Sunday, January 21, 2018


It's hard to believe, but 2018 is my 40th year  as an educator in the New Zealand state school system. I fully intend to celebrate this milestone, by making sure every day at school is a significant day and that I achieve something fulfilling and satisfying. I began my teaching career at Lytton High School, Gisborne, at the beginning of 1979, which continued with positions at Hamilton Boys' High School, Melville High School, Aranui High School and most recently, Papakura High School. A year as Acting Principal at Melville High in Hamilton made me realise that to be a Principal was a most challenging and rewarding career pathway, and during that year was appointed to my first permanent principalship, at Aranui, which commenced in February 2006. Funnily enough, Aranui had been my final placement as a teacher traineee, and I accepted my first teaching position by sending a telegram to the Principal of Lytton High School from the now long gone Aranui Post Office.  Little did I realise that my life would go full circle and that one day I would return to the same school where I did my teacher training practice.

When I think about the 39 years behind me, I am very grateful for the opportunities which I have received. I have been able to work in both city and rural schools, single sex and co-educational. Those opportunities helped to give me a balanced view about schools and schooling, which it would be impossible to have, without moving around gaining the experiences which five vastly different schools have given me. Opportunities come our way from time to time in life, and I always urge teachers with the same thought: if the door opens, walk through it! How often in life we meet individuals who have regret and bitterness, because they did not take the opportunities offered to them. Maybe because they were too comfortable and settled in their situations, or maybe because of fearfulness of the risks of failure or fear of the unknown. In each school that I have worked in, I have learned something new, been able to make judgements about what I value, and seen ways of functioning professionally, which I would have never otherwise experienced.

So what are the most important learnings I have gained, as I embark on my 40th year in this amazing journey in education?

First and foremost, the importance of having a teaching vocation, in order to be happy in ones work and to finding meaning and enjoyment in the craft of teaching. Without an overwhelming inner compulsion to aspire to be an educator, a teacher will be at best an average individual who imparts curriculum content without the love and enthusiasm of the teaching craft, which can only come from a vocation. And while this may appear to be somewhat old fashioned or even dated in the 21st century, it remains as true as ever.  It is the constant factor which gives teachers resilience and the inner strength to survive the hard times. And which helps them to see beyond the difficult days to the better times ahead.

A love of working with young people, and taking an intense interest in their well being, is secondly, a precondition to success in teaching, and the longer I have been a teacher myself, the more important I have observed this to be. It did not take very long for me to realise, as a young teacher, that involvement in sport and other extra-curricular activities was critical to building the necessary bridge that would make the classroom a pleasure rather than an ordeal. Moreover, going "the extra mile" for students because they deserve it, and because you value them, is critically important.  I have found that young people are particularly discerning about the teachers in front of them, in terms of their recognition of a teacher's genuine interest and care for them. Those teachers who show their aroha, their care and love for their students, are creating the environment in which learning can flourish. Those teachers can see a group of individuals in front of them - not a class, not a crowd, but a group of individuals with vastly differing backgrounds and needs, all of whom need his or her individual attention and concern.

I have also learned that "the good teacher," the one who stand out from the crowd, is the one who is never satisfied with his or her teaching performance, but who aways strives to do better and to explore the boundaries of pedagogy.  As a teacher and as a principal, remaining  commited to self-improvement is an indispensible part of remaining vital and fresh professionally. This is an imperative irrespective of whether you are in your first or fortieth year of teaching.  Not only is the objective, improvement of teaching performance, and methodology,  but also an expansion of curriculum knowledge and  subject content. This commitment to professional growth becomes increasingly difficult for some teachers as they get older, and yet this is the time in ones career when it is most important of all.

Happiness, positivity, as well as personal transparency  as a teacher have often been recognised as qualities which are important for teachers. I have learned that all the technical and pedagogical expertise without emanating a sense of  personal identity  and wellbeing to students, makes learning a very clinical process. Students must be able to capture glimpses into the humanity of their teachers. Parker J. Palmer (from The Heart of a Teacher) called this "the inner landscape of a teacher's life." I've often wondered about the way some teachers seem to have this innate ability to make connections between themselves, their subject matter and their students. I have come to realise that teachers must learn how to project themselves personally into their teaching. That is when the magic occurs.

And of all the other insights which I have gleaned over the four decades behind me, there is one other, which in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, is of greatest importance. This is the cultural awareness, openness and engagement, to successfully work in the context of an environment which is defined by Maori as tangata whenua of this country. Irrespective of whether you come from a white New Zealand/Pakeha background or where ever.  It is also defined by the multiplicity of other races that make up our classrooms, principally Pasifika, and then Asian and other migrant groups. There is a compelling mandate for those who work at the forefront of education, to actively grasp the opportunities to learn te reo Maori, to become proficient in their understanding of tikanga,  to become knowledgeable and skilled in their understanding of  Pasifika cultures and those of the other cultures they interact with, and to radiate an enthusiasm for those cultures in their every day dealings with young people. Long gone are the days when a simple "kia ora" was adequate to show this commitment. Teachers of 2018  must be modelling their learning of te reo Maori and leading the way, so that in future years the banal arguments about the use of te reo in the media and other public contexts will be long forgotten, as our country embraces its heritage. Teachers must be agents of social change that usher in a new era of being a bicultural nation in the spirit of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

I have asked myself: "Should I have included my learning about technology in this list of the most important things I have learned?" As a teacher who has witnessed the most dramatic changes occurring in education thanks to the introduction of modern information technology, I think not. The same disposition to be a committed learner is  required to keep abreast of technological change as every other form of learning I engage in.  In my Teachers' College year we were required to pass an "Audio Visual Certificate" which meant being able to demonstrate the use of the banda machine, the Gestetner and the movie projector! I am profoundly grateful for the technology which we have at our disposal for bringing learning to life in the 21st century, and for the marvellous opportunities of ubiquitous learning which it creates. Nevertheless, everything I know about this will be obsolete in five years time!

I am grateful to many inspirational teachers whom I have encountered during my career. They have helped to forge my beliefs about this great profession. They have helped me to believe that we must never compromise our personal values and they have taught me so much. But most of all, it is the students who have passed through my classroom, and more latterly, through my office and a through a multiplicity of other contexts, who have taught me the most. It is to them I owe my biggest thank you.

1 comment:

  1. Kia ora John,
    Great reflections after 40 years as a change agent for young people. I would agree that relationships and being a learner are two great attributes for a teacher. I find John Hatties list of factors affecting student achievement to be very worthwhile reading.
    Ngā mihi,