New leader prepares for battle over public education
The joy of watching a shy three year old grow into a confident and happy five year old ready to tackle primary school is what has fueled Judith Nowotarski’s passion as a kindergarten teacher.
Nowotarski says seeing children in her care achieving their own individual milestones are what gives her the biggest buzz and makes her job great.
But now the mother of three grown children from Hawera is about to leave all that to enter the world of national politics, television debates and a constant stream of controversy in her role as the new NZEI Te Riu Roa National President.
After a tumultuous year in education, the new leader of the 50,000 education sector workforce is under no illusions – this is the crunch time for public education in New Zealand.
Nowotarski takes over the reins from Bay of Plenty school principal, Ian Leckie at a time when educators and the Government are at loggerheads and the casualty list is growing. Minister Hekia Parata’s embarrassing stumbles, the recent reshuffle in National’s education line-up and the departure of Education Secretary Lesley Longstone after just 15 months from the top job show just how volatile the sector has become.
For Nowotarski, the initiation will have to be rapid. The deadline for submissions against the controversial charter school policy has passed. Charter schools mark another step in what Nowotarski and her teacher colleagues say is part of an ideology that will undermine the foundations of our world-leading public education system.
“An education system based on equality that allows every child to develop to his or her potential, with access to good teaching and learning is just too important to put at risk in this way.”
Charter schools, she says, are part of an agenda that includes privatisation, competition, winner and loser schools, and performance pay for teachers based on dodgy student achievement testing.
“These are all failed overseas policies – from countries such as the US whose education systems rank below us in achievement results. Why would we want to do that?”
Nowotarski is clear that if teachers and the rest of the sector are to win this battle, they will need the backing of New Zealand’s communities.
“The communities we work in are our strongest voice - they are partners in their child’s education and best allies so we need to ensure they’re on board,” she says.
Community is something Nowotarski understands. Born and bred in Hawera, her Taranaki roots are deep and her whanau affiliations through her parents include Nga Ruahine, Ngati Ruanui, Ngai Tahu and Nga Puhi.
Hers was a uniquely Aotearoa-NZ upbringing and she believes that uniqueness is what underpins New Zealand’s quality public education and that is threatened by the Government’s agenda.
“The very context of our education system is what helps New Zealand establish a quality public system where all children are treated as individuals and given an opportunity to succeed.” Nowotarski believes that it is so empowering for an individual to be able to stand anywhere in the world and know about where they come from.
The choices we make about education are vital, she says. Education is the key for future generations to build a nation that is bicultural and bilingual. It is integral to our national identity and what gives New Zealanders confidence to succeed offshore.
Growing up in Taranaki, Te Reo wasn’t spoken a lot in Judith’s home despite both parents being bilingual. However, Maori practices (tikanga) were strongly embraced in her whanau life.
“We grew up with our culture and tikanga. We went to our father’s local marae and maintain strong connections to our mother’s marae in Otautahi (Christchurch).”
Whanau ties continue to be strong and as the youngest sibling in a family of nine, the wider family connection with cousins, aunts and uncles is something she says her own children now understand and appreciate.
The benefits of that close and happy childhood underpin her thinking as a professional kindergarten teacher.
The importance of whanau is mirrored in at her own kindergarten where she’s aware that many children and families have become distanced from their own whanau.
“Kindergarten is a place where they can be connected – it becomes a familiar place and a constant in their lives,” she says.
But teaching and having overall responsibility for the day-to-day operations of a kindergarten also gave Judith an understanding of how national decisions can impact on local communities.
“I’ve seen the results of how an overnight policy decision can impact on the education.
“One of the tough times we had in the early childhood sector was when kindergartens got thrown out of the state sector. Overnight the KTCA national collective agreement became ‘open’ for negotiation by employers at a local or regional level, enabling differences of conditions for teachers between kindergarten associations to be introduced.
“Early childhood education still remains most vulnerable to government cost-cutting – it’s an easy target because the benefits are often not obvious till later in a child’s development and therefore difficult to measure – especially in an environment where test-based accountability prevails.
“We’ve seen clawbacks over the goals to achieve 100 percent qualified teachers in early childhood centres. Last year’s budget removed the funding for centres to employ 100 percent qualified teachers.
“The irony is that [Minister of Education] Hekia Parata talks of increasing student achievement yet the policies don’t support the rhetoric. Qualified teaching would surely be one of the keys to improving student achievement.”
Nowotarski is also bothered by the Minister’s failure to acknowledge improvements by Maori and Pasifika students and to focus and improve on what’s working.
“There are loads of success stories out there and as teachers we know how we can achieve much better results for those children in the current system. We just need better resourcing and support in those areas. Instead, the Government seems committed to adopting failed overseas experiments that we know won’t achieve those goals of higher achievement – especially for Pasifika and Maori children.
Yes, she concedes that Pasifika and Maori children do achieve below their Pakeha counterparts but maintains that privatisation, standardisation, competition and narrowing the curriculum to focus on numeracy and literacy will not achieve gains – and in fact will be counterproductive.
“We need to focus on what works.
“Educators know that children learn best when they are taught in ways that are culturally appropriate – through what is important to them and by being able to show their attributes and be recognized as important members of society through what they bring to society.’’
Educators also know that 2013 will be pivotal for the future of education. Nowotarski knows that it is vital that parents and the wider community understand the drivers of quality public education, not just decision makers and parents. That’s a challenge for the sector and one that she knows will be the key to her success.