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Caring about Kids – An Answer to Educational Woes

For immediate release January 26, 2000

Caring about Kids – An Answer to Educational Woes

Primary and intermediate school pupils officially go back to school today (Jan 26) but with teachers facing increasing external pressures, schools may not necessarily be safe and happy places of high achievement for all children.

Massey University education expert Dr Sarah Farquhar says teachers need to rebuild and assert their status as professionals who can make a difference for children and make a contribution that lasts.

"In the current social and educational climate it is very difficult for teachers to have any sense of vocation. Teaching is becoming unattractive to people who want to put children first, due to bad press stories, on topics ranging from child abuse to the intentions of a school to teach kids in a tent, and union-industrial activities over recent years", Dr Farquhar says. "This must be turned around. Uncommitted teachers can’t help children achieve their fullest potential".

Recent Ministry of Education briefing papers to the Government pointed to pressing problems in New Zealand schools. Dr Farquhar says the briefing papers' call to set up a professional body for teachers would be a good move for recognising the vocational commitment necessary for teachers to do well by children.

The briefing papers said bullying levels in New Zealand schools are higher than in other developed countries, and underachievement is causing concern. The papers state that low achievement is cumulative, with disparity increasing with more years at school.

It seems that schools overall are making little positive difference says Dr. Farquhar. New Zealand statistics indicate that while individual achievement varies greatly for children, the achievement levels of boys, students in low-decile schools, and Maori and Pacific Island students is of concern.

"Too often blame is levelled outside of schools; at difficulties at home, at parents, at socio-economic status, at insufficient participation in early childhood education," she says.

The recent announcement by Prime Minister Helen Clark that she would chair a Cabinet committee aimed at promoting higher educational achievement for Maori was a step in the right direction. Dr. Farquhar cautions that in developing any policies care must be taken not to further increase teachers’ workload and external responsibilities.

"Teachers need time and manageable class sizes to be able to work out ways of helping children who are not performing well at school, socially or academically. To do this may mean going against current thinking and policies, like last century’s most famous educator Sylvia Ashton-Warner who was passionate about helping the young Maori children she taught".

Dr Farquhar believes that for schools to make a positive difference and be happy places for every child more attention should be given to looking at the role of the teacher and the kinds of role models teachers provide for children.

"Are there male teachers in sufficient numbers who are showing children that it is good for boys to be interested in academic work? Are concerns about self-protection from accusation of child abuse or incompetency getting in the way of effective teaching"

“How do teachers gain children’s respect? How interested are teachers really in the personal well-being of every child in their classroom or do they communicate to kids that they are just there to teach the curriculum?”

Teachers who taught well tended to have their students in mind 24 hours a day.

"Teachers do need to be all things to all children, taking an interest in what affects children’s learning both within and outside the school.

“Children remember most fondly and learn best from teachers who are dedicated, caring people. These are the teachers who take an interest in children as individuals, who have high standards and who expect achievement."

School leadership and culture is another factor affecting teachers. It can have a big impact on how well teachers cope with administrative demands, Dr Farquhar says.

"Sort this out, then teachers can focus on truly working with children, and nurturing their learning to the fullest," she says.

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