Otahuhu College principal Neil Watson has returned inspired from an educational study tour of the United States.

Watson joined a group of 20 educators from different countries for the exchange programme based at California State University, Chico with visits to Sacramento, San Francisco and Chicago and Washington D.C. He was selected from educators nominated by US embassies around the world to participate in the Study of the US Institute (SUSI) programme, funded by the US Department of State. The aim of the programme is to foster international understanding, improve the teaching about the United States in academic institutions abroad, and share best practice around educational matters.

Watson describes the study tour as a “fantastic experience” and says it gave him the chance to reflect on New Zealand education.

“In New Zealand we have a lot of autonomy and we trust teachers to be professional and to do a good job – that isn’t necessarily the case in the US and many other countries,” he says.

“That allows us to have the freedom to adapt to the needs of our community and our students more quickly. It’s a real strength of the New Zealand system.”

Watson says that United States schools in many cases were working on similar areas as New Zealand schools. In particular, work around higher-level thinking and the engagement of students is an area where New Zealand is doing a lot of good work, he says.

Watson felt the tour also confirmed the excellent work being done at his school, Otahuhu College.

“The time and effort the teachers put into their students really pays off in terms of the outcomes,” he says.

“One thing that really came through was how we build relationships with our students and how we engage them in their learning.”

He gave the school’s science programme as an example. The hands-on programme really sparked students’ learning, he says, compared with test-driven, textbook-driven approaches to learning.

In terms of what he’d like to do differently as a result of the study tour, Watson is keen to integrate more service learning into the school, as a way of taking a more active role in the community.

At the moment Otahuhu College has some students doing volunteer work in local primary schools and rest homes. The school’s First XV rugby team also does some volunteer work, but Watson would like to see this rolled out to the wider student population.

“I think it would be a good thing for our kids and for our community.”

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