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Guest Opinion: How Do Governments Fail The People?


How do governments fail the people?

By Juliet Bonnay

*******

Governments fail the people when politics equals economics and laws are made or changed without fully considering the social consequences for all people: rich and poor, men, women and children, different ethnic groups, different races, and indigenous people.

And now we come to this election. There are many important social issues still to be addressed such as: reversing the widening gap between the rich and poor; putting strategies in place to address the rapid increase of people on sickness benefits; address the pressing concerns with child poverty, child abuse, domestic violence, low educational outcomes, and the high rate of youth offending. The problems are extremely complex because they are intricately woven together and one change, big or small, will impact all of them in various and often unexpected ways.

Yesterday, Dr Jon Johansson wrote in Scoop that Don Brash had not addressed the “impact of social cohesion of our country” if National fully implements its policies concerning Maori, and dismantles their “entire political and institutional framework.”

During a radio interview with Linda Clark on September 7, Don Brash admitted that there was no comprehensive study on the social impact of National’s introduction of market rents in the nineties. Worse, he also admitted that he had not studied the ‘90s market rent policy in detail; then dismissed out of hand the report by The Child Poverty Action Group that the level of child poverty in this country tripled as a result of its implementation. He said, “I certainly don't regard that group as an objective group assessing anyone's policy. Certainly not the National Party's policy.”

When I check out National’s education policy it states that, “Too many children with social disadvantage are missing out on the opportunity for a sound education….The cycle of low aspirations and under-achievement still paralyses the progress of up to a third of students.”

And I ask, “Could it not be that child poverty has something to do with that?”

National’s education policy states that the “school system should support families and their aspirations… Under National, education will be run for standards, excellence and choice. We will make it a national mission to improve basic literacy and numeracy. We will empower good schools, good principals and good teachers to use their skills to give our children the best education they can get. We will empower parents by giving them the tools to make informed choices and to support their children’s education.” National also proposes to issue tuition vouchers to children who need extra help with literacy and numeracy.

In order to answer the question as to how governments fail the people, I am going to use education as a metaphor, because that’s where my background lies.

In October, 1999 I attended a discipline forum at a school in Northland where I was teaching. I had questions to ask, like: What is the impact of low teacher morale on students’ behaviour? How do our students feel if we are not connected at a soul level with the subject we are teaching? How do they feel when they are rushed through each curriculum, squashing out the joy of learning or the ability to become excited about ideas and where they could lead?

To my dismay the meeting went around and around in circles about detention and wearing the uniform correctly. The underlying issues were not addressed and the result was that more detentions were to be given and teachers were posted on school gates each morning to make uniform checks. The question of the impact of our discipline approach never arose – except for the fact that it wasn’t working. The focus was on students’ negative behaviour and punishing it rather than rewarding good efforts and positive attitudes – or even, dare I say, making the curriculum more exciting and relevant. (I still have not forgotten a year ten girl who thanked me for my effort to make social studies more interesting because, in her words, the “curriculum is boring.”)

The curriculum is designed to impart the knowledge necessary to prepare each student for life, enable them to reach their highest potential, to get a job, and make a valuable contribution to their community. We have trained many excellent teachers and provided many well-equipped schools. So how come the system is “failing” roughly one third of the students passing through them?

Let me share with you one of the most successful classes I ever had because it demonstrates clearly how seeing things with blinkers on, and in terms of black and white, the leaders within our communities and governments can make serious errors of judgment. My students were a year seven class of 28 pupils in Australia, reportedly the worst class in the school, which I took over in May, 1986.

Some children were openly excited when they saw me walk into the classroom. Others hung back, their joyless faces reflecting the atmosphere of a school where orders were shouted by grim teachers who took school too seriously and rarely smiled. Desks were arranged into rows across the classroom. Before the bell went I just had time to rearrange all the desks in a horseshoe shape so I would have an area in the middle where the children could sit to hear a story or have in informal lesson

In an effort to settle the class each morning, we did aerobic exercises together and ran around the school oval a couple of times and then did fun relays and tables competitions. However, sometimes even then the class would not settle. I began to ask what was upsetting them. Gradually, bit by bit, a picture emerged that gave me some insight as to why students do not achieve their potential and what may cause them to fail and drop out of school altogether. (I have changed the names of the students I am introducing you to.)

The class demonstrated an acute fear of making mistakes and I clearly remember saying that it was okay to make mistakes because they could learn a lot from them. I also remember the quizzical looks on their faces when I said that I had as much to learn from them as they did from me. Little did I know that one by one my students would show me the multitudinous ways that we as parents, as teachers, and as a society let them down and put up so many barriers that prevent them from ever getting anywhere near reaching their potential.

Fully one-third of the class came from broken homes. While one girl talked about the benefits of having two families, the rest of the children were clearly unhappy about the loss of one of their parents and upset about having to go through the experience of a custody dispute. Some were adversely affected by continuing bitterness between parents, and being put in the position of having to take sides. One boy was obviously neglected, and another was in trouble with the law for stealing.

David walked like a toddler, constantly tripping over his feet. His favourite words were, “Eh, eh!” and he scribbled them all over his books, and the blackboard when no one was looking. He annoyed everyone in class and was constantly told he was “stupid.” And he acted it. I remember the hate in his clear blue eyes when I asked him to have a chat with me during recess about what was upsetting him. The look of hate vanished while I silently listened to what he had to say. His father had multiple sclerosis and David wanted to help around the house, but his father wanted to do things himself, which made David feel useless. His mother worked in the city and didn’t get home until late. Tears filled his eyes when he told me how much he missed her.

Jason was often upset before he came to school because his mother called him “a fat slob.” He had tried to diet. He hated being called fat and he hit out viciously at his schoolmates in his anger. One day, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he told me why he was so angry and miserable.

Jodi cried too, but she cried because her father yelled at her and called her “a clumsy oaf.” She felt that she could never get anything right and drew beautiful horse pictures instead of doing her work.

There was John who was becoming increasingly difficult to handle after his parents’ divorce. His mother had sent him back to live with his father who expected high achievement from him. When he made mistakes or didn’t get the high mark he wanted, he had temper tantrums and angrily threw his books around.

Stacey was constantly out of her seat, pinching and hitting the boys. She wore a permanent “I don’t care” attitude on her sullen face. An extremely short attention span made her work scrappy. Her self image was very low. At home she had to contend with a stepfather who constantly teased her about wearing a bra, and would repeatedly pull the elastic on the back and thwack it against her skin.

When Sherry asked me for extra help with maths she told me that I was the first teacher she had ever been “game enough to ask for help from” because she was “scared they would yell at me if I said I couldn’t do something.” Upon investigation I was told by Sherry’s previous teacher that although she was a lovely girl, she was a slow learner who would never do well at maths.

Mary was becoming emotionally torn apart by the fact that her mother was on drugs and she had to live with a stepmother, rarely seeing her mother.

Susan cried herself to sleep each night for years because her father rarely let her see her mother after her family broke up.

Michael needed extra help and support from his mother to complete homework to improve his spelling. She crossly retorted that she worked all day and got home late to cook dinner and didn’t have time.

In 1979 I attended an international conference on community education, held in Melbourne. I chanced to pick up a flyer entitled “The Whole Child” from the Fitzroy Community School of Melbourne that would prove to change my whole life. It stated:

We devote a lot of time to adult policies, trying to make a better world. But every reform is frustrated or perverted. The quality of life is not improved, because the people are the same. What changes people? Well any one adult can recuperate from his childhood if he is dedicated to go through sufficient personal torment. But the population will generally behave according to their upbringing. The greatest power over human life is parent power. How you raise a person has a more potent effect on their ability to achieve happiness than any other influence or circumstance.

I had little idea of what I was heading into when I decided to take that difficult path to “recuperate” from my childhood. Brian Tracey, in a series of tapes entitled The Psychology of Achievement, said that the “average adult in our society spends 40-50 years getting over the first five. We are marked for life by the quality of our parenting within the first 4 or 5 years.” I have found this true in every respect – not only with myself, but also with the people I have counseled in private practice. Their stories, plus my own journey into the past, shattered completely the world view I grew up with.

To me these experiences demonstrate very clearly that there are no simple answers or quick fixes. There are layers upon layers of mitigating factors that impact on our behaviour, our beliefs, how we see ourselves, how we see others, and view the world and our place in it.

And so I view with alarm the ignorance that this election has brought out plainly for all to see. I think to myself, “Am I back at the discipline forum at school where we are going around and around in circles, afraid to ask the really important questions beginning with “why” and “how” and “what if…”

Neither of the two main parties is asking these questions in many of their policies, least of all in education. Instead, there is increasing pressure on students’ to achieve so it will reflect well on a school and its accountability. Pastoral care is becoming a thing of the past. There is just not enough time with all the paper work, extra testing and assessments and reporting. When I first came to New Zealand to teach at an intermediate school, staff meetings were held every morning so there was no one in the classrooms to welcome students when they arrived at school. To begin the day with a short chat and a smile can make an enormous difference to a child’s behaviour. It can make them feel connected. Now there is a creeping feeling of disconnection from adults at school, and when they get home, and no one is there. To an alien coming from another planet the question could indeed be asked, “Do you really value your children and family life?”

We cannot afford to simply take a black and white view of the world and social issues. One size does not fit all. And I wonder whether Don Brash cares about anyone or anything at all except to implement his social changes and leave his mark on New Zealand. He wants to disempower Maori; clean up welfare from which future criminals “will spring;” lock up repeating offenders and “throw away the key;” and, impose a narrow and limited outer shell on education when what it needs is heart and soul and genuine caring on the inside.

So what happened to my year seven class?

I shared so much of myself with them – pieces of my writing and poetry which sparked off a new interest in writing stories and poems of their own, which they then shared with the rest of the class. I showed them some of my drawings and paintings and they created colourful murals around the room in poster paint. New books were bought to start our own classroom library and the children brought books from home to share as well. I scrapped the expensive reading scheme and read exciting books to the class instead, and let them choose what they wanted to read. When I had first taken over the class, they couldn’t sit still for ten minutes of silent reading. By the end of the year they remained happily engrossed in a book for an hour – and loved it! I used creative drama to help them get in touch with their feelings and to gain new experiences through “acting out.” From this activity flowed oral expression, written expression in the form of stories and plays, and artwork. What became apparent was that the creative activities gave them an opportunity to make sense of their world and integrate negative experiences. This enabled us all to work co-operatively together.

As for Sherry, she wrote to me two years later saying, “School has been going well and I went well in my first lot of exams. I topped the Advanced Maths class in our Maths test. I couldn’t believe it, I got a higher mark than this boy in my class who is a real brain…”

Stumbling David, who everyone thought was dumb, became an avid reader and an attentive listener during class discussions. He presented abstract ideas that no one had ever thought of and his self-esteem rose enormously because he was at last being heard...and respected. A final year State test revealed that he was the brightest student in the class.

On the last day of school, two boys from another year seven class asked if they could join my class for the day because they wanted to hear what I had to say about education. One of my students handed me a framed dried flower arrangement with the words, “A few drops of caring soon grows into a pool of love.” Many of my students didn’t rush off that day when the bell went; they stayed behind with me to clean up the room and move the furniture, and we laughed and chatted. I owe them a lot: they had allowed me to see many shades of grey and made me ask, “Why?” “How?” and “What if,” which enabled me to take my blinkers off.

Do you want a government that will fail the people? Which party in this election has the greatest potential to see the bigger picture, can see at least some of the areas of grey, and maybe feel some of the needs of all New Zealanders…and try to meet them?

*******

Juliet Bonnay traveled and worked in Paris (6 months) and U.S.A. (4 years). Juliet was born in Melbourne, Australia and came to New Zealand to take up a teaching position in 1996. She lives in Nor-west Auckland. See, www.julietbonnay.com

ENDS

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