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!