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Education – 200 Years in the Making

I have been reflecting on the fact that 2016 was the bicentenary of the first school in New Zealand as the end of the year approaches. I imagine that first school in the Bay of Islands when it opened back in August 1816. Modest; unprepossessing; weatherboard; about 30ft by 18ft. There was a loft for the Māori children to sleep in. It held a locked chest, a reading desk and chair for the teacher. It also held the hopes and dreams of a new community – and, in the minds of some perhaps, a new nation. By its very standing, it emphatically said education is the cornerstone of this newly forming settler society and every child, regardless of position in that society, was entitled to be educated. The first teacher was Thomas Kendall. His assistant - William Carlisle. In that first month in August the name Tōwai appeared at the top of the school roll too. Because Tōwai had been to Sydney, could write the alphabet and had some understanding of English, he was appointed as an assistant teacher. We can look back on him as New Zealand’s first Māori teacher.

In fact, many of the colonists learned te reo Māori, and, notwithstanding the paternalistic undertow, appreciated the beauty and importance of this country’s first language.

The school is also a symbol of the fundamental values (that have certainly been challenged during the last 200 years) of biculturalism. Local Māori seemed very much active participants in getting the school open because they knew the future meant a necessary integration of aspects of the two cultures, including being able to read and write in English.We have had periods in our history when this notion of our two cultures being equal but unique has been challenged and where it was felt integration into one melded culture – a hegemony - was fundamentally necessary for the social and economic success of our burgeoning nation. Remember we still looked to England as our social and political referee.

Back in 1816, the curriculum comprised the plough (technology); the cash economy (economics and entrepreneurship); and language (English). We’ve come very far since then, even more in the last few years. So we are now, at the end of 2016, coming to a point of nuanced and much more sophisticated understanding of what a modern education system needs to nurture curious, competent and engaged citizens. I have always been proud to be a teacher. I am particularly pleased now as the chief executive of the Education Council because I have a bird’s eye view of our profession and it’s one that I see is constantly striving to be better. I’m not just talking about the hard competencies – though ongoing professional development is crucial for us as teachers to make sure we’re effective. I’m also talking about the cultural and social aspects of our profession – our commitment to inclusion, equality and a fair go for all.

That’s why I’m very excited about the role the Council is playing in stewarding our profession through a time of change. Our role is to elevate the status of our profession in our society so we attract the brightest and the best and keep them with us.

We’re doing this in several ways. We’re working with our profession to create a more future-focussed initial teacher education system – one that attracts the right applicants with not just the right thinking abilities, but the right dispositions. You all know effective teaching is the sum of its parts and our profession is much more sophisticated in terms of its complexity than many give it credit. We need to make sure our teacher education is right for 21st-century teaching and learning.

I’m particularly excited about the work that affects us all in our teaching practice – our work to develop a new Code of Professional Responsibility and new values for our profession. It’s been very rewarding to seek your views on the values our profession must hold to given the enormous trust society vests in us. Our ethical compass cannot waiver.

Finally, I believe we are developing something that’s ground-breaking in the leadership field in that we are taking a bottom-up approach. We are developing, in 2017, a Centre of Leadership Excellence which will focus on developing and identifying leaders across the teaching profession regardless of the jobs they hold. We believe this approach will bring much greater innovation and ongoing improvement. It will see us grow a much stronger profession from the ground up where leaders are empowered regardless of their roles, while at the same time providing meaningful professional development for those who do have formal leadership roles and functions.

So I believe these are the best of times for teachers (and not the worst). I still see lots of challenges ahead but I see these challenges as opportunities. I look forward to spending my break reflecting on what I can do better in the new year, and enjoying the company of friends and family.

I wish you all the best for your break this holiday and season’s greetings to you all.

Dr Graham Stoop

Thank you to Alison Jones for her story Bicentenary 2016: The First New Zealand School, which I read and referenced in this piece. This fascinating article was published in the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies (volume 51, July 2016) 

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