Richard Inder says he will shout a student lunch if they can ride the school’s unicycle along the length of the court. Some of the 315 students at Gate Pa School are itching to win the bet with their principal.
I’m almost tempted to give it go, but wisely decide against it, opting instead to observe and absorb the hustle and bustle of a busy primary school at play.
It is morning tea time. Helmet-clad kids are doing laps around the bike track which weaves its way around the perimeter of the school field. In addition to the bikes – and the oh-so-tempting unicycle – there are scooters and skateboards and other wheeled toys I can’t identify. Kids of all cultures (17 in fact) are playing swingball, padder tennis, handball and cricket. It’s your quintessential Kiwi playtime: busy, noisy, fun.
As an idle bystander you wouldn’t guess the challenges faced by many of the children at this decile 2 Tauranga primary school. Their laughter conceals complex social issues at home, which in many cases manifests as learning and behavioural needs at school.
Inder’s teaching career spans over 43 years across a wide range of schools. As a beginning teacher he says he didn’t encounter the behavioural needs of students or the complex needs of families that he does today.
“When you actually investigate and explore the behaviour, you just see some of the tough situations that these children’s families are struggling with. And you always want to come from an angle of support – always.”
Unfortunately for Inder, and principals across New Zealand, the funding simply isn’t there to give the level of support needed.
“My feeling is a child with special needs should have that support as of right. ORS-funded students here get 12 hours a week if you’re lucky. What about the other 12?” he asks.
Inevitably that support ends up being funded out of the school’s operational grant and other areas miss out.
“As schools, we just want the best for our kids, so you run deficit budgets, take money from another area and put it into supporting teachers who are having to deal with some very complex behaviours,” says Inder.
“Parents don’t want to rock the boat too much because they want the best for their kid. But they don’t always realise this big huge gap between what these children need and what they’re resourced on.”
“Special needs is one area that needs to be addressed, big time – not little band-aid fixes.”
Inder thinks the new proposals surrounding the introduction of learning support coordinators is a good start, and will be helpful in the NZEI’s negotiations with the Ministry of Education.
In his opinion, getting schools’ funding right is more important than securing a pay rise for teachers.
“It’s not about the money. Three per cent, four per cent – it is what it is. It’s more that our schools for so long have been so under-funded and so under-resourced. As principals we just keep on adapting and keep on compromising.”
However, Inder is mindful that pay must be part of the equation when it comes to attracting the best people to the teaching profession.
What was once a good option is now failing to even make the shortlist of school leavers’ potential career choices. Of the cohort of Year 13 students at nearby Tauranga Boys’ College, not one wanted to be a teacher, Inder says, according to one of the College’s deputy principals.
Gate Pa School is feeling the effects of the teacher shortage.
“We’ve just advertised and appointed three permanent positions. We got 20 applicants for 3 positions. In Tauranga,” he adds emphatically. “Five or six years ago we would have had 100 applications.”
Inder can’t imagine how more isolated parts of the country must be coping.
He’s not convinced the Government’s push to recruit overseas teachers will solve the problem. They might have no knowledge of the New Zealand curriculum. They may have come from a rigid, structured system and be unprepared for the flexibility and creativity of Kiwi classrooms. And perhaps most importantly, they may not understand New Zealand’s unique sociocultural context.
Incentivising schools to employ beginning teachers is not a straightforward solution either, as it has an impact on the rest of the school. As well as support and mentoring, a beginning teacher will typically get a “good class” leaving other teachers with classes filled with more complex needs.
Inder believes the downturn in the number of applicants for jobs is also not helped by the Communities of Learning (CoL) initiative.
“The CoL model was flawed,” he says. “Collaboration is great – but the leadership part isn’t right. Principals have to be in their schools. You can’t just disappear for two days.”
Gate Pa belongs to one of the biggest CoLs in the country, accounting for around 8000 kids. It has taken two years to gain traction, and while they are starting to see benefits from the collaboration now, the CoL risks losing momentum as it struggles to find a new leader.
“It’s not a two-day-a-week job – it’s a full-time job,” says Inder.
Forget incentivising CoL leadership; Inder is more concerned about attracting teachers to principal positions. He is finishing his position in Term 3 next year and doubts current principals will stick it out in the job for as long as he has.
Inder has heard there is a decline in the number of people applying for principals’ jobs. He isn’t surprised given the way the typical teaching career path has changed over the years.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for a teacher to land a good deputy principal position at a big school relatively early on in his or her career.
“How do you keep those people passionate and incentivise them when they’ve got to the top quite quickly? How do you stop them burning out?”
But despite the changing nature of the job, the pay, the under-funding, the murkiness around CoL, are your teachers happy? It’s the most important question I ask.
“They’re happier now that National Standards are gone,” Inder says. “As a profession, we knew it was wrong. Telling a five-year-old or a six-year-old that they are below is just morally wrong. And children, they don’t learn like that.”
The weight of constant assessment and the narrow focus on reading, writing and maths has been lifted – and Inder’s relief is evident.
“Now we’re far more relaxed about not assessing children and getting back to the rich curriculum,” he says.
He is heartened to learn from Tauranga Boys’ College’s conversations with employers that they are looking to employ people who are relational, happy, connected and engaged. NCEA results are secondary.
Gate Pa School is certainly embracing other areas of the curriculum. There is a strong emphasis on hauora, on being healthy and fit, on being physically and mentally well.
The staffroom has a huge brainstorming document on the wall exploring ways the school can improve hauora. From ensuring teachers go home at a reasonable hour, to mindfulness initiatives for students, to offering unused fresh produce from the school garden to their parents – every effort has been made to ensure a greater sense of wellbeing in their school community.
I’m eager to see the school’s garden and when Inder shows me, I am consumed with garden envy. It is bursting with lush, leafy green veges, just begging to be picked and eaten. Sure enough, it’s only a matter of minutes before students and support staff are busying themselves amongst the spinach and the herbs, weeding and harvesting and planting.
We visit a kitchen area overlooking the garden to find a Garden to Table session in full swing. Kids are preparing beetroot hummus with pita crisps. They are so engaged they barely notice us come in.
These kids are learning something of a lost art. The ability to grow food and prepare a nutritious meal will surely serve them and their families – both current and future – well.
Like many schools around New Zealand, beautiful things are happening at Gate Pa School. It is hard to reconcile the bike tracks and beetroot hummus with strikes and staff shortages. Where does that unicycle sit alongside the union and its fight for better conditions? How can all that positive stuff co-exist alongside all that negative industry noise?
And then it strikes me: unless the issues are resolved – the pay, the funding for learning support, teacher supply – thegood stuff will inevitably start to wane. Schools will tire of dipping into their ops grants to prop up learning support. They will grow weary of supporting overseas teachers with little knowledge of the New Zealand curriculum or classroom context.
And when it all becomes too much, New Zealand education will have much bigger problems on its hands than a day or two of industrial action.
“It’s still a great job,” says Inder. “Teaching is a calling. It’s lovely being able to make a difference in people’s lives. You get real gems. Kids come and knock on the door aged 20 or they call out to you at the super market.
“It’s still a great job,” he says again, “But it’s time it was valued.”