Teaching in New Zealand: shattering some myths

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…

Image source: https://goo.gl/VCegZg

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.



1. Ursula is an independent researcher, tertiary teacher and published author, specialising in education and accountability. She has recently published a book based on psychosocial research into staff experiences of lesson observations in Further Education in England. Full academic profile: available here.
2. Employment law in New Zealand is under-developed. Culturesafe NZ Ltd is one example of an organisation with objectives that include preventing workplace bullying through training initiatives and supporting victims. For further details see: http://culturesafenz.co.nz/

6 thoughts on “Teaching in New Zealand: shattering some myths

  1. One of your main points in this blog post is linking “tall poppy syndrome” to workplace bullying in educational settings in NZ. Having read all the linked references you give I cannot find evidence in support of what you are saying. The survey results of (mostly primary) teachers show just 10% mention “bullying” from management or parents as being a stress factor and whether “tall poppy syndrome” is an aspect of this seems to be supposition on your part – you don’t have evidence. It would be very interesting to find out of course, but presenting unsupported conclusions about that nature of workplace bullying in NZ schools isn’t helpful.

    1. Thanks for your comment – Tall Poppy Syndrome (or similar cultural phenomena like the Norwegian’s ‘Law of Jante’) is well-established as a norm and by definition, intrinsically linked to education. It’s intrinsically linked to education because learning (and I use that word in its broadest sense in terms of lifelong-learning for learnings’ sake) is fundamentally about reaching our potential and facilitating others to obtain self-actualisation too. For me, that’s what makes teaching so rewarding and meaningful.

      When individuals (at any age) are ‘cut down’ for having achieved success and/or having high expectations of themselves or others, that IS bullying and harassment. It really is as simple as that – AND as damaging, both personally (physically and emotionally) and economically. It’s not a coincidence that healthcare workers and educationalists form the highest percentage of Culturesafe NZ Ltd’s clients. Consider the implications of those altruistic individuals being victimised exactly because their main motivation for their work (whether paid or not) is to help others become well and successful in their lives.

      There is no ‘evidence’ of my opinion, this is, after all a blog post not an academic piece (watch this space for developments on that front). I agree that this issue is underdeveloped in the academic literature – but it’s not entirely absent. There are many pieces of the jigsaw that for international researchers can become clues. See my further comments (and comments of others) and citations on this subject on my Linkedin blog posts. And if you are familiar with New Zealand’s literary writers, you’ll see other creative examples too. I disagree that my observations are ‘unhelpful’ – on the contrary, victims of bullying and harassment are forced to endure an unnecessary stigma for pursuing their objectives – which increases their stress and anxiety. Our students (and teachers) deserve better than this.

      My intention in this guest blog post is to open a much-needed dialogue about the subject of Tall Poppy Syndrome in New Zealand and the interesting comparative aspects of the impact upon tertiary teachers’ professional practice.

  2. Kia ora Dr Ursula. You’re right about the social problems in Aotearoa New Zealand and the contrast you highlight concerning the perception of a ‘paradise’ versus the uncomfortable reality. I’m intrigued however by your seemingly dismissive comment about ‘biculturalism’. I disagree that it is an ‘artificial and unhelpful buzzword’. The most effective teaching for all here simply can’t happen without a genuine understanding of biculturalism – and if a deeper understanding of the negative impact of ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ is the focus of your exploration here, then I suggest bicultural knowledge is one way to unpack the complexity of Tall Poppy Syndrome in Aotearoa. If a person’s cultural values include being humble and modest, if you have been raised to keep quiet about your own success – as is true for many Māori students, brought up on ‘Kāore te kumara e kōrero mō tōna are reka’ (the kumara does not say how sweet it is), then that has an impact on your workplace and learning experiences. This attitude can be even more pronounced for Pasifika.

    As a high school teacher my experience of teaching excellence being not only celebrated but actively and intentionally shared is very different from the situation that you describe. Perhaps this is a difference between tertiary and secondary teaching rather than a widespread way of being? It would be interesting to know. I suspect that the further sharing of best practice at the primary and secondary levels will become endemic as schools explore the new opportunities created within the Communities of Learning.

  3. Kia ora Michaela. Happy New Year! 🙂
    You have raised a really important point here – and one that I could not include in the short word count of my blog post for Dan – So I’m very happy to be able to discuss this here. I don’t mean to be ‘dismissive’ of the ‘biculturalism’ approach – it’s helpful in some ways, but not in others – as I explain below. I totally agree with the cultural issue of ‘humbleness’ in the Māori tradition. But have you considered that it may have been the Pākehā settlers who originally took advantage of this behaviour? Times move on, and things have changed. My research has suggested that it is not Māori (or Pasifika Peoples) who are the perpetrators of bullying (and therefore inflicting the actions required to play out ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’) but Pākehā men (‘pale, stale males’). Could it be the that Māori are more likely to be victims of bullying and that Māori culture has unintentionally tolerated bullying in the New Zealand workplace for so long it has become normalised within ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’? I am really very pleased to hear that your school-teaching experience is positive and that teaching excellence is celebrated and ever-growing improvement is encouraged. What interests me is the tertiary-teaching experience – how were (your) tertiary teacher-educators encouraged to continuously improve and seek-out better and more innovative teaching and learning strategies? Including strategies that are culturally-sensitive?

    On a related point – my concern with the term (not the intention behind the approach) ‘biculturalism’ is that it tends to create and/or emphasise an unhelpful binary of us/them – Pākehā/Māori – ‘failure/success’ ‘academic/vocational’ etc when the realities of postmodern society are far more complex and fluid than that – especially over time. For example, at the last census, the percentage of individuals (self)identifying as ‘Māori’ were not that different from ‘Asian’ (15 vs 12%), so a ‘typical’ Kiwi classroom is very different to those compared to a few decades ago when ‘skilled migrants’ did not have the incentives to move here. From evidence I have seen so far, it seems that the New Zealand teacher-educator curriculum hasn’t really caught-up with these changes and subsequent developments in educational practice. Hence the importance of discussions about Tall Poppy Syndrome – because potentially bullying and harassment could be having serious negative effects upon many student-teachers: victims and peers (of all ethnicities). The critique of the widespread acceptance of the diversity of the New Zealand classroom is close to arguments that the ‘biculturalism’ is ‘tokenistic’ rather than ‘genuine’. See for example M Lourie and E. Rata, “A Critique of the Role of Māori Education,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 35, no. 1 (2014): 19-36. And you also may be interested in: S. Heaton, “The Co-Opting of ‘Hauora’ into Curricula,” Curriculum Matters 7 (2011): 99-117. Furthermore, Helen Sword’s work about the social construct of academic writing is useful here – e.g. who decides what the acceptable ‘rules’ of tertiary academic writing are and how/why they are interpreted? Perhaps more importantly for our perspective – who is disempowered/discriminated against through these practices?

    Many thanks again for your thoughtful comment. Kia Kaha !

  4. Your opinion piece is something of an eye opener for many Ursula and highlights issues my organisation deals with on a daily basis. The insidious issue that is workplace bullying which is like “the elephant in the room”. Research, commissioned by Dept of Labour and published in 2009 by a group of psychology professors, headed by Professor Tim Bentley of AUT showed that 1 in 5 NZ workers had been bullied in the previous 6 months. That statistic made us 2nd worse in the developed world. Education and health had the highest incidence of workplace bullying. Approximately 70% of bullying is manager on staff and overseas research has shown that a majority of vertical top down bullying is caused by an incompetent manager feeling threatened by more intelligent and competent staff.
    We are finding that many immigrants, particularly from the UK are experiencing workplace bullying, realising that there is no government agency or not for profit group that care and are packing their bags and are heading home disillusioned with NZ

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s