In response to the article What life looks like at NZ’s largest decile one high school, NATASHA MILLER, an English teacher at South Auckland Middle School, points out that there is another way of looking at things.
Like Sam Oldham, I also drive to work down Manurewa streets cluttered with election hoardings. It all blurs together as background noise – black, green, red vs. blue – under National it feels unlikely as a single mother that I will ever be able to afford my own home. Labour makes threats to get rid of a job in which I feel, for the first time, that I actually have the chance to make significant change in the life of my students. Having made my own policy-based choice on who to vote for already, I choose to focus on the day ahead.
I park my car in the staff car park. A student sprints through the school gates, calling my name. “I finished my business pitch! Can I email it through to you for feedback?” We walk the rest of the way into school together, discussing their current phase of production for the products they are developing for our year 10 Market Evening. Another student approaches me to check out one of the classic novels that I have stored in my office; a passion recently spurred off by our study of The Great Gatsby. I walk past a miniature-scale colosseum built by a student in response to a maths task into a buzzing office that I share with a technology teacher and science teacher. We’re not the tidiest people. Paper-maché urns from the archaeology unit await painting, print-outs of art-inspired student poetry need to be filed in the student anthology and there are straws and strawberries for something I’m told has to do with teaching the students about DNA.
Our students come from a similar catchment to Mr Oldham’s; it would be worse than naïve to claim that they don’t have significant barriers in front of them when it comes to achievement. We know what we’re facing, and for middle New Zealand, it’s not pretty. In the one and a half years that I’ve been working at South Auckland Middle School, we’ve dealt with abuse disclosures, CYFS referrals of students who are no longer welcome anywhere else, and the widespread grief that occurs with the deaths of parents.
That doesn’t even touch on the students in that cycle of intergenerational poverty who we regularly support with dry shoes, food to eat, or transport to and from their homes in neighbourhoods where walking alone may feel unsafe. While students in higher socio-economic areas start their academic races with a sprint, with some of our students we have to acknowledge the exhaustion that they face in just getting to the starting line.
But we still expect them to finish. Every last one of them.
The sign in the foyer reads “Every student can develop exceptional skills and knowledge sets with expert teaching, coaching and mentoring, significant purposeful practice and opportunities to express themselves”. It’s not just a slogan – it’s something you need to believe if you are ever going to thrive as a student or a teacher in South Auckland. We believe in a growth mindset – deficit theorising does nothing to enhance a student’s ability to succeed.
I work in a charter school, it’s true. We’re a school full of fully registered teachers (contrary to popular opinion) who have chosen to buy into the philosophy that each and every one of our students can do exceptional things. For some of our students it is a matter of making the appropriate referrals to external agencies and working alongside them so that they can make extraordinary leaps in their literacy and numeracy. For others it is achieving academic excellence, or learning how to run businesses and events; giving them skills to thrive in the modern world.
How we do it is not a matter of funding. I’d argue that our ability to ensure student success is our integrated approach – our project-based curriculum ensures that we, as teachers, have a necessity to work in a cross-curricular nature. I’m not sure of any other school where I’d be able to equally utilise my tertiary qualifications in business, the arts and education. Perhaps it’s that so many of us had real-world experience in our fields before we came into the teaching profession and have the passion to think laterally about our subjects, while still keeping a professional toe in our former employment fields.
The accessibility of senior management also helps; both our principal and academic director are easily approached if we’re wishing to differentiate our approach to the New Zealand curriculum (another non-negotiable) to capture the engagement of our students. We are repeatedly used as a political hot potato and it can be confronting at times to have people prod at the work that you do, searching for reasons to disparage the job that you love – why aren’t all schools able to produce the results that you do? I think the answer to that lies in educational policy far beyond my scope of understanding as a classroom teacher. What I do know, though, is that I’ve never worked at a school where kids are quite as passionate about knowledge.
It’s hard to feel negative about the future of our children (and we all consider them our children) when your classroom is literally buzzing with the excitement of students who are learning to code their own computer games using our school laptops and fantastic free resources. It’s hard to feel negative when you hear them reciting Othello as they perch in the plum trees on our grounds. It’s hard to feel negative when you’re engaging with students about market analysis, the Jazz Age, the Russian Revolution or having existential conversations about the nature of reality – all conversations I have had this year with our year 10 students, students of 14 and 15.
I have no qualms that I’m raising these students with big dreams. A former principal I worked under called me “subversive, in the best way” with a sparkle in his eye. I will tell them that I expect their very best, and that to get there, we will support them every step of the way. Stories about the negative side of South Auckland are a dime a dozen… I choose to tell my students that no matter how their story starts, they get to write themselves a better ending.