After 20 years of being a principal at three very different schools – Nelson College, Aga Khan Mizizima High School in Tanzania and Manurewa High School – my wife and I are enjoying the chance to travel, spend time with friends and family and reflect on the highlights of our time in the three schools.

The most recent, Manurewa High School, a decile 1 multi-cultural school with over 2000 students, gave me the most learnings.

I was aware that the most effective way to get the children from these families out of the generational poverty they are experiencing was through gaining academic qualifications. These qualifications would improve their chances of getting into meaningful employment and careers.

As is shown in NCEA data, there is a very strong correlation between decile and academic achievement. The higher the decile, the higher the academic achievement.  Being an outlier from this correlation was the major goal for the school.

We needed to find the answer to this question: What was it about being poor meant that students fail to achieve at school?

In 2014, as part of a government sabbatical, I wrote a report that described the journey that  Manurewa High School was on to achieve its goal.

As shown in the report, a major driver in our development was the work of Ruby Payne and her company Aha Process.

I gained confidence from two members of the staff at Manurewa who had experienced being in poverty. They claimed that the material in the book was the best description they had ever seen of their upbringing and helped them to understand themselves and their situation.

This convinced me that Ruby’s work is very transferable to the New Zealand environment.

I contacted Ruby about her resources and she sent me a parcel of her books including her training manuals. I made use of these, working with staff and students.

The basis of her work is the gaining of an understanding of the different mental modes that exists between wealthy, middle class and people in poverty.

All research into academic achievement of sub-groups insists that success is based on relationships. Two prominent examples of this are Russell Bishop on the achievement of Maori students and Michael Gurian on the achievement of boys.

To be able to develop relationships with students from poverty, it is necessary to understand how they think, what drives their decision-making and why they react in certain ways.

Ruby Payne’s work also gives a very clear description of the resources that students from lower socio-economic families are lacking.

By considering these resources when developing curriculum programmes, we got a better connection with the students.

My sabbatical report identified that students need more than financial resources to achieve. Ruby Payne’s research identified additional resources.

Financial Having enough money to purchase goods and services
Emotional Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behaviour. This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance and choices
Physical Having physical health and mobility
Support systems Having friends, family and backup resources to access in times of need. These are external resources
Role models Having frequent access to individuals who are appropriate and are nurturing
Knowledge of the hidden rules Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of different groups
Language register Being able to competently use the vocabulary and sentence structure of work and school
Coping strategies Having a positive mind-set and being able to engage on procedural and positive self-talk

Sourced from R. Payne

My report concluded that the needs of students are therefore greater and deeper than just economic.

“Educators have a tremendous opportunity to influence some of the non-financial resources that make a difference in students’ lives. For example, being an appropriate role model. To best cater for the students who are lacking these resources, we require analysis of what resources they are lacking.”

Ruby Payne has been readily available for advice and mentoring. An example of this was her explanation why the school had so any fights between students. She outlined that students from poverty cannot back down when their personal strength is challenged – they have little else, so personal strength is important.

In my final year at Manurewa High School, I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. Part of this was to attend an Aha Process conference. Ruby gave my wife and I places at the conference and introduced us to many of the speakers and presenters.

The conference was one of the best I have attended. To be sharing experiences with the many participants who work in either educational or community providers was inspiring.

There was a mixture of social workers, community leaders, teachers and principals. There were many examples of the benefits of collaboration. Examples of success around different parts of America through the use of strategies for eradicating poverty, methods for building resources of individuals and the promotion of community sustainability.

It helped further develop an understanding and appreciation of the value her resources are to support the challenge of taking families out of poverty.

While at this conference, Ruby mentioned that she had presented in Australia and worked with educators there. She has had some of her resources rewritten for an Australian context.

In October this year she is travelling to present in Australia. She has offered to spend two days in Auckland and is willing to present to groups that may benefit.

It is positive that the latest government is committed to address the socio-economic gap. I hope that Ruby’s visit can contribute to identifying useful strategies to our situation.

At this stage the programme for Ruby’s Auckland visit on Thursday 18 and Friday 19 October is as follows:

  • Thursday morning at Manurewa High School to meet staff and students;
  • Thursday afternoon to present to the Manurewa Collaborative group Manurewa Kaahui Ako at Manurewa Intermediate;
  • Friday morning to meet with Manurewa community and educational leaders.

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