships with their school community that are empathic and grass-roots?  Or do they move heaven and earth to make sure their school looks good on paper?Image

My second concern is the ongoing lack of understanding about what makes a learner learn.  Despite the overwhelming evidence, of which the government appear to be selectively ignorant of, policy still appears to adopt the approach that children are empty vessels in need of filling rather than “active builders of knowledge-little scientists who construct their own theories of the world” (Piaget).  Children learn best when they are engaged in motivating, relevant and highly interesting tasks.  The tools of reading, writing and numeracy aide learning……they aren’t the learning itself.  And yet this is what the government see as the best indicator of a child’s learning success.  But what about their ability to problem solve?  To think outside the square, to come up with something innovative, creative or unique? In the egalitarian society John Key referred to yesterday in his comments to the media, surely we as New Zealanders wish to allow the crazy ones, the misfits the opportunity to be successful in their education as much as those who can work clinically towards and tick off each new standard they meet?  But instead, these alternative and divergent thinkers are confined to a very small box, with little air to breathe, let alone room to think or create.  And the government wonders why there is this incessant ‘tail’ of underachievers that they just can’t shake!

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My third (but certainly not my final) concern is the apparent belief by the government that the education system will fix all the social problems in New Zealand.  That despite a child’s home circumstances, including poverty, poorly-educated parents, lack of parents, bad health, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse (the list is infinite), by the time they arrive at school, the teachers and school will be able to patch them up, start them off and get them to the standard by the end of Year 1.  If not, then fault clearly lies within the domain of the school and not with the profilic outside influences.  Where, in today’s State of the Nation address, did John Key sink money into social service agencies to address the ongoing high-rates of neglectful parenting, poverty, health concerns and so on? When are the ones most responsible for the underachievement of children in New Zealand going to be held accountable – their parents?  I am not parent-bashing in the slightest.  I am simply questioning at what point are parents expected to step up to the plate and do their jobs?  And where are the government in supporting those who may struggle to meet their responsibilities, either due to a lack of finance or a lack of knowledge in what these responsibilities are? And why should schools and teachers be the back stop when all else (quickly) fails?

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So, no pressure teachers and principals as the school year begins.  After all it is flattering to think that John Key places so much faith in a teacher’s abilities to achieve what may, in the face of horrendous obstacles, seem impossible.  It is nice to hear John Key state that “the quality of teaching is the biggest influence on children’s achievement”.    But then, it is election year……he has many hands to shake and babies to kiss.

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It Must Be That Bad

People who work in education funnily enough move in similar circles.  Its as if, I would imagine like others in service industries (eg Police, Nursing etc), you find out that the person you have just met at a social function is a kindred spirit – they walk your walk everyday as you negotiate your way around the ‘system’.  In fact, I can identify most, if not a high percentage, of my friends either are, or have been teachers at some point when we initially crossed paths.  If not teachers, Education Advisers, or Psychologists.  We automatically connect, as if we are a family of sorts.

Most recently, these connections have highlighted for me several common themes through our conversations.  Firstly, the conversations usually start with the heavy workload, the stress, the late nights and the feeling that no matter how much we do, it is never quite enough.  Then the conversation progresses to policy impositions and ultimately National Standards and how it is directly impacting on the ability to do the job we once were excited to do.  For those of us who are parents, there comes a third component to the discussion.  Given that my younger children are just starting out in the school system, the chat inevitably returns to the age old adage of how I view school for my own offspring.  And this is where I have made some startling observations.  My teacher friends are worried.  They are genuinely concerned for the well-being of their own children within the education system.  They work hard to try to select the most appropriate school for their child to attend – often having to drive past several other schools to ensure this happens.  They liaise closely with the school staff in order to ensure the impact of such policies as National Standards, larger class sizes, clear reporting etc doesn’t filter down to mean their child has a negative experience of school.  And more recently, the teacher/parents I have spoken to have all categorically stated that if they could they would choose to home-school their child. That they felt their child’s emotional and mental well-being was at risk in some schools because of the pressure schools are now under to conform to the government’s policies.

You know it must be bad if teachers, given half the chance, would choose to home-school their own kids.  For teacher/parents who have children who find school somewhat challenging – albeit socially, emotionally or academically – the current policy direction will require the school to label them and make them fit in a box.  These boxes are labelled ‘at’, ‘above’ or ‘below’.  As a teacher/parent I am highly concerned that my children will be put into boxes that they just aren’t ready to be fitted for.  My daughter will fit in far different, colorful, weirdly shaped box from that of my son, who might fit a more industrial, toughened and security-enhanced box.  Each box is different, and I am loathe to see my children labelled at such a time when they are still forming their own self-identity.  For children who find school a challenge, their ‘below’ box will follow them around and haunt them.  It will come to define them, and despite all they do, (and all the work their teachers will do), they will struggle to get into another box that far more epitomizes their uniqueness, creativity, problem-solving ability, independence, responsibility and craziness.

So as a teacher/parent, I would raise my hand to have my children out of this system.  And it would seem, so would many others I speak with.  They see learning as experiencing, making meaning, doing and exploring – not always having to meet a benchmark to prove one’s ability to learn.  Learning should be happening consistently in the life of a child – making meaning from experience.  As such, children don’t need to be boxed in and limited to a range of criteria determined by someone that will not walk their path in life.  The knowledge they seek will be relevant to their life experiences and as such cannot be measured.  So, as a teacher/parent, I feel it is that bad.  I do not want my children categorised and ranked, given a number or a grade.  I want them having experiences, making connections and engaging in motivating learning.  And it would appear, at this time thanks to current government policy, the  New Zealand education system is struggling to offer this to our children.

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