An email from a teacher in exile

A teacher emails about his experiences in NZ.

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I just wanted to share with you some of my experience as a beginning teacher in NZ and my views on the education system.

Unlike most teachers, I am not a lefty, not a unionist and I am male. I got into teaching with the sole purpose of making a difference in education. So i took the leap and enrolled in a local university and began my teaching degree. It was here that the ineptitude of our education system became evident. Over the next three years, I was surrounded by a ragtag group of people, ranging from recent school graduates to the nearing retirement aged. The year I began was the first year they doubled the size of the intake, from 30-60 and this created a number of problems. Firstly, the campus was not large enough to hold a larger intake and our teacher training suffered from overcrowding and under resourcing. As time wore on, it became evident that things were not “equal”. Maori students were given the fast track on anything and everything and it soon became clear that they were destined for “greater” things. Some students were being treated differently by the lecturers as well. I remember one guy posted on Facebook, on the morning an assignment was due, that he better think about doing it. He handed the assignment in a week late and still received a pass mark. Uni policy for most assignments states that you lose 10% per day late and this guy was definitely not an “A” student. This sort of thing was a regular occurrence for the next three years and it made it hard for me to respect my cohort and the university. 
Fast forward to the final year. Out of 45 people who made it to the end of the degree, only about 10 jobs came up in our area and 5 of them were taken up by new teachers (myself included) at the same school. And now, over 3 years later, only half of my graduating class have jobs as teachers. It was at this school that everything I thought, and knew, became irrelevant. It quickly became evident that most of what we had learned over the past 3 years had nothing to do with actual teaching. Those classes on creative pedagogy and integrated curriculums were pushed by the wayside, as the school had a focus on literacy and numeracy. Add to this the fact that not one person from the school, took the time to really sit down and explain to us how their reading, writing and maths programmes actually worked and you have a recipe for disaster. So here I was, at a new job, in a new career, wandering through the “dark” with no light in sight. The phrase “trial by fire” is an understatement to what I endured. Only once I had been there a while and got to know people, that I began to get shown things (it took 6 months before I received a tour of the resource room).

It was during my first year at this school, that I began to experience the true bureaucracy that exists in education and its responsibility for the downfall of student achievement. As professional development in the school, we were subjected to an improvement programme that required us to be observed by an “expert” who would attend the school each term and check on our progress. During my first meeting with this expert and all subsequent meetings, he proceeded to identify all of the bad things I was doing as a teacher, never once identifying anything positive. He then ended each meeting without actually telling me how to improve or change my teaching. After speaking with other colleagues, this was the “norm” and happened to everyone, every-time. For this “in-depth” analysis of the school’s teachers, he was getting paid about $40k per year by the school.

Which brings me to his greatest advocate at the school, the deputy principal. Now at most schools I have attended and had the pleasure of interacting with, the principal is the figurehead of the school community. They are usually charismatic, passionate, friendly and a great advocate for their staff and pupils. Our principal was none of these, he had the charisma of a fence post. And although he was the figurehead of the school community, the school itself was run by his deputy, who had affectionately been nicknamed “The Pitbull”. This hobbit-esque woman ruled with an iron fist and her word was law. Because you can’t argue with 40 years of experience right? It became this woman’s crusade to improve the literacy and numeracy within the school and this meant by any means necessary. It was widely known that the school marked harder at the beginning of the year to make the marks lower and therefore increase the  perceived “improvement” achieved over the year. But I began to question things when we were told that our end of year marks were to low and we need to “fix” them. To me, this is called fudging the numbers, but to my colleagues this was a common practice that did occur at other schools also.

So over the next 18 months I taught at this school and the last 6 months were rocky to say the least. My class in my second year became known as the class from hell. I started the year with 2 bipolar boys and 2 girls who had been separated at their last school. The class quickly descended into an unsafe environment for the other students. Here are some examples of the behaviour of these students. One girl, assaulted boys on a regular basis, by pulling hair, punching, kicking and stomping. She also threatened to murder a student’s family and threatened another teacher. One boy trashed the classroom in a fit of rage and after this he was moved to another class, flipped out at lunchtime and was removed in handcuffs by police. Another boy pulled a knife on a student in the classroom in front of a reliever. Also, another boy threw tables, chairs and objects around the classroom in numerous rages. Oh, and these were 11 year old students in a decile 7 school. When I approached the management for assistance with handling the class (this was less than 2 months into the year) I was told that it was all my fault and that I was to blame for everything that occurred in the classroom. To cut a long story short, my competence was called into question and I was effectively placed on probation. I chose to fight the school and undertook an advice and guidance programme to clear my name. This did not happen to a colleague though, who faced with a similar situation, chose to allow the school to help her find employment elsewhere. This was arranged by the school management and another local school, and was held over her head even after she left.
As a result of this, I resigned from the school and have left NZ to teach overseas. The grass is much greener over here and I now teach in a school that has a supportive management team and I am able to teach with the advice and guidance of people that I respect wilfully, not because they intimidate people.

I left NZ because there were not many options available to me. There is a lack of jobs, there are too many older teachers in education who are stuck in their ways and the schooling system is run like an “old boys” club. Also, the fact that education is treated as a political football in NZ means that every 3 years or so, it is 2 steps forward and 1 step back. When Labour and National finally decide to agree on actually fixing the education system rather than promoting their own political agendas, I will happily return to NZ. National standards are a good concept, as they give us benchmarks to aim for. But if they are not standard across all schools, they are completely useless. To finish off, I want to add my 2 cents to the recent PISA results discussion. NZ does have a world class education system and it suits “our” people, who are creative thinkers and doers, not robots. But the one difference Asia has that sets them apart, is that yes, you can fail and failure is not an option. When NZ can realise that “working towards”, “below” and “not achieved” are all bullshit ways of saying “FAIL”, the better.

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story.  And when he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet.   Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet, and as a result he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist that takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him.  But you can’t ignore him.