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Month: May 2013

Talk-ED: In Praise of Teacher Aides


Written by Marilyn Gwilliam, Principal, Papatoetoe Central School


In Praise of Teacher Aides – Where would we be without them?

The totally amazing teams of teacher aides in schools in New Zealand just can’t be done without.  It is a simple fact.  Noone I know would dispute this.  Each day these wonderful people go to work in schools around the country, mostly cheerfully and willingly, and do they make a difference?  Yes they surely do, without a shadow of a doubt.

What do teacher aides do?

Their daily tasks are varied depending on the needs of the students in the school. They may work with students who have no idea how to behave themselves. There has been recent publicity about the increase in extreme behaviours in some schools in Northland with students unable to self regulate, who can be very violent and use the most appalling language.  This increase in highly challenging behaviours is not restricted to just the northern parts of NZ.

It is indescribable how frightening it can be for teacher aides working with such students.  Their personal safety is highly at risk and the safety of other students and other school staff may also be also at risk.

These days there are virtually no schools, units and classes to cater for students with special needs and considerations in NZ.  As a result, students with very high and complex needs attend their local schools.  These challenging students are supported by teacher aides who are funded by the MOE Intensive Wraparound Service (IWS), a “mixed model of intensive support”.

These students are placed in regular classrooms with a teacher aide and supported by IWS personnel and associated programmes to address a range of severe behavioural, emotional, neurological and cognitive issues.  Teacher aides can find themselves participating in very lengthy meetings that are attended by numerous professionals, all intent on supporting regular schools to maintain the enrolment of highly disruptive and demanding students.

Often, each professional develops a plan or part of a plan, after a series of observation and other forms of data collection, both in and outside of the classroom. School personnel are subsequently faced with implementing plans from a range of professionals within the MOE “mixed model”, while maintaining the regular class programme for all the other students in the class.  This is very demanding and complex work for all concerned.

So much, and many people would say far too much, is expected of the personnel on the ground in the schools and teacher aides are often at the front line.

Also on the increase in our schools are students with varying degrees of autism requiring teacher aide support. These students can also be demanding and challenging.  There are many teacher aides who work with students who have been diagnosed with global developmental delay or who have a specific learning disability.  Many also work with students who have physical disabilities and these teacher aides may be required to assist them with not only their learning, but also their personal needs, health and hygiene requirements.

A number work with students who are learning English.  There are 31,378 students in 1289 schools in NZ currently, who speak little or no English.  Most schools employ teacher aides to work with these students in their early English language acquisition.  This can be incredibly rewarding work as many immigrant students become bi-lingual, maintaining their home language, while learning English with ease.

So the daily life of the teacher aide in these classrooms is never dull.  It is often challenging and complex yet it can be rewarding and very fulfilling, because the teacher aides themselves, make it so.  Their own positive attitude and disposition, combined with deep caring and empathy ensure that students who receive teacher aide support in our schools are getting such a good deal.

How do teacher aides feel about their work?

They generally see their role as offering support and practical help for the teacher and the student concerned.  They care deeply about the students they work with.  Recently a teacher aide was heard to say; “They get into my heart and they get under my skin.”  They develop bonds of trust and are often able to uncover hidden strengths and skills in their students.

Carol Dweck, an influential psychologist,  describes the importance of beliefs or mindsets in relation to performance.  Many of our teacher aides have an absolute belief in what Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset” where they firmly believe that the students they work with can learn.  In Dweck’s terms, they believe that the hand their students are dealt, is just the starting point.

Teacher aides enjoy celebrating the small achievements and the tiny steps along the way, they want the very best for their students and there is immense enjoyment and total satisfaction in helping to build their confidence.

So where indeed would we be without them?  There is no way teachers can do what is being asked of them in NZ today, without the support of these simply wonderful people. Principals and teachers know that teacher aides support some of the most important learning that goes on in our schools with some of our most “special” students.

And are they worth their weight in gold?  Yes they surely are, without a shadow of a doubt.


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Talk-ED: Eating the Pudding: The Sweet Taste of Success

My Mum always said that the proof of the pudding was in the eating.  In other words, the recipe is not enough, the ingredients will not suffice, it’s what comes out of the oven and gets eaten.  That’s why results in education matter.  But I have always been opposed to league tables because they tend to hide invidious comparisons and there is always a feeling that what they set out to achieve is never quite what their creators would admit to.

The recent publication of the 2012 NCEA results in the NZ Herald does a good job of being fair by listing the results alphabetically and being restrained in its comment.  Of course the general reader is still unaware of the subtleties of the data presented and I have no doubt their minds move quickly to simple and incomplete tables in the mind that rank the schools.

Here is a table that reflects a small sample of the schools in that list – the Decile 10 schools of Auckland.

NCEA Results 2012 (NZQA Data)
    Secondary School   L1   %   L2   %   L3   %
School 1   86   89   66
School 2  *   8   77   65
School 3   91   92   80
School 4   99   97   94
School 5  **   98   99   93
School 6   75   80   74
School 7  *   81   96   79
School 8   91   98   85
School 9   95   98   88
School 10   91   93   84
School 11  *   92   88   76
School 12   85   96   100
School 13   67   71   na
School 14   87   90   87
School  **   99   98   99
School 16   95   98   95
School 17  */**   80   88   82
*     Cambridge Examination also in school    
**   International Baccalaureate also in school  


Actually, these are not just the Decile 10 schools of Auckland, this list is comprised of sixteen Decile 10 schools in Auckland but also includes one other school that is not a Decile 10 school and which appears in the Herald NCEA list.

Readers are urged before they go further to see whether at this point they can identify that school in the above list.

Because this other school recruits students who are not headed towards positive outcomes in their secondary schooling and who would benefit from an opportunity to engage with what is colloquially called “vocational and technical education” at an earlier point in their schooling.  After a process that involves the school, parents / caregivers and students, they enter a programme at a Polytechnic where a team of ten secondary school teachers supplemented by a group of 12 vocational and technical education specialists provide them with a different kind of schooling, a different way of completing their senior secondary schooling.  The NCEA assessments are the same as those in conventional schools and are moderated in the same way.

The “school” is different from others schools in a number of ways:

  •         it is not in a school setting but in a polytechnic;
  •         the students are expected to be like tertiary students rather than school students;
  •         they travel from many parts of the city to come to the school;
  •         their previous schools overall reflect a wide range of decile levels but the intake is weighted towards those from low decile schools;
  •         the ethnicity of the students reflects the future demographic profile of Auckland.

The programme they undertake has some quite unique general features which include: 

  •          earlier access to technical, career and vocational subjects;
  •          clear pathways through to tertiary qualifications;
  •          a curriculum structure that meets the requirements of the NZ Curriculum through achievement standards but which integrates the secondary elements with the tertiary elements;
  •          the capacity to generate credits to both NCEA and other qualifications;
  •          the opportunity to study at multiple NCEA levels simultaneously in Year 11 and Year 12;
  •          making available to students multiple pathways that lead them to positive outcomes.
  •          High levels of student monitoring, mentoring and partnerships with whanau
  •          Strong learning relationships

Above all, the students in this Tertiary High School have purpose and direction.  Let’s be clear, not all last the distance – some head off to employment, some to other providers, a small number return to their schools – but the retention figures are well ahead of national levels.

The first year of this programme (Year 11 in a conventional school) allows students to study in a number of technical disciplines as well as completing a full Level 1 NCEA programme in mainstream secondary subjects.  Students then choose to move into a fulltime tertiary course or complete NCEA level 2 and one tertiary area of study.  The majority of students choose to complete NCEA Level 2 and then move into fulltime tertiary courses in years 13 and 14.  A small group remain in the programme to complete NCEA level 3.  If the pathway they chose after that year is a technical pathway they would start that around the time of reaching NCEA Level 2.  This is a critical component that ensures that the selection of a future pathway is based on knowledge and experience of what that pathway entails and where it will lead to – and with a set of applied educational skills as a learner.

These specialised pathways often involve the stair casing journey to industry recognised qualifications.  But, and here is Surprise Number 1, the pathway some chose is an “academic pathway” into a degree programme.  This pathway is in reality both academic and vocational.

Furthermore, Surprise Number 2 is that an “academic pathway” has emerged in the programme and a group of students chose a pathway that takes them to NCEA Level 3 (with University Entrance) – they want access to degree programmes at any tertiary provider.  (One student who completed University Entrance and NCEA Level 3 started in a degree at the University of Auckland last year but he was quite exceptional.)

So here is a “league table” that the Manukau Institute of Technology Tertiary High School (internally known as the School of Secondary-Tertiary Studies) can get into.  But it doesn’t reflect the range of successes that the programme is having.  Some students have stepped into employment after obtaining the requisite qualifications (and that includes NCEA to the appropriate level), others are in Year 3 or Year 4 of the programme and fully engaged in tertiary programmes including degree level study, some have returned to their school to resume their education, some have shifted towns and countries with families to continue their education in other places.

This is not a secondary school and doesn’t offer some of the attractions that an excellent secondary school offers.  But it does have its attractions.  It does offer what in the views of parents and caregivers, the schools they had been attending and the students themselves something that had seemed out of reach and unlikely – educational success, positive outcomes, and the opportunity to be a successful contributing member of a family and a community.

In short, the sweet taste of success.


[For those who couldn’t spot the odd one out in the table of Auckland Decile 10 Schools – the Manukau Institute of Technology Tertiary High School is School No. 12]


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Talk-ED: PB4L joins R2-D2 and CPO-3 in the Classroom Star Wars


The 2013 Budget announcements raise some issues. $63 million is to go to a programme called Positive Behaviour for Learning (or PB4L as it seems to be called).

Have we lost the plot seriously when such a programme is necessary and in fact become a priority?  The Ministry of Education website gives useful information about the programme and I learn that 10,000 parents will be involved benefitting 30,000 children and that 8,260 teachers will receive something called  the Incredible Years – Teacher Programme which will benefit over 180,000 children.  628 schools, 328,873 (a very precise figure) students – the numbers are impressive.  There is apparently an Intensive Behaviour Service which will be available for 100 of the “most challenging children”.

Add to this the number of RTLB positions around the country and the additional PDL programme that seem to be out there and a picture starts to emerge of a system in which the teaching force is being very seriously challenged on a daily basis and in classrooms.

Is it time for someone to climb to the top of the tree and call out “Wait a minute, we are headed in the wrong direction!” as the team below continues to hack through the jungle with enthusiasm and a semblance of effectiveness (to use the Stephen Covey image).

Is it time for us to consider a return to some basics and ask whether we need to develop a Positive Learning for Behaviour programme?  In such a programme there would be an unrelenting push to see that all students have a quality early childhood experience which focuses on preparing the little students for school and this includes developing the acceptable behaviours that allow for adequate functioning in a school.  Do we even have a description of these behaviours or a programme to develop such behaviours or advice for parents about these behaviours?  Is this what PB4L is going to do?

Drive around Auckland and see the palatial ECE centres that private money is building and ask whether state resources in these areas are being used well and are targeted in any kind of defensible manner?  The cowboys know that there is “gold in them thar hills”.

Is it time for us to seriously simplify the curriculum.  Narrow it down to the skills and habits that constitute a useful basis for educational progress.  Success does wonderful things to learners.  Being able to cope enhances learners.  Getting help strengthens learners.  Are teachers supported in this?  Are the extraordinary resources being gathered to help teachers actually targeted at activity and assistance that works?

The Finnish approach of having multiple teachers in a classroom seems to get results.  Are we seriously considering this?

Finally we need to seriously ask why student behaviour at the beginning of the 21st Century has become a central issue in educational discussions.  I would hazard a guess that the answer is a complex collection of things which in themselves are easily understood.

Poor physical health – we ought to be able to knock that off.

Hunger – the best approach to hungry children is to give them a feed.  Most systems feed their school children, some through targeted and means-tested approaches while others (dare I mention Finland again?) feed every student because it is easier than trying to target such a programme and much less discriminatory.

Pressure on families through poor housing is an issue that is flying under the radar which swings wildly with excitement about how the middle classes can or cannot buy houses and how the middle classes are buying more than one house and how…. anything but the sad and tragic truth of those who are poorly housed.

Too many students are continuing to “progress” through the system but are making little progress in the system.  Failure sticks to and accumulates on students like mud to a blanket.  A student who fails to learn at one level is highly unlikely to learn at another and yet we send them on.  The failure trajectory for students starts early and lasts for a very long time.  The sorts of figures tossed around for PL4B do not inspire a confidence that this is a targeted programme.

It is certainly my view that teacher competence is not as big an issue as competent teachers doing the wrong thing.  If we are to have positive behaviour for learning we probably can only achieve such a state through learning.  It is a vicious circle that with support teachers can turn into a virtuous circle.  Good behaviour in schools is a consequence of learning not a pre-requisite for it.



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Talk-ED: Trade? Me? Really?


It’s time that the trades got a boost. It is an absurdity that New Zealand on the one hand requires substantial numbers of skilled people – 30,000 in Christchurch and 40,000 in Auckland and then some more – but on the other  hand there are struggles to get people into training for the trades.  And this is happening in a time when unemployment among young people is at worryingly high levels.

It surely can’t be the money – trades people quite quickly earn good money.  Have you had to pay a tradesperson lately?

It can only be a matter of perception that keeps young ones at arm’s length from training for the trades.  Of course it hasn’t helped that the secondary schools have so comprehensively removed trades options from the programme over the past thirty or so years and it will take time for the youth guarantee initiatives such as the vocational pathways and trades academies and the like to start to have an impact.

The perception that success can only be found in being a lawyer or a doctor or some other “professional” guides too many students into pathways in which they do not find success.  It would have been greatly to their advantage to have been on track to enter programmes that took them into technical and trades areas much earlier and consequently to employment that is secure and leads to “good money”.

The image of the trades must be elevated in the eyes of parents who should be invited to see futures working in the trades as ones worth pursuing, and so should teachers, careers advisors and those who influence people.  It is time for us to dampen a little the hype around knowledge workers and think a little more carefully and critically about the snob status attached to law and medicine.  New Zealand needs highly skilled workers at all levels not just those in suits and power dressing outfits.

We also need to think more carefully about the values that we attach to words such as “academic” and “vocational”.  Get used to it – the distinction is now spurious and has little meaning.  All education and training that is valuable is both academic and vocational.  A report will be published in London today that identifies the greatest pressure that universities will come under over the next period of time will be the extent to which they will be able to show that they are “vocational”.  Get used to it!

The Holy Bible is full of tradespeople.  Giving them modern occupational descriptions that reflect what they did, we note that Cain was a metal fabricator while Andrew, James, Peter and John worked in the marine industry.  Joseph worked in building and construction and later was furniture-maker, Abel and David were in agriculture while Luke was a health professional.  Noah was a skilled shipwright and Adam a zoological technician.

Think of the impact on New Zealand of various tradesmen such as Parnell the carpenter, Kirk the roofpai­nter and railway engineer, Hillary the beekeeper and Muldoon the accounting clerk.

In the 2012 list of most trusted jobs the following rated highly:  fire-fighter, nurse, childcare-worker, hairdresser, builder, plumber, mechanic, waiter, shop assistant.

One does not have to denigrate the professions in order to promote the trades but a balanced view would place the options clearly in front of young people with good and accurate information about life prospects and the education and training pathways that lead to different outcomes.  The trail of failed young people who set off on journeys for which they were not prepared nor perhaps even realistically able to complete is a tragic commentary.  On the lop-sided approach we took which saw disproportionate numbers of young people ignore real opportunities for a successful and sound future in the trades pursuing the rosy but unrealistic glow of the professional Shangri-La.

New Zealand is at a point where there will be opportunity for young people on a scale perhaps never seen before.  If we stand by and do not get our systems for education and training cracking, employers will simply fill up large aircraft with the workers they need and bring them into the country to fill the jobs that our young people could have got had they been better prepared, had developed better understanding of those opportunities and had been the recipients of better advice.

If young New Zealanders do miss out the fault will lie not with them or their parents and caregivers but fairly and squarely with a wider community including the education and training community that allowed it to happen.  It is greatly ironic that if the Christchurch re-builds and the Auckland demands from growth and leaky buildings had occurred in the 1960s we would have been much more soundly placed to respond.

The real causes of the current situation are not only seismic events, demographic factors and weather-tightness but also an education and training system that allowed itself to forget that each and every student needed a pathway that led to satisfactory outcomes both educationally and occupationally.


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Talk-ED: Rain, Rain, go away, come again another day



I wonder if there is any scientific evidence that it always rains on the first day of a school term, specially the one that starts in May? This morning pretty well the entire country will enjoy rain, torrential rain in places, gales and storms. Through all that the whole business of schooling will get under way. Wet rain gear hanging on hooks and dripping on the floor, shut inside at play-time, lunch eaten at desks, windows steamed up, puddles on the paths, leaves everywhere.

But still learning will take place.

The primary school I went to had really steep roofs so that the snow would not settle.  This was not because there was any snow in Hamilton, NZ, but because the buildings were a copy of the English style schools where it did snow!  Perhaps the design of school buildings in New Zealand should be looking ahead take account of a climate that could well be wetter than it currently is for many decades.

It is possible to design buildings that have large areas for being “outside” but under cover.  The building I have in mind is a very effective one.

Another interesting fact looking back is that the bike sheds had roofs so that the hundreds of  students that biked to school, even on a rainy day, would at least start off with a dry seat. But by comparison, in many communities, the first hint of a shower brings out a flotilla of SUVs to take their precious cargo, damaged if wet, to school.  Come to think of it, this happens on dry days too.

Back in the good old days we walked in the rain, that’s why we had rain coats and rain hats and bare feet.  Puddles, we knew with certainty, were made to walk through.  In the winter, such days produced a rush for the heaters, old cast iron radiators that had at two heats, barely discernible and likely to inflict third degree burns.  But clothing dried quickly and the day got under way.

Later, when I was a little more grown up and had a little more responsibility in a school, I used to feel very sorry for the cleaners on such days.  Tackling a large school at the end of a rainy day is quite a task and if rain is forecast for the next day, something of a Sisyphean act of hopelessness.  Even the paths are muddy and somehow or another most of it gets inside the buildings.

But I imagine that teachers look on the bright side and seize the teaching moment describing the wonderful way in which the drought has been broken and the impact of this on the rural community.  The increased level of water storage in the lakes feeding the hydro-electric dams is another blessing as we face winter.  Then there’s… actually I can’t think of another good point other than in desperation to point out many countries have a great shortage of water and we are blessed to have so much!

Subject teachers could capitalise on the rain.  English classes would study the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, music classes will listen to Handel’s Water Music, Art History classes will do any painting they can find with water, science classes will chant evaporation, condensation and precipitation and go spinning around the room on their water cycles!

Oh dear, rainy days do this to you.  But who can complain after such a long and wonderful summer and autumn.


The Bridging the Divides Conference

For more information, please contact the Manukau Insitute of Technology Centre for Studies in Multiple Pathways, Colleen Young:

E:  [email protected]  or P:  09 968 7631.


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One of the promises made all those years ago when then Minister of Education Hon Dr Lockwood Smith initiated a review of qualifications in New Zealand was that “time served would be dead.”  In other words there would be flexibility in the pathways that students could travel towards better futures.

 Finally, twenty years later, the small shot has been fired.

You see, as I have said on many occasions, it is not what changes do to schools but rather what schools do to those changes.  Ways are found of socialising them into the old ways of working.  New approaches end up as the old approaches but described with new words.  Thomas Kuhn wrote of the difficulty of avoiding this as he described the nature of a paradigm shift for that is what the proposed changes to the qualifications system was.

First the system has to move away from the old system. The move to competency based assessment is announced and unit standards leading to credit outlined, the move had started.

Secondly, you move into a period of uncertainty in which the final shape of the changes is not yet clear or fixed.  This is an unsettling period.  In an ideal world where change is easy you then emerge into the third stage where the new world flourishes and we celebrate the improvements that are apparent.

If T S Eliot is right to say that human kind cannot bear very much reality then I say that education cannot bear very much uncertainty.  Of course the two are related, to accept the uncertainty of a paradigm shift you have first to accept that the change necessary – in other words accept the reality.  In that case the reality was that the examination system was spitting out half the students each year as failures when demonstrably those students often knew quite a lot and had many skills.  Being assigned to failure at such an early age is not the best foundation for later success.  It is not good for them and it is not good for us!

As a result the education system started to turn the new system into one that fitted the paradigm of the old.  Merely demonstrating competence would not do – “achieved” was not enough and “merit” and “excellence” were introduced.  Then the unit standards were developed as quasi- curriculum so that they could be taught as courses called NCEA Level 1, NCEA Level 2 and NCEA Level 3.  This fitted neatly into the framework of Year 11, replacing School C, Year 12, replacing Sixth Form Cert., and Level 3 replacing Bursary – Scholarship was of course retained for 3% of those studying a subject at Year 13 (there is quite a lot of structure in that statement).  What was never understood was that it was the old norm-referenced external assessment lock-step-by-year, lock-step-by-level paradigm that was being replaced.

So the address to the recent SPANZ Conference from NZQA CE Karen Poutasi was exciting in its promise that “….. NZQA intends to change the current paradigm and to discuss with you some of the thinking we have done around digital assessment…..” This was described at length in the speech but in a later radio news report Karen Poutasi described it crisply saying that she expects that NZQA would deliver assessments to anyone, anywhere, anytime, online and on demand.”

This is the first move in fulfilling the early promise that “time served would be dead.”  If the assessments are freed with regard to time, form and place then the structures which currently restrain any move away from the old paradigm no longer apply.  Nor need the requirement that students move in room-sized groups through Level 1 then Level 2 then Level 3 apply.

Programmes such as the MIT Tertiary High School are showing that assessment using unit standards and achievements standards across sector boundaries and at multi-levels is not only possible but proving to be in the best interests of students.  Add to that the flexibility of web-based assessment and the system can be liberated from the structures that are currently crippling any significant attack on failure, disengagement and low educational outcomes.

I am glad that Karen Poutasi used the word “paradigm”.  The changes started twenty years ago are certainly of that order and might now even be achieved.  I can already hear the issues that will be raised by the web-based assessment proposal but they will be nothing that cannot be solved.  I can imagine that the real crunch will be that teachers who wish change to exploit the opportunities in the interests of their students will be constrained by the command structures of schools and of the wider system.

Thomas Kuhn also made clear the renewed energy that comes with a new paradigm – we could all do with a bit of that!



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