Lessons learned after years in education

January 2013

 

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DIONNE CHRISTIAN talks to retiring principal Grant Barnes about the changes he’s seen in a teaching career spanning half a century.

The end of year prize-giving at Ardmore School always attracts a large crowd of pupils’ parents and extended family, not to mention friends of the school, including one former pupil who started there in 1929! But the 2012 prize-giving was more crowded than usual, probably because it was the last one for popular principal Grant Barnes, who headed the semi-rural, full primary for 19 years.

Grant, 67, gave a brief speech at prize-giving, which was greeted by a standing ovation. Looking around, many parents – mothers and fathers alike – had a tear in their eyes. After all, Grant wasn’t just leaving the school, he was retiring after 50 years in the teaching profession and that is a major milestone by most people’s reckoning.

Grant entered Auckland Teachers’ Training College in 1963, graduated two years later, and at just 19, was the youngest intermediate school teacher in Auckland, starting his career at the then newly opened Howick Intermediate. He reckons senior teachers who acted as unofficial mentors and the fact that the school was new – so “we were all in it together”– aided the transition from training to teaching. A seven-year stint in private schools followed before he returned to teach in a number of state primary schools. After nearly five years as deputy principal at Papakura’s Cosgrove Primary, Grant became principal at Ardmore School.

His personal experiences have taught him much that may be useful to today’s teachers, but he doesn’t want to tell anyone how to run their school or do their job. He prefers to talk about positive developments that he believes need to be maintained or further nurtured so New Zealand’s education system continues to meet the needs of young people in a rapidly changing world. Broadly speaking, he sums these up as: honouring the spirit of Tomorrow’s Schools, seeking innovative ways to use the New Zealand Curriculum, and embracing technology.

Tomorrow’s Schools today

Grant has seen a major shift in the philosophy of education. Rather than the emphasis being on teaching itself – the how we do it, if you like – greater prominence is accorded to thinking about how children learn and what is best to serve their needs. He says that’s the way it should be.

“Everyone in a school – the teachers, its board of trustees, its parents and wider community and, if the school has one, its parents’ support group – should be working together, working for the kids and going in one direction to ensure their learning needs are met. That was the whole aim of Tomorrow’s Schools, and I think it is well worth honouring that intent but you need to understand your community for your school to work effectively within it.”

Admitting he’s not a fan of formal occasions, getting to know the community has meant getting out and about amongst parents and talking with them.

The Ministry is vital to that collaborative approach. Grant says it must put its faith in the ‘people on the ground’ and trust them to do their jobs, and when challenges do arise, work alongside the school to find solutions that suit that community.

“Talk, communicate, and listen. In the end, it should always come back to working together for the good of children, working in conjunction with one another to achieve the best possible outcome.”

But, he says, each community is different and seldom is there a ‘one size fits all’ answer that will suit all providers. Similarly, schools shouldn’t be expected to provide a panacea for the ills of a given community.

“Teaching is a challenging job, and it’s made all the more challenging when, for whatever reasons, children come from homes where there’s disadvantage, be that as a result of family breakdown, financial circumstances, or as has become increasingly the case, drugs and alcohol.

“Wiser people than me have said that nowhere in the world have the problems of educational underachievement, when those circumstances exist, been solved by education alone. Playing a blame game with the teaching profession doesn’t help at all. It’s about all service providers coming together and finding strategies, ways to help families in these situations.”

The New Zealand Curriculum

Describing the most recent New Zealand Curriculum document as excellent, Grant believes it provides a solid foundation on which to teach, but he says it must always be remembered that some children are practical rather than academic learners. Individual differences must be respected and, where possible, catered for.

He’s enjoyed the breadth primary school teaching provides for incorporating both those approaches, saying competence in reading, writing, and maths gives pupils confidence and a firm grounding in the basics needed to learn; other subjects give them the chance to apply that learning.

“There has to be a strong focus on reading, writing, and maths, but we have to provide a balance of learning experiences with other subjects like social studies, science, technology, sport, and the arts. These give kids a chance to test out the theories, to work together, and are – let’s be honest – frequently the fun subjects that make them want to come to school.

“I think we have a good balance in New Zealand and I wouldn’t want to see that change. The New Zealand Curriculum is an excellent document, and at Ardmore, we did some very detailed work around how best to implement it right across the school. We didn’t work with an external facilitator but sat down as a staff and talked and listened. That involved getting input from junior as well as senior members of staff and was very useful in encouraging junior teachers to step up and take on more responsibilities.”

Technology

The introduction of computers has been without doubt one of the biggest changes Grant has witnessed. He reckons it’s great and enjoys working with today’s ‘digital natives’, but he’s all too aware of the costs and the burden that can place on schools.

“To be brutally honest, I think the Government and the Ministry do the best they can with this type of resourcing because technology is expensive, it does change rapidly, and schools also have many other needs. If you can afford it, go for it, but I’d say you might have to look for other funding sources. There’s no easy answer, but it is the way of the future.”

So what is the future for him? After a lifetime dedicated to teaching, he wants to maintain some sort of connection, perhaps in a mentoring-type role. His other great love is cricket and there may be an opportunity for administration and/or coaching work.

“I think parents are looking for schools to be places where their children feel secure and are learning. As for the kids, to be honest, I don’t think they’re all that different to those I first taught – at least the ones at Ardmore aren’t. They are enthusiastic, open to learning, and curious about the world around them.”