The University of Auckland’s Dean of Education and Social Work, Professor Graeme Aitken, grew up in schools and knew he was going to be a teacher from age 15. Now retiring after 40 years as a teacher, curriculum developer, university lecturer and Dean, he presented a retrospective lecture of his time in Education.

Called, Ambition and Its Enemies: A Report Card on 40 Years of Leadership in Education, the lecture offered the opportunity for him to reflect on four decades of involvement in school and university education.

His desire to teach started young. His dad, Alex Aitken, was principal from 1959 to 1969 of what was then called Manukau Intermediate. Now Royal Oak Intermediate, Graeme grew up in the school house there.

He was also drawn to serve others after watching his parents cope with his and his brothers’ illnesses when they were all teenagers. From February 1967 to Anzac Day 14-year-old Graeme was in Middlemore Hospital with osteomyelitis, an infection in a bone, and septicaemia and pneumonia. At the same time his older brother, 18, was in Auckland Hospital with tetanus, and his younger brother, 12, was in Greenlane Hospital with meningitis.

“I do think that experience at 14, where the family and the doctors had given me up and I am convinced I saw the light, I think coming back from that I thought I must be here for something, there must be some reason why I survived.

“The other part is the service notion of it. I observed my parents with three boys in hospital at the same time still both working, both making sure they visited me every day at Middlemore Hospital for those two months, bringing me carrot juice. I survived for a reason, and I saw service to me by my parents with very difficult family circumstances.”

What followed for Graeme was a 40 year career serving in education in which he has sought to achieve ambitious but not always popular goals.  In this lecture he will reflect on three of these ambitions, the extent to which they were achieved and, to borrow Karl Popper’s phrasing, the “enemies” that challenged their realisation – including the enemy of his own personal capacity as a leader.

He started teaching history and geography at Waitakere College in 1977.

“One of my first memories would be my realisation that not everybody loved geography and history and learning as much as I did. I can still recall the shock of that. Thinking I had these wonderful things to tell people and that they would be only too willing to hear and realising that there’s a whole motivational element to teaching that I hadn’t really thought about. That’s still an enduring memory.”

In the late 1980s he became involved in national curriculum development.  This was the focus of his first ambition – to increase the prominence of geography and history in the compulsory social studies curriculum between 1989 and 2007.

In the early 1990s Graeme became directly involved in teacher education – first as an advisor, then as a teacher educator and programme leader.  This challenged him to consider in a much more serious and disciplined way what it meant to teach effectively and how to measure that.  This was the focus of his second ambition – to define and have accepted a conceptually coherent way of defining effective teaching without straightjacketing it into populist views of there being “right” ways to teach, and that avoided overly-prescriptive specifications of actions and behaviours.

But unable to tear himself away from the classroom, he still taught part-time at Onehunga High School (1992-1999).

“I did it voluntarily. I taught 4th form social studies and 5th form geography there for about seven years. That’s how long it took to get schools out of my system.”

From 1992-1996 he held the position of Principal Lecturer: Schools Liaison at the then Auckland College of Education.

He joined the University in 1996 as Director of Secondary Teacher Education in what was then the School of Education in the Faculty of Arts. There Graeme shifted his attention to the third of his ambitions – to make sense of the tensions between the demands and responsibilities of professional (initial teacher) education within the context and demands of a leading international, research-intensive university.   It is his attempts to realise this ambition that has been a dominant theme of his time as Dean since 2008.

In reflecting on the achievement of each of these three ambitions Graeme gives himself a mixed report card and argues that this is an inevitable outcome of leading change in complex human systems.

While he will continue his involvement with the university for a further three years in a part-time role as Director of Educational Initiatives in the Vice Chancellor’s Office, this lecture offers the opportunity for him to reflect on four decades of involvement in school and university education.

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