In August 2014, I decided to move from New Zealand to China to teach. Many people ask me here in China as to why I am not teaching in New Zealand; after all, in their eyes New Zealand is a clean and green paradise. And yes, I do miss the ability to get lost hiking in rain forests of the North Island or trekking the Heaphy trail.

However, although I do miss these things, I also must consider the reality of where my profession sits back home. Despite what politicians say, teaching in New Zealand is now a low-status profession due mostly to their policies. This may explain why new graduates do not see teaching a viable career choice. This also goes some way to explaining the now chronic shortage of qualified teachers in Auckland with my own experience as a teacher early in his career highlighting the issue. I left because my pay and career prospects were not sufficient to afford to continue to live there. This is depressing as I love Auckland, from its multiculturalism to being able to head to the Waitakeres to tramp for the weekend (now I admit, mitigated by Kauri dieback).

I realised that if I was going to extend my career to beyond the predicted five years, I had to do something. Having to deal with the demands of the constant internal assessment required of NCEA was leaving me burnt out when combined with the demands of daily teaching. There was a strong expectation to teach to the test in an increasingly narrow and prescriptive curriculum. I had students doing more than one high stake assessment a week! This over-emphasis on testing has led to the school curriculum becoming narrower and less interesting for both students and teachers to meet achievement targets. Not to mention reducing options for more marginalised communities.

I was also frustrated with changing policy initiatives like student-led learning instead of direct instruction as if teaching was an either/or dichotomy, not a complex multifaceted profession requiring nuance and contextualization.

So how as a country have what got to this point? Well, I think both major political parties have been guilty of trying to “de-professionalize” teaching by following political ideology rather than basing policy on research. I am a great advocate of research and evidence driving teaching practice. Increasingly it seems, globally (there are exceptions Finland and Vietnam are two that come to mind) successive governments ignore educational research, adopt a recipe approach to education policy and practice, and treat teachers increasingly as apprentices rather than as professionals.

Before I left, my school in New Zealand had just completed a new wing of classrooms based on the idea of Innovative learning environments (ILE), where classroom walls are being dismantled for more open, interactive and digital learning spaces. So why the drive for these structures?

Well at present there is no real evidence that they improve learning, in fact, they are based on the assumption that collaborative learning is the most effective form of learning, again the dichotomy problem – either/or not a nuanced development of policy based on research. The issue that became frustrating was that there was no professional development on the way we as teachers could maximise the effectiveness of these new learning environments.

This ongoing dismissal and denial of educational research, and research-informed professional development, both trivialise and demean the teaching profession in New Zealand and make it a career young talented New Zealanders do not want to be part of, hence they go elsewhere like I have.

So, this is why I left. I was overworked, underpaid, and facing apparently intractable educational and wider social challenges which current policymakers say have little no effect on educational outcomes and which the teacher can solve. I am hoping the current Labour government begins to take such issues seriously.

So, what about teaching in China? My class sizes are in the range of 15 – 20, compared to up to 40 in Auckland. I work from 8 am – 4 pm and have time for experiencing life in the evenings and weekends and the wage is commensurate with my experience and teaching knowledge.

Will I come back? Well, the reason I got into teaching was to serve others. Although I enjoy the experience of being totally immersed in a different culture and the new challenges that bring, I want to change things back home. If Vietnam can do it we can too!


  1. Hear hear Michael,

    So many of us are like you. We have spent our lives trying to implement the best research practice in our educational contexts. I moved from Primary, to High Schools, to Polytechnic, Universities, wananga and the private sector seeking a setting where I and people like you and I could focus on quality teaching and learning.

    Education has become a political and economic football and the current falling educational standards in our universities and schools (International rankings) prove this.

    Educational research is very clear about what we know and what we don’t. We don’t know that two dimensional online learning is anywhere as effective or deep as three dimensional face to face learning with competent teachers. Economically we just know one is cheap and one requires more resources.

    In my years in the university sector I always felt sorry for the education faculty who knew what excellent teaching looks like but could never alter a thing in the university operated. Meanwhile their colleagues in the IT or Chemistry faculties would be treated to that latest expensive research toys to play with. The system loved buying stuff but not investing in their people.

    For too long Educational Ministers have played out their ideologies changing education systems and parameters every three years. Those of us in education know quality takes time and constant reactionary changes are the enemy of educational quality in all sectors.

    Legislation and regulation development are constant. We moved teacher education from dedicated and highly effective Teacher’s College’s. My memory of being educated in teaching at Dunedin was of expert practice capable lecturing staff who could walk the talk and who were focused not on publishing in journals but on improving what was happening in our classrooms with real children and in a measurable way.

    I also remember Dunedin Teachers College being inundated with International Education Experts coming to see what NZ was doing as a world leader. Without any logic other than ‘other countries are moving teacher education to the unis we followed. NZ has been behind since.

    Today those making decisions in Govt often believe because they have been to school they are somehow professionally capable to make changes and judgement on education.
    This has the same level of logic as; I fly in planes, therefore I can advise pilots!

    If you really want to view how crazy education has got join the private sector; those surviving in this sector and doing a great job are battered daily by regulation, exclusion and anti competitive behaviour.
    Current regulations include the 1989 and 2011 Educational Amendments Acts plus Rules(18 to date) each including more than 100 criteria NZQA supposed to be monitoring.

    Has all this regulation stopped poor quality provision in this, the Polytechnic, university or wananga sectors, NO.
    The Education sectors are now not attracting people who want to improve the lives of learners but those who want to make a quick $ or outrageous profits and these people chase every lolly scrabble of funding the Govt throws out.

    Time to recognise the education professionals really doing the real work.


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