Life-long learning: part 2

Issue: Volume 94, Number 9

Posted: 2 June 2015
Reference #: 1H9crC

Applications are now open for the 2016 round of TeachNZ-administered teacher study awards. In this second part in our series, Education Gazette shares the stories of two teachers (primary and area school) who recently had the opportunity to do further study through the study awards programme.

Putting a few hats down: Noula Kazakos, primary principals' sabbatical

Noula Kazakos is the principal of Cobden School in Greymouth, on the South Island’s West Coast. Noula describes the area as ‘geographically challenged,’ which means that the community engagement theme of her sabbatical project is of critical importance to her school.

Primary teachers and leaders – particularly in more isolated communities – are often called upon to be generalists, and in Noula’s case this became painfully true when she was unable to find a suitable replacement teacher. This meant she had to “shake off the rust” so to speak and in short order, and get back into the classroom after five years away.

Noula describes herself as “a principal with many hats”. As well as being a principal and lead principal, she is also a Resource Teacher: Learning and Behaviour (RTLB), and together with her recent foray back into the classroom, the demands on her time and attention can be overwhelming and leaves very little room and time for pursuing further study.

The common feedback among recipients of study awards is that an award makes it possible to concentrate on study and research, rather than chipping away at a qualification if and when the rigours of teaching allow. Many say that this focus is crucial, as it is hard to put in the mental energy required to really examine and adjust one’s practice without ‘thinking time’ – a message that Noula wholeheartedly agrees with.

“You spend so much time thinking about time management as a principal, well, as any educator does really! That’s something I was able to forget about during my sabbatical, where I could ‘put some of those hats aside’ and just think about my project, which was fantastic.”

In setting out to explore what’s required to elicit community engagement, Noula grabbed the opportunity to get some perspective, and headed to Ontario, Canada, in order to see how they do things.

“I’m a person who likes to explore contrasts, and examine models in other places. I wanted to experience a completely different environment, and get some perspective on education in this country.”

Noula was adamant early on in her study award journey that she would place less emphasis on “data collection” as many studies had done previously, and instead focus more on capturing the stories of community groups and members in Canada, especially those in remote areas, and how they engage as a community in spite of their geographic isolation.

She interviewed a range of key stakeholders including key indigenous Canadian representatives, school principals, parents as well as other relevant agencies. This narrative, says Noula, forms the basis of successful community engagement: that is “simply shutting up and listening”.

“What I want people to go away with after they read my findings is to stop and think about their practice as leaders. I read lots of other reports online that were full of data, and sometimes I was left wondering ‘what is this actually telling us, and what are the practical applications for me and my school?’

“Our staff and school board have read my sabbatical report. I want to incorporate those personal experiences [in an upcoming presentation] I recorded, because I think that’s the richest sort of knowledge direct from the source to be had when thinking about how to better engage with the community. Discussions with my indigenous Canadian colleagues were particularly empowering.”

Noula particularly found that her interactions with two indigenous Canadian educators, who worked on the Christian Island indigenous Canadian reservation, were invaluable to her research. What came through most powerfully in these conversations, says Noula, was the importance of developing trust and relationships.

“It’s all about trust, and building it up. They talked about leaders coming in and believing that they need to institute change, that they can fix everything. Communities don’t need fixing, they need understanding, and solid relationships. Building trust and relationships is one of the vital components of leadership.

“All stakeholders I interviewed in Canada said that this is a common mistake that leaders make when they’ve taken on a new role. You don’t have to know the culture to begin with, you don’t even have to speak the language. But you can’t go into a leadership role with a fixed idea based on your own ideals.

“My report was based on the idea that it doesn’t matter what programme or initiative you’ve got in place, if you don’t have the trust of the community, they’re not going to engage. It’s about going back to the ‘deep stuff’, and realising that trust is the basis of success. It’s about listening fundamentally, and there’s no secret recipe.”

On returning home, Noula has been able to implement many aspects of her learning from her experience in Canada. Letting parents know that they (schools and principals) value their input and interaction has been rewarding, she says. A good example of this is the work they are doing in the digital environment space at their school.

“We’ve had some great successes getting greater participation from our parents by getting them involved in interactive, digital environments. We’re talking about blogging, Google docs etc, and our senior students do all their learning online, so parents have access to everything we do. It’s about ‘opening-up’ the classroom and giving parents the opportunity to be part of their child’s learning.

“Another example is that we text parents when we’ve had a learning success that we want to share. Every class has a smartphone, and the children are part of that. They help to create the text, and they are asked to think about what they’ve achieved. ‘What are we celebrating, that mum and dad would like to hear about?’”

Noula says that as a result of these measures made possible by her sabbatical, they have seen fantastic outcomes whereby the school, parents and the community are wholeheartedly engaging with each other and relationships have been further enhanced.

Smoothing the bumps: Muriel Willem, area school teacher study award

Muriel Willem, originally from Belgium, has been a practitioner at He Matariki School for Teen Parents, part of Mangakahia Area School (Te Kura Takiwa O Mangakahia), in Whangarei for nine years. He Matariki School is one of over 20 Teen Parenting Units (TPUs) in New Zealand. After some years in mainstream secondary teaching and experience as a student adviser working one-on-one with young people, Muriel realised that individual needs could be addressed in more effective and meaningful ways.

Speaking to Muriel, it quickly becomes obvious that she’s passionate about helping young parents to succeed, despite their new responsibilities. Her role has demanded that she examine her own views - and those of society at large - she says.

“This job has challenged many of my views and I have realised that the empowerment of young women plays a big role in their ability to contribute to their community, regardless of their circumstances.”

A classroom teacher when she first arrived at He Matariki, Muriel realised that she was having the same conversation with students over and over again: how to transition into careers. This compelled Muriel to retrain in career development.

“I found that quite a lot of the conversations I was having were related to career pathways. By and large, there’s quite a lot of disengagement from schooling among teen parents, or things may not have gone well in a mainstream schooling environment. I realised that these young people needed a purpose, a reason to come back to school, because in a lot of cases they hated the idea; they didn’t feel that school was for them anymore. This led me to the idea that I should be doing some research in career development.

To gain a better understanding in this area, Muriel knew she needed to do some further study and enrolled for the Auckland University of Technology’s (AUT) Graduate Diploma in Career Development. She was keen to find out more about the students’ understanding and experiences, as part of her course, because while there was ample evidence about her practice and the support the school was providing to their students, there was little information about the students’ point of view and own experience in their learning journey. The Area School Teacher Study Award was able to support her to do this research.

“I was in my ninth year at He Matariki, and I felt that we were at the point where we’d gone through an Education Review Office assessment, and came out with an excellent report, but this wasn’t enough for me. I really wanted to hear from students, reflecting back on how they felt about their time in the TPU. I was particularly interested in what they needed long term.”

Muriel identified that determining the outcomes of the transition plan that students developed at He Matariki was critical in helping them with their ongoing education aspirations and employment opportunities after they leave school.

Through narrative inquiry Muriel reconnected with former students to look at the transitions they’d gone through and whether things had worked out for them after their involvement with the TPU. What choices had they made? Had they decided to continue studying? Go into the workforce? Stay home with baby?”

A seamless and smooth transition was one of the critical factors in determining how well the student fared after leaving school.

“I think the finding that jumps out for me is that we need to be really aware of the services we provide. Many ex-students mentioned that, while we do so much for them [during their time at school] which is great, when they leave though, they need to be able to continue to access certain services, while working on their independence and resilience.”

The fact of the matter, says Muriel, is that, while students often leave feeling better equipped to achieve their goals ‘out there’, with a CV and a plan that Muriel and her team have helped with, sometimes the best laid plans don’t quite pan out. This, says Muriel, is when some of her ex-students are at a cross-roads. When they’ve been rebuffed, by employers for example, they may not yet have the resilience to pick themselves up and give it another go, again and again if needed.

She was able to implement the findings from her research into her work programme and develop robust plans that were better targeted towards the needs of young parents from the point of enrolment at He Matariki and onwards.
“What’s required is more of a graduated, smoother transition to really lock in the benefits, which starts with some robust career work while at school.”

Based on her research, Muriel was able to create and offer a new service for students to return where together they could review their career plans and aspirations, identify what worked and what didn’t and collaboratively make the necessary changes. Together, they would also identify the types of support available and how these could be accessed if needed.

“We might help them to re-write their CV, or re-enrol with tertiary providers in a different town. We can help them to pick themselves up if things haven’t gone as well as they might have.”

Muriel says as a result of this experience, which would not have been possible without the study award, she feels that she is able to contribute more to her learning community and in making a long-lasting, positive difference to the lives of the students.

“After a year of study, I feel much better equipped to address the many challenges raised by our students and to initiate improvement and encourage reflective practice. I have had the opportunity to share and present my findings with colleagues via various national networks and my research has informed policy development within this specific area of the education sector.”

If you are thinking of applying, Muriel says, “I wholeheartedly recommend and would encourage anyone to take up this opportunity and apply for this study award. This will enable you to take time out and focus on looking at ways of enhancing your professional practice that inspires and ignites passion and meaningful change that benefits [all our learners, including] young mothers and their futures.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 4:13 pm, 2 June 2015

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