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New NZEI President Starts Work

New NZEI President Starts Work

Hamilton primary school principal, Irene Cooper, has begun her term as the National President of the country’s largest education union, NZEI Te Riu Roa.

She was elected at the union’s Annual Meeting in Wellington, in September last year, and became NZEI National President on January 1, taking over from Colin Tarr.

NZEI has 45,000 members working as: teachers in kindergartens and other early childhood education centres; teachers and principals in primary and intermediate schools; support staff and special education staff in early childhood education centres, primary, intermediate and secondary schools; and school advisers based in Colleges of Education and universities.

Irene Cooper has been principal at Hillcrest Normal School in Hamilton, which has 500 children and 30 staff, since 1996. She has taken leave from the position and will be based in Wellington at NZEI’s National Office during her presidency.

She began her teaching career 37 years ago, qualifying as a teacher in England, before moving to New Zealand in 1972. She spent several years as a full time reliever before getting her first permanent teaching job at Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Te Ara Rima in Hamilton. In 1991 she was appointed deputy principal at Gordonton School, near Hamilton, became Assistant Principal at Knighton Normal School, in Hamilton, in 1994 and was being appointed principal at Hillcrest Normal School two years later.

“Teaching is in my blood,” says Irene Cooper. “My mother was a teacher and I’m proud to have become one as well. After more than 30 years in the profession I still love the job. I love to see children enjoying school and enjoying learning. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Irene has a passion for teaching and has worked to improve her professional knowledge throughout her career. She has a Masters of Education Leadership with honours, a Bachelor of Education and a Diploma of Teaching. “I am passionate about teaching and understanding what it takes to be an effective teacher.”

Her knowledge and expertise as an educator are widely recognised. In 1992 she was one of five New Zealand teachers, who’s work in the classroom was studied as part of an international survey on quality teaching. It was organised by the OECD, the Paris based Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, and involved case studies of teachers throughout the world to establish what effective teachers do to help children learn.

In New Zealand the case studies were conducted by Dr Peter Ramsay, a professor at the School of Education at Waikato University, who spent many hours in Irene’s classroom observing her work and talking to her, the children in the class, and other staff at the school. His report showed that quality teachers are effective because they determine what each child’s learning needs are, then interact with each child in ways that advance their learning.

Irene: “Peter Ramsay’s report showed the world that teachers in New Zealand were highly effective. Our teaching practices, highlighted by his case studies, were acclaimed worldwide.”

“The effective teaching practices, identified in Peter’s report, are now recognised as forming the basis for quality teaching and are actively promoted throughout New Zealand schools.”

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Looking at the year ahead Irene Cooper is particularly concerned about the workload primary school staff have to carry. She’s concerned that there’s a gap between what politicians and the Ministry of Education expect of schools and early childhood education centres and the time and resources they have to meet those demands

“The politicians and the Ministry demand a Rolls-Royce system but provide the resources to run a Mini,” says Irene Cooper. “Right now we’re in danger of trying to beat the record of how much you can pack into a Mini, without looking at the damage that can cause to the people involved in keeping that Mini on the road.”

Addressing primary school staff workload is the big picture issue Irene is most concerned with as she starts her term as NZEI National President. Specific issues she wants addressed are, settling the kindergarten teachers dispute and developing a more effective and fairer system of school funding that will enable school support staff to receive the pay and working conditions they deserve.

Negotiations for a new collective agreement, covering 1780 kindergarten teachers, broke down at the end of last year, because the Ministry of Education and kindergarten associations are trying to impose working conditions on the teachers that will undermine the quality of education provided to 45,000 children. At this stage no date has been set for a resumption of the negotiations. “The teachers and NZEI have always said that they’re prepared to negotiate working conditions that enable kindergartens to meet the diverse needs of parents, in terms of the hours that kindergartens are open,” says Irene Cooper. “But we are not prepared to accept working conditions that will compromise the quality of education that children receive at a kindergarten.”

Currently school support staff are paid from each schools’ operations grant, the same money used to buy books, pay the power bill and equip classrooms. As a result schools often run short of money to pay their support staff, who are then told that the school can’t afford to keep employing them, or that their hours of work will have to be cut.

“Changing this funding system so that there is a simplified, equitable and sustainable mechanism for resourcing schools is a major priority for the year ahead,” says Irene Cooper. “It’s crucial that we develop a system that enables school support staff to have the level of job security and the pay rates they deserve for the important work they do.” Irene Cooper says some politicians and commentators are quick to attack schools and their staff and claim that the education system is in crisis. “The reality is that New Zealand has a world class state school system.”

“I know from experience that good things happen in our schools every single day, but this goes largely unrecorded and unnoticed by those outside the school community.”

“I also know that school staff are working incredibly hard to make our schools even better and to lift the performance of children who are under achieving.”
“We have an excellent state education system that provides us with a solid foundation on which we can build a knowledge economy and create a prosperous country that we can all share.”

“To achieve this, it’s essential that the teachers, principals, support staff, special education staff and school advisers, who work in the state education system, have the resources they need to maintain and improve the quality education that they provide for thousands of New Zealand children,” says Irene Cooper.

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