Saturday, August 22, 2009

An Inspector

The aura of authority meant being an inspector of schools was a corrosive occupation. One learnt to go through doors first. The job entailed judgement. And suspicion. But there was an upside. What can be said to assist or improve? What makes a good teacher tick? It was not what people said they taught or how they taught that counted - what did matter was their actual classroom practice. Remember this is over thirty years ago. I am in no position to make judgement about present classroom practice.

Most youngsters I speak to today seem content with their schooling. Adolescents probably buck authority more readily than they did in the past. Not only does modern technology loudly present this attitude it also holds out the lure of quick gratification. Research shows the onset of puberty for both boys and girls is happening earlier and earlier. The concern over obesity in our young people suggests that the media is more powerful than the health curriculum in forming attitudes and habits. This is not just a Kiwi problem. All over the affluent world the same thing is happening. Today, no nation is an island.

As an inspector I learnt about the stress and loneliness of the long distance principal. South Auckland inspectors covered from the Te Kauwhata to Taumaranui and Turangi, from Raglan to TeAroroa and Wairoa. Concerns about Maori under-achievement were beginning to emerge. Some with foresight identified the problems as systemic and structural but all too often the individual or the group was blamed.

The principal often could talk to no one else but the inspector about their deepest concerns, teacher shortages, (particularly Maths and Physics), disputes, even combat, with boards or the local community, truants, curriculum change, (“do I phase out Latin?”), personal ambitions, a new building, a change of subjects, the end of streaming, even sometimes their own marital problems. "Tough being a principal's wife in a one-horse town." There were concerns about individual teachers, not coping, drinking too much, getting near burnout, ready for promotion.

They had queries about the nature of assemblies, school uniforms, and university entrance. Dress codes and boys hair length were particularly bothersome challenges. "Wish the bloody Beatles had never been born." Usually principals wanted to hold the line while younger staff in particular were not prepared to police the policy. (Even today the topic of school uniforms arouses heated debate amongst teachers). But sometimes the principal wanted to be innovative and to be the risk-taker, and the staff would be more cautious and reluctant to support change. One listened, encouraged, advised, but above everything else acted as a sounding board. Individual concerns and hopes merged into a general picture.

I travelled for five years. It meant getting to know the physical region well. Driving presented no problem, it was an activity I enjoyed - the road to Whitianga the most exciting, to Te Kaha the most interesting, from Turangi the most never-ending. One got tired of hotels and motels, but there was usually paper work in the evenings - quite often a meal with the principal and sometimes senior staff. I always volunteered if there was time to meet in the evening with the teachers from the English Department.

The first fortnight in the job I spent in Wellington. As well as English I was given the guidance counselling and special education portfolios. There was a national training course for a group of newly appointed counsellors so I attended - in-service training, for me, as well as the appointees. These positions were new. The course contained an air of excitement and mission, the lecturers stressing these people were 'change agents" in the system. Participants held heated discussions about the ratio of time to be spent on personal and vocational counselling. Most appointees supported strongly the personal side. Departmental officers stressed the vocational side; already unemployment figures were on the rise.

But back in Hamilton some of my new colleagues were scornful, or at least guardedly pessimistic about this new deal. "Schools exist to teach subjects." "Enough missionaries amongst the teachers without adding another lot of dogooders." "They weaken school discipline." “Let’s not fudge it, there are sad kids and there are bad kids and these guys don’t separate them.”

I found while on the road that these counsellors were another lonely group. Tough dealing with negativity, drugs, family distress, personal unhappiness, excess in manifold forms, with many of your teaching colleagues unsympathetic. Who counsels the counsellor? Who deals with their demoralisation? In my case, it was the inspector - a supportive role for which I had no training except the one course. Much more than anticipated I discovered myself defending them and their place in the system.

Paper work piled up when one was away from the office. Much of it consisted of requests. Some of this was granting approvals. For example, a school librarian allowance was available. This had been awarded on a grace and favour basis. No, that's a bit unfair. Where my predecessors thought it would be well used on the basis of performance they authorised it. Once granted it had never been revoked. I discussed the issue with the District Senior. "If I wait till I visit all schools then some may never get it. Why don't we give it to all schools and then I and the other inspectors can police its use when we visit." Persuaded by my argument he gave it to everyone.

This decision was typical of the times. There were many similar blank cheques. My motives were worthy. If it was an allowance that Government had allocated for use, why not use it. But everywhere other inspectors and officers were making similar rulings and so educational expenditure crept continually up and up. Each year there was an Appropriation Bill to add the necessary finance, not just in education but in nearly every branch of the public service.This was the seedbed in which Rogernomics was taking root.

Over the years a vast hotchpotch of education discretionary allowances had been granted. Projects would start with seeding money, which rolled over and became in time an anticipated part of the school’s annual income. Well-established schools on the whole had accumulated more of these. A persuasive principal could win more assistance for his school than their more scrupulous fellows.

When a new District Senior Inspector, Noel Scott, later to be MP for Tongariro, started, he took one look at this shambles, pulled in all the local principals, told them to work out a more equitable distribution and left them rather astonished to do it. I, and the rest of the team, anticipated horse-trading. It didn't work out that way. They worked out a just redistribution that made allowances for socioeconomic unevenness. When I visited Mangakino High School shortly afterwards, the principal was exultant at his windfall. "All my Christmases at once. The equivalent of 3 full-time teachers. I can give more remedial reading and guidance help." It was an excellent lesson in empowerment. Not only did Noel deserve praise but also the principals - one of those moments when one was proud to be associated with the enterprise. The learning that I got was to give ownership of an issue as much as possible to the practitioners.

I recall the most distressing lesson I witnessed. When the team arrived the principal very proudly said, "I'm thrilled to have got a local kaumatua teaching Maori. You must see him." I drew the lucky straw. It was an embarrassing experience. The almost all pakeha class of girls sat with heads down while the poor man lambasted them for not understanding what he was saying. He did not know how to present his material, and they did not know how to respond.

After the lesson I stayed to talk to him. "They're stupid", he raved, "they don't understand”. Tentatively I tried suggesting that maybe his instructions were’t very clear. He reared back in anger, what did I know about it, he'd been speaking the language for years and these kids were deliberately not listening to him. And the few Maori students in the class were the worst. It was the best example I ever saw of the need for training to be a teacher. Equally, it was sad for the man had immense deserved local mana. The situation was tragic. The principal saw me as an out-of-town interloper criticizing her success story. Regretfully, no one in that class passed School Cert Maori that year.

No comments:

Post a Comment