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/

10 tips to maximise learning support

This is the first of what I hope will be many guest posts on my blog. It is written by my good friend and experienced Learning Support Assistant (LSA), Paul Warren.


Rarely do teachers have the opportunity to explore how to work effectively with LSAs (or equivalents) in their classrooms. Both ITE and ongoing staff development sessions often fail to emphasise the importance of, and methods to enhance, the working relationship between teacher and LSA, resulting in ineffective utilisation of this key role (not in all cases, but many).  In this post, Paul highlights the pivotal role that LSAs play and he provides teachers with 10 great tips to maximise their use:

Image source: http://www.civilserviceworld.com/frontline-learning-support-assistant
‘At some point during their career, many FE lecturers will have an opportunity to work alongside a Learning Support Assistant (LSA). Usually, but not exclusively, LSAs are tasked with providing 1:1 or small group support to students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities by offering learning strategies which help them to access the curriculum. Above all, however, the ultimate aim of most LSAs is to promote independent and autonomous working for the students that they support.


The most effective LSAs are those which seek to work closely with the lecturer and the student to gradually reduce the need for support with a view to ultimately removing it altogether. This can create a range of possible issues – not least of which being that the LSA should expect to make themselves redundant – but the overall impetus is on helping the learner to maximise their potential to work independently.


Of course, some learners will require support for the entirety of their time at college, but there is no harm in working with the expectation that all students will be able to work more independently before their course of study ends.


Often lecturers may not have had any in-depth instruction or training regarding how best to work with LSAs. Finding information isn’t always easy. FE-specific literature or research relating to working with LSAs is scarce, but there are some schools-based studies (see the excellent Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) Project) or smaller scale FE research (see LSIS/Natspec’s highly valuable Enhancement of Learning Support) which may prove helpful. Excellence Gateway have also produced a really useful guide which can be used to gauge the impact of support staff via their Working With LSAs Audit Tool. In addition, a search on the Education and Training Foundation’s website will yield a range of resources for working with students with SEND who need support. Other additional useful and relevant sources include The 2010 Equality Act, the 2014 Children and Families Act – including Education, Health and Care Plans and The FELTAG report which, in part, highlighted the importance of providing assistive technology for FE students who need it. More current FE-specific research and general awareness is needed, however, which promotes the benefits and value of using LSAs to promote independent and autonomous working in Further Education.


In the meantime, the following suggestions may be useful to lecturers to help kick-start a collaboration with LSAs with a view to reducing support and increasing learner independence:

  1. Work with LSAs to review current records of student needs – particularly pinpointing any known learning strategies which encourage the learner to work independently.
  2. Cultivate high expectations of the learner by immediately working with LSAs to try to identify what independence from support might ultimately look like. Use what you find in conjunction with your identification of student needs as a guide for each session and review regularly.
  3. Agree an absolute maximum level of support that LSAs can provide before an issue or difficulty must be referred directly to the class tutor. Be clear with LSAs (and the learner) that the LSA should never do the work for the student.
  4. Identify an early target for the learner to interact directly with the lecturer at least once during every session. Increase over time in order to reduce reliance on LSAs and gradually prepare the student for the time when the support is withdrawn.
  5. Produce a measurable method of identifying the impact of support. This could be a chart or record of work that records instances in which the student does a task independently or requires minimal LSA input. If possible, actively involve the student in evaluating their own need for help and use the data to plan future support.
  6. Encourage, praise and reward students when they work independently and use successes to promote future independent learning
  7. Work with the LSA and the student to produce a portfolio of independent working strategies which the learner can take with them to further study or employment.
  8. Liaise with teacher trainers, quality managers and senior leaders to share successes of promoting learner independence and reducing LSA support.
  9. Work with your Learning Support team to build a database of what works for learners in your subject and use it to inform future individual student support needs.
  10. Share ideas and successes via social media platform such as Blogs, Twitter or YouTube (remembering to respect individual student confidentiality and identity) and get in touch with other colleges to find out how they reduce support and promote learner independence.’


So there we have it. Why not consider how you can develop each of the above points. Thanks go to Paul Warren @paulw_learn for this excellent post.


Walking through the main exhibition hall of the Education Show when it is empty is what I imagine it to be like to walk along a catwalk in New York Fashion Week; there was not a single eye that wasn’t on me. Like vultures, as I walked past each stall, every sales person’s eyes were immediately drawn towards me. Not looking into my eyes though, in fact they opted to direct their gaze to my identification badge in order to determine if my role/sector would be a prime target for sales. ‘Lecturer in Teaching Training’ they saw and their eyes quickly moved up and down and then a period of confusion ensued. The look on their faces… if only I had a camera (I did, but that’s beside the point).


Down one aisle, I was pounced upon by a sales person who immediately asked if I was a teacher. “Yes”, I replied. “You didn’t get teachers like you in my day” was their response. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “Well you are rather young looking – take it as a compliment” the person said in jest.


Next was the turn of another sales person who immediately asked me to “pay to join our teaching academy and we will come and train your teachers.” “I train them myself, why would I pay to have someone else to come in?” was my response. “Well, we have a high level of expertise. I’ve taught for over twenty years and am now a consultant.” “Are you assuming that I don’t then?”… Cue backtracking and fumbling over words.


I felt rather uncomfortable by these comments and opted to hide my identification beneath my jacket. I ushered myself to Tom Bennett’s talk before sliding out of the arena a little disheartened.  I felt ashamed, but was it just me over thinking things, or was this as a result of covert discrimination?


If I’m honest, I do look young. I don’t help this fact by my super snazzy haircut and great fashion sense (I joke), but why should I try to look older than I am? I have in the past been known to grow a half beard (that’s all I can seem to manage), or I wear my glasses to help me appear older (I do have a sight impairment, but choose not to wear glasses ordinarily). Not sure what effect they had, but why should I feel that I have to do this?


There is quite rightly a lot of focus on other characteristics in order to ensure equality in the work place: ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability etc, but age is a characteristic that is less likely to be overtly discriminated against. Perhaps this is because age and experience are often synonymous and experience is normally an essential on most job applications – which is ironic really, because the only way to get experience is by doing the job, or one very similar. Furthermore, what is considered ‘experienced’? Is there a checklist of number of years served or something else that I’m missing? Twenty years of doing the same thing does not equate to five years of continuous development in a role in my opinion, and I know which I would prefer to recruit.


I know of many senior leaders in primary and secondary that are below 40, yet in FE am aware of one. There are probably more, but it isn’t commonplace. Whilst age discrimination certainly appears rife for older teachers, there are many younger teachers that are also overlooked for progression in my opinion, particularly in FE and Skills. In response to a single tweet about ageism, I received 3 private messages all saying how they were undermined or discriminated against due to their younger age when interviewing for and/or fulfilling a senior position. In fairness, the FE and Skills workforce has an average age of 46, whereas the average age of school teachers between 35-39. This makes sense as FE teachers usually bring a vocational specialism into their college which requires them to have served some time in industry, but what about those that come in straight from University for example? Someone like me for instance who got their industry experience whilst studying for a degree and continued to work in industry whilst lecturing in the subject area. Why should this impact progression, or result in negative attitudes towards my age?


I am working in teacher training at 31 and am not aware of any other teacher trainers at this age, but believe there are many capable of it. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be in a position where I am valued for my ability and skill set, but this opportunity only came about through a series of fortunate events: In September 2014 I wrote an article under a pseudonym having been asked by the Guardian to respond to an Ofsted comment. Following many shares, one individual at a local University commented on the post. I revealed my identity to this individual and was invited for a chat about it. This led to me being invited as a key note speaker at their annual conference, where I spoke on the topic. In the audience sat my future line manager, who was impressed with my talk and contacted me at a later date with information about a role. Were it not for this, I would still be knocking at the door of teacher training. I had previously been for three interviews in teacher training and had been told on each occasion that although my credentials were impressive, I lacked the experience they wanted for the role. To paraphrase – I look about 14 and sticking me in front of a class of adults would be embarrassing for them… I got the message loud and clear.


So to end my ranting about ageism, I’d like to offer some advice to anyone reading that is wanting to progress in the FE and Skills sector – whether older or younger.

  • Keep working hard to develop and someone will recognise your talent. There are people out there that see age as a mere number and nothing more.
  • Don’t be ashamed of your age and challenge those who make reference to it. Just as someone should not comment on gender, ethnicity or sexual preference, nor should they age.
  • If you feel discriminated against, you are protected under the Equality Act, so report it.


Perhaps you have a view on age and opportunity? Please comment if you do.