By Dr Ursula Edgington
I researched endlessly before our move to New Zealand 3 years ago. The exciting prospects that came with my husband’s new job in commerce included new academic opportunities for me. Escaping the pressures of constant nonsensical paperwork and an overwhelming teaching and marking workload seemed like a dream come true. Like lots of migrants here, we were swayed by the Government rhetoric (propaganda?) about a reportedly egalitarian education system based on holistic approaches to teaching and learning. And the promise of a healthier work/life balance with long weekends in beautiful landscapes and empty, sunny beaches….? impossible to turn down. But inevitably idealised visions of working overseas – especially in the sparsely-populated ‘paradise’ of Aotearoa New Zealand – comes with a realisation that not everything is quite what it seems…
Contrary to many people’s perceptions, New Zealand is not without its social problems. Reflecting similar issues to the UK, the gap between rich and poor widens. Low salaries and the high cost of living causes extreme pressure on many families; education is a not a priority. In the last 30 years, child poverty has doubled to 28%. Not surprisingly then, the OECD estimates 40% of New Zealanders don’t have the UK equivalent of level 2 in basic literacy or numeracy skills. And with no ‘NHS’, those already living in poor quality housing who can’t afford medicines, suffer diseases wiped-out a generation ago in the UK (like Rheumatic Fever). Mental health too is a serious problem, with high rates of depression inevitably leading to high levels of alcohol and drug addiction. It’s tragic that rates of suicide here are actually similar to the UK, at around 11 per 100,000 population. It’s an artificial and unhelpful (and some would argue tokenistic) ‘biculturalism’ (rather than multi-culturalism) that is the Kiwi buzzword, replicating socio-economic problems divided between ‘skilled migrants’ and the Māori/Pacifika communities.
You will know all too well, these issues – and more – impact significantly in complex ways on our learners’ lives and on their self-esteem and self-worth. It’s sometimes challenging to provide a safe, positive learning environment in this context.
But one of the unexpected challenges of teaching here is more sociological than psychological: Tall Poppy Syndrome. Often played-down in Kiwi jokes, Tall Poppy Syndrome is a common cause of bullying in the New Zealand workplace – and especially the educational workplace. The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary defines it as the act of “’cutting down’ those who are conspicuously successful or who are high achievers”. But for some employees – especially teachers from the UK who (let’s be honest) usually have to ‘big ourselves up’ just to survive in a fiercely competitive environment – it’s far from humorous and can often have a catastrophic impact on lives and families of bullying victims. Worryingly, research suggests bullying in New Zealand is a serious problem compared to international indicators.
So singling-out ‘tall poppy’ practitioners with ‘best practice’ is a big no-no here, and this stigma has a knock-on effect of restricting the sharing and reflection on classroom ideas. My own research is based on lesson observations – a quality control/assurance strategy so pervasive and contentious in the UK, but which is rarely actioned or even discussed here, perhaps partly because of Tall Poppy Syndrome.
So after shifting on its axis, my ground has settled into this new challenge ahead. I’m faced with a dilemma: how can teachers encourage learning and development against this dispiriting backdrop? In our new smart-phone, information-mad world, knowledge drives success. But what if this success is limited or dismissed? The pressures from global competitive markets are seeping into New Zealand’s education system – slowly. But how can students reach their true potential and outcomes improve when ‘good teaching’ (and research surrounding it) isn’t recognised or even acknowledged? When instead it’s ‘stamped out’ because some people fear that ambition might lead to others facing competency measures?
Are there any lessons to be learned from the UK that will help New Zealand challenge and overcome Tall Poppy Syndrome in its colleges and universities? I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.