Setting ākonga up as true innovators in business and beyond

Issue: Volume 102, Number 7

Posted: 1 June 2023
Reference #: 1HAa8Y

Since he began teaching commerce at Christchurch’s Cashmere High School in 2018, Matt Benassi sought to bring the city’s reputation as a dynamic startup hub into the classroom.

Matt Benassi with his students at the 2022 Electrify Aotearoa: Women Founders Conference.

Matt Benassi with his students at the 2022 Electrify Aotearoa: Women Founders Conference.

Through innovative and responsive practices, Cashmere High School teacher Matt Benassi has led his students to success in the Young Enterprise Scheme (YES), and in 2019, he was named ‘Most Inspiring Teacher’.

“We want our students to have a sense of agency and a sense of understanding,” says Matt.

“This generation … they’re just thriving. They want to be able to have this ability to think creatively and innovatively and turn a side hustle into a main hustle,” he continues, adding that young people – now more than ever – are asking, how can they create income for themselves without having to get paid by someone else?”

Matt’s learners are hungry for success, but teaching a subject in which success isn’t always guaranteed comes with unique challenges.

In entrepreneurship, “you have to feel okay to try something and then go, ‘well, that didn’t work’,” he explains.

“You could be so close to getting it right, but if you don’t do it again, you won’t. Sometimes having those conversations can be quite difficult.

“That’s where a teacher needs to step in as well and provide a bit of guidance. I think when learning it’s like riding a bike… you want to feel off balance so that you can get balance, but you also don’t want to continuously hit the ground.”

Knowing when to step back and when to engage is a big part of Matt’s teaching. This was one of the many innovative practices that brewed success at the 2019 YES awards, when a team from Cashmere High School won the coveted Company of the Year and Innovation awards for their product, Pivot – a sports strapping tape that cools on contact with water.

“That was a world first,” says Matt, adding that the competition’s judges searched for similar products and came up short.

Cashmere’s team were true innovators.

“They were resilient,” says Matt. “We allowed them to network and find enough connections. Plus, they had friends in another class and they became rivals – their friends pushed them.”

Thinking outside the box classroom

Another innovative practice centres on the belief that effective learning can and should occur outside the classroom, says Idoia Alday Gonzalez, Canterbury’s Young Enterprise Scheme coordinator.

Students Jack and Archie won the national Innovation Award for their product, Total Card, an electronic business card made from wool.

Students Jack and Archie won the national Innovation Award for their product, Total Card, an electronic business card made from wool.

“Matt pushes his students to take up any ‘out of the classroom’ opportunities and experiences that are made available to them – putting them out of their comfort zone but later seeing great transformations in students’ abilities and confidence,” she says.

Matt also encourages learners to engage with working entrepreneurs and business leaders – many of them former Cashmere students.

Idoia explains that through this experiential learning, “you end up with a team with great determination that can work with a professionalism beyond their years.” 

Ultimately, she says a key takeaway from Matt’s practices is that while “great teaching happens in schools, the best learning comes from being involved in the community and learning from those who have walked the walk.”

Diverse disciplines

The timetable and programming restrictions of large schools like Cashmere present some hurdles for learners seeking to engage in extracurricular/co-curricular opportunities.

To help clear these obstacles, Matt is always seeking opportunities for commerce to cross over into other subjects, explaining that successful entrepreneurship is the marriage of a diverse array of disciplines.

Nonetheless, he admits a degree of trust dictates his approach to workload and scheduling among his students.

“It’s a busy school. Students have to prioritise, and they have to ask themselves ‘what’s the most important thing I need to do right now?’ ” Matt explains.

He says his role is less taking learners where they need to go, and rather, providing them with the opportunities and tools required to get there themselves.

“A lot of times you have to be okay with not necessarily knowing the outcome but trusting students will learn and get it. One of the ways I instil this, is that whenever we go anywhere like Ara Institute of Canterbury, I tell the students, ‘I’ll meet you there’ not, ‘I’ll take you there.’ I set everything up so that if there are any problems, they can call me, they can get a hold of me, and I will help them problem-solve it but that’s an element they need to be able to do themselves.”

Matt Benassi

Matt Benassi

In order for this philosophy to work, however, Matt says it’s essential for a teacher to first know their students. One way he achieves this with his Year 13s is to assign them small challenges in the first month of the school year.

“Part of that is to see how they respond,” says Matt. “Part of that is to break down some of the elements of other subjects, where you’re not aiming to fail and to have that creativity without having to have that ownership.”

This process helps Matt get to know his students to the point where, when they start creating their own products, he’s able to provide guidance that accounts for learners’ strengths, insecurities and passions.

It takes a village

Idoia describes Matt’s classroom as “a village, where everyone does not just compete against each other but they also support each other to excel.”

She says this results in lasting relationships, not only between students but between students and faculty as well.

Because of this, Matt is able to invite past students to inspire current learners – a testament not only to the success of his processes but also to the bonds they forge in and outside the classroom.

Matt explains that this practice in particular acts in the spirit of 2020’s National Education and Learning Priorities (NELPs), specifically the points concerning collaboration and imparting skills learners need in education, work and life.

“Students should be expecting that they are learning something that they can use outside of school that’s going to be real,” says Matt, adding, “Guest speakers always enhance the students’ experience. They bring their expertise from the industry that teachers can’t always offer. So they give you a different perspective or they enhance what the teacher is saying.”

Looking back, Matt says Cashmere’s current commerce department has evolved a lot over the years. It adapts and progresses each year. New opportunities like the Young Enterprise Scheme only started when Matt arrived in 2018. Ultimately, he believes the last five years of rapid change – and disruption – were beneficial to his teaching.

“The longer you go on doing the same thing, the harder it is to try something new,” he says.

“I think that’s what’s going to happen with the new NCEA alignment. Nobody knows what it’s going to look like. We can read about it and we can picture it, but until we do it, it’s not familiar.

“When everyone’s kind of got this shared disruption, you start to think a bit more creatively, it provides you opportunities to try things that haven’t been tried before.”

Cashmere High School won Company of the Year at the YES Awards in 2019.

Cashmere High School won Company of the Year at the YES Awards in 2019.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:40 am, 1 June 2023

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