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  • Carolyn Stuart

Bringing Back the Passion

Updated: Jun 6, 2019

Education in New Zealand is currently sitting in a pretty tricky space. We have teachers and principals unhappy about their pay and conditions, and I am sure I am joining thousands of others in hoping that the forum held in Wellington this week will see the standoff between government and the unions resolved. Teachers and principals deserve to be paid at a level equivalent to others in society holding similar responsibilities - I believe that this view is held by the majority of New Zealanders.

The other issue that will be grappled with in Wellington today is improving the conditions for teachers. Our schools are groaning under the changing pressure and expectations. I wrote about this in a blog post earlier this year “Will we expect too much from our teachers and principals again this year?”. We have never lived in a time of greater change.

My question though is ‘where did the joy of teaching go?”.

I think it disappeared when we began to focus too much on data, which took the focus off the people (both the adults and the students) that sit in the centre of the educative endeavour. It is really hard to reach the same level of excitement about numbers as it is to see the lights go on in the eyes of a child as they experience that ‘aha’ moment so pivotal to learning.

Advocates of data-driven practice are genuine in their ambition to improve learning by focussing on numbers to improve student achievement, but there are some troubling beliefs that underpin this approach.

These beliefs are:

1. That a teacher/school knows how to improve learning for a student and by putting pressure on them, (hold them to public account) we will get them to do the ‘right thing’. (I have yet to meet a teacher/school who had the ability to unlock learning for a child and chose not to do it.)

2. f we controlled the teaching environment more, with a relentless focus on literacy and numeracy, then we would see achievement rates rise.

3. That a greater focus on standardised assessment will improve learning.

The consequence of this data-driven approach is that we took away teacher agency in the mistaken belief that if there was more control over what happened in the classroom then student achievement would rise. It doesn’t. What it does do though is take away the joy of both teaching and learning.

Let me tell you a personal story.

In the 1990s New Zealand revised its curriculum and produced a tome for every curriculum area, filled with achievement objectives that teachers were expected to cover over the course of a year. The school where I was working, issued us with a teaching plan for mathematics which detailed precisely which achievement objectives were to be covered in which weeks AND we were audited to ensure that we stuck to the plan. I am sorry to confess that without a shadow of a doubt this teaching plan turned me into a dreadful teacher. You see, being told exactly what I was to teach and when, took away my agency. I stopped thinking about what my students needed because, the ability for me to carry on teaching geometry for a couple of extra days to ensure that the students really nailed the content, was taken from me. I just followed the plan and to this day I still regret that I didn’t challenge the process being done to me.

Now I am not saying for one minute that teachers are perfect or that schools have all the answers. What I am saying though is that to improve a teacher’s skill we need to work alongside them and coach them to be the best they can be. Same thing for our school leaders.

I have recently been working in some schools helping to uncover the needs of teachers and then working to design innovative approaches to meet the growing needs of our students. By aligning the needs of teachers, students and the school community we bring back much needed agency.

Data is important to show that we are making a difference but what education needs right now, is to put its focus back on people, of every size and age, in order to navigate its way to a brighter future.

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