Love for students keeps long-time teacher in the classroom

Issue: Volume 102, Number 6

Posted: 11 May 2023
Reference #: 1HA_nv

With six decades of teaching under her belt, Jeanette Aker isn’t planning to leave the classroom any time soon. The reason? “I’ve got to say, I love the students.”

Jeanette with a group of Year 13 students. She has relieved in their classes  over the years, and forged strong connections with them. Photo by: Anna McIntosh.

Jeanette with a group of Year 13 students. She has relieved in their classes over the years, and forged strong connections with them. Photo by: Anna McIntosh.

Education Gazette had trouble catching up with Jeanette, who as well as teaching numeracy at Waitaki Girls’ High School and tutoring maths, is a keen cyclist and completed the New York Marathon in 2016.

“I’ve just had my 80th birthday and I feel about 40. I made all the family do a triathlon for my 80th and then we all went out to lunch. It was a good birthday!” she laughs.

Jeanette began her long teaching career in 1963 after doing a two-year diploma in maths and science at Christchurch Teachers’ College.

“Because they were so short of teachers at that time, they thought ‘we’ll get these girls from school and train them up, they’ll get married, and we won’t see them again’.”

First jobs

In fact, Jeanette has had few career breaks in 60 years, which have included principalships at Waitaki Girls’ High School and St Oran’s College in Lower Hutt.

“I had two weeks off when my son was born. I was at Southland Boys’ High School and they were desperate for teachers. The day after I had my son, they said ‘when are you coming back’. I just kept going – I was very lucky, I had lots of great people looking after the children.

“I moved to Dargaville High School as a solo parent with my son and daughter. They were very, very good in Dargaville. They had a whole row of schoolhouses and a very good principal who went all around New Zealand and sold the school. When teachers got there, he made it really good. I think we stayed four years,” she recalls.

That wraparound support made a big difference when Jeanette began her first teaching job at the age of 19 at Queen Elizabeth College in Palmerston North.

“The staff at my first school were so kind to me. I couldn’t work out why they were babying me because I felt quite grown up. Queen Elizabeth College was a tough school, but it was good because I was looked after. I suppose I was as young as some of the students.

“I taught mostly low ability classes because it was all streamed then. Once I got to know them, they were really good. The DP used to come in on a Friday afternoon and do a little exercise with the class to give me a break. And the head of maths had me in his class. I would be watching and sometimes I could take the classes. We didn’t have a full teaching load,” she says.

Keeping it simple with a group of Year 9 numeracy students. Photo by: Nethmi Madawala Liyaddage.

Keeping it simple with a group of Year 9 numeracy students. Photo by: Nethmi Madawala Liyaddage.

Changes in teaching maths

Jeanette’s teaching career has taken her from Northland to Southland and schools in between. She completed a BEd, MEd and MBA extramurally and has written two student and teacher maths books: Maths to Go, Books 1 and 2 for Ryan Publications.

There have been many changes in approaches to teaching maths over 60 years, but Jeanette says she has tended to stick to a few basic principles.

“They’ve brought in different maths strategies approximately every 10 years. We started at Southland Boys’ with the SET theory which I think they do at university now. Then they brought in the numeracy project where you taught everything a hundred different ways, which was crazy.

“There’s a lot of talk trying to explain it in a theoretical way. I think particularly the primary teachers got lost in what they had to do. I think that sticking to the basics is the best, and time on task – these students have to get their heads down.”

Confidence in maths

Jeanette believes classes for those less confident in maths should be taught by the most experienced teachers.Jeanette

“Now I teach numeracy. I’ve had all this experience. I know exactly how to do it. The school [Waitaki Girls’ High School] has identified some students who are less confident in maths and they’ve taken them out of one of their options and given them extra maths – that’s Year 9 and Year 10 numeracy.

“The main thing is to make them feel more confident. I also tutor after-school maths, and students come in from Year 6, 7, 8 and their parents say ‘they’re terrible at maths’. But they love coming because we do things they can do and suddenly it’s not me doing the work, it’s them. They become confident!”

Highs and lows

Jeanette feels proud when former students say she made a difference.

“I just think every little step helps them – it might not be anything much, but you might make a little impression that helps them to become a success. Many students have come back and acknowledged me, and I didn’t realise at the time!

“The lows are when you’ve got all this work to do and you don’t know how you’re going to get it done, but you get it done. And you’re always thinking about your work. People who think teachers go 9–3 and have all these holidays, have no idea.

“I’ve been thinking these holidays ‘what am I going to do with these numeracy girls in term 2?’ You’re just always thinking about it – it’s good. I think you have to keep positive – that’s the main thing,” concludes Jeanette.

Jeanette keeps active and healthy on her bike.

Jeanette keeps active and healthy on her bike.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:58 am, 11 May 2023

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