“Teachers have a significant role in a student’s education so it is essential that the best practitioners are employed in our schools. Students and teachers, as two major stakeholders in education, are in a unique position to provide school leaders, policy makers and other interested parties with valuable data about which teacher characteristics they perceive are most conducive for high achievement,” says University of Auckland researcher Hana Turner.

To find out about these perceived characteristics, Hana collected data from 583 high-achieving students and 274 high-performing teachers from 142 secondary schools. Through anonymous questionnaires, she asked participants to describe an “ideal” and a “non-ideal” teacher. This study forms part of Hana’s PhD research, supervised by Professor Christine Rubie-Davies and Associate Professor Melinda Webber, focusing on the schooling experiences of high-achieving Māori and non-Māori senior secondary school students, and the factors which contribute to their academic success.

Research data showed that both teachers and students perceived “ideal” teachers to be focused on student learning and success. They had high expectations, and continually challenged and encouraged their students to achieve high results in NCEA. One student said their teacher, “…always says that excellence should and can be achieved by anyone who wants it”. “Ideal” teachers also ensured students understood the work, were enthusiastic about the subjects they taught, and had positive connections with students.

Comparatively, the responses showed that “non-ideal” teachers did not focus on student success and their expectations were low. One student recounted, “I was once looking at the school Dux board, reading the names and was told to ‘keep dreaming’ by my teacher in quite a demeaning fashion”. Teacher participants had similar stories: “I have actually heard a teacher tell a kid that their future is as a street cleaner – and it wasn’t said like it was a good thing”. “Non-ideal” teachers also appeared to discourage students. One told their students, “It’s too late to start studying now” and when students wanted to resubmit an assignment for a better grade, their teacher said, “Why? Merit is good enough”.

The importance of cultural responsiveness was referred to by both Māori and Pākehā teachers as “ideal”, but each ethnic group viewed it differently. Pākehā teachers primarily saw it as celebratory (i.e., singing songs and eating cultural food), which may make students feel good but does not do much to improve educational outcomes. Māori teachers were more likely to embed cultural responsiveness into teaching programmes, where academic content was taught through students’ world views and experiences.

“Disappointingly, a number of students experienced disrespect and discrimination from ‘non-ideal’ teachers. Māori and Asian students reported experiencing discrimination most often,” Hana says.

Data showed that “non-ideal” teachers told racist jokes and made little or no effort to pronounce student names correctly. A large number of students reported their teacher, “pronounces names wrong without apology” or “…tries to tell me I’m saying my name wrong”. Some students also reported that their teacher didn’t even know their name.

“With the teacher shortage in New Zealand schools at crisis point, many principals are struggling to find suitable applicants to fill vacancies. However, employing teachers who lack the skills and dispositions needed to teach our diverse population puts students at increased risk of educational failure,” Hana says.

“The government must act urgently to incentivise teaching so that the best teachers are employed and retained. All students need to have access to ‘ideal’ teachers who provide a high quality education so they are able to complete school with the option to attend university (if that is what they decide to do), or to pursue other types of further education and training.”

The other key questions investigated for this research included: How do students and teachers define a successful secondary school student and does “success” differ depending on the ethnicity of the student and/or teacher? Do teachers treat students differently depending on their ethnicity or whether they have high or low expectations for their success? Is there a relationship between engagement, achievement, and student-teacher relationships?

A report on the main findings of this research will be made available to all secondary schools early next year.

Hana Turner is of Ngāti Ranginui descent and is currently completing a PhD in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. She teaches part-time in Te Puna Wānanga, the School of Māori and Indigenous Education. Her main research interests are Māori student success, racism and inequality in education, and teacher expectations.

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