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Lessons from the Past, Models for the Future

Second National Character Education Conference 30 September – 2 October 2003

Main Conference Address by Karen Sewell (September 2003)

We are all at this conference because we have a commitment to the future of this country through the education of our children. Because you are here as teachers and leaders in the New Zealand education system my contribution will be to focus on you and your roles in education, in particular on strengthening character education in New Zealand schools. As an organisation you are clear as to why you are reflecting the international trend to focus on the notion of building character in children, you are also clear that this focus does not exclude values education and like you I also believe that a strong and clear values framework in a school will support that notion.

How do you teach character education? You teach it in an environment where you live it and model it.

The values by which we live have been considered important enough to be embedded in the New Zealand Curriculum Framework. It seeks to reinforce the commonly held values of individual and collective responsibility, which underpin New Zealand’s democratic society. These values include honesty, reliability, respect for others, respect for the law, rangimarie, fairness, caring or aroha, non-sexism and non-racism. This is not an exclusive list; neither are the words chosen here necessarily the ones that we would all choose. For instance there are others that I would choose when talking about character such as: integrity, courage, perseverance, justice.

Your foundation has talked of making the teaching of such character traits as honesty, respect and responsibility effective and measurable. ERO is of course always interested in teaching that is effective and measurable.

But I am not here to simply repeat the vision and practical guidance offered on your website rather I intend to use my own experience as a teacher, principal and public servant to talk about ways in which your vision can be made a reality. In doing this I expect that the values that have supported and driven me will also be clear.

So I will talk about schools, teachers and leadership. Why did you choose to be teachers and why are you at this conference? Because as a teacher and leader in education you can make a difference.

In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for all Seasons Sir Thomas More’s ambitious secretary Richard Rich asks More to help him advance his political career. More advises Rich to become a teacher.

Never underestimate the difference that you can make.

[Use MoE slide]

I am an evaluator working for ERO so I have to ask how do we know that teachers can make a difference? Where’s the evidence? Both the work done by the Ministry of Education and published earlier this year in its Best Evidence Synthesis and by ERO in its Evaluation Indicators focuses on the central importance of high quality teaching.

ERO has also been absolutely consistent in its national reports, no matter what the topic, in saying that at the heart of successful learning is good teaching and effective leadership. Good teaching makes a difference and influencing the quality of teaching is a key lever for improving student achievement. The best way for you to improve student outcomes is to focus on improved classroom teaching and learning. To do this you need to create a collaborative, professional learning community.

[Use ERO slide]

We have identified values as part of the framework within which effective teaching and learning takes place. You cannot teach values effectively unless you live them in the daily life of the schools in which you teach.

In his poem Landfall in Unknown Seas Allen Curnow wrote:

This is what teachers do. You reach down the future and give it to our children.

Over 200 years ago Edmund Burke wrote of the social compact between generations and the responsibility that entailed. Do not let what he said of his generation be said of our generation: they failed to educate our children, and thereby renounced the future of the nation.

Our future depends on our being able to bring up, in our homes and schools, children who are full of curiosity, wit, knowledge and compassion. They need to live and learn in an environment that is caring, challenging and safe, where their diversity is accepted and respected and where they are surrounded by a clear sense of moral values if they are to be good citizens in the future, actively contributing to the civil society.

One of the greatest gifts of my upbringing and schooling was a liberal education. Because it deepens our humanity and develops our capacity:

Greenfield has argued that organisations are built on the unification of people round values. C.E. Beeby, one of New Zealand’s most distinguished educators believes teachers and administrators need a sustaining myth, a purpose bigger than our grasp towards which we can strive. One of the responsibilities of educational leadership is to build schools round central values. But this leaves a key question for us to answer. What values? Whose values? What are schools for? What kind of society do we want?

Schools are not separate from the society within which they exist. They reflect that society and are an integral part of it.

As teachers our primary responsibility is to create an environment and culture where all our students can learn successfully. Young people who lack love, support and care come through the gates of our schools every day. Facing their alienation and despair is a challenge for us all.

The home experience, the character education of many of these young people is very different from mine.

Eg Story

I grew up and went to school in Wanganui. The childhood my brother, sister and I enjoyed was loving and safe. My mother died 13 years ago. A couple of days before she died, as I was sitting beside her in the hospital, she suddenly said to me I’m 84 and what difference have I made? Then, as mothers sometimes do having all been to the virtual mother school, she answered her own question by saying I’ve brought up three good citizens. And while my brother, sister and I might not have thought much about this as we grew up, the values that contribute to being a good citizen were a living and dynamic part of our lives at home and at school.

But the young people I am talking about, who are in your schools now, have not had the learning that was part of my growing up.

If the school system continues to fail them, if they are excluded from education, then our whole community is at risk.

I know that it is an acute moral dilemma for schools. It sometimes seems that teachers are the only caring and responsible adults in the lives of these difficult, frightened and deeply unhappy young people. We know that education can and must offer a way out for them, but at the same time you are responsible for the educational opportunities of all the students in your schools.

To continue with my theme of teaching character education in schools where we live the values we espouse I want to raise the issue of exclusions and expulsions. I think that the rate of exclusion in some of our schools is far too high. I know that you sometimes feel that you have no other choice. But what messages are we giving, what values are we displaying when we exclude students from our schools?

I have heard the same statements you have:

One of the constants in my life has been to seek justice, and I have sought it through education. For me this is not just an abstract idea but a determination that all young New Zealanders, no matter where they live or who they are, will have access to an education of the highest quality. It is their right and our responsibility.

In thinking about these children that we exclude from our schools I want to take the idea of Justice further. I don’t believe that there is Justice without mercy.

Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, which I studied in the third form, contains a most moving plea for justice to be tempered with mercy.

I know that to be merciful, compassionate and just is often very hard. But if this is too hard for us to do what will our students learn from our actions and what can we then hope for the future?

Although national contexts differ across the world, all school leaders experience the ambivalence of leadership: problems and opportunities; momentum and direction; frustration and fulfilment. And there is a new urgency for processes of engagement which bring together disparate groups both within and outside the school gate if we are to fashion an education system suited to the diversity of our society.

It is within this climate that so much is expected of educational leaders and teachers. The social framework is dynamic and changing. We must be accountable for our principles and practices. We must look forward without losing sight of the past in which our ideals and values were shaped.

Sometimes though we have to be willing to let go of the familiar, and to set out on a journey without knowing precisely what the destination will be.

Allen Curnow also wrote of Tasman that he believed that

In schools we deal with the concerns and fears of our communities, the confusion and the value conflicts are ours too. As teachers we must give our students the knowledge, skills and values to care about and stand up for what is good in our society, and to recognise and change what is wrong.

As citizens one of our aims must be to create a fair and just society that works despite tensions. We can do this in our schools. We can work to create an environment where all students can learn, where they are safe and where we try to make intelligible in everyday terms the will to behave morally as a point of principle.

As professionals we have a clear and shared sense of purpose. In our schools we need to develop a shared vision to which all have contributed. Our goals must be demanding, our values clear and we must have the highest expectations of ourselves as well as of our students.

The challenge for us all is how will we shape such an education system? What is your role in this?

We need to focus on new ways of thinking, working and supporting each other, to build a teaching and learning ethos where all children are expected to succeed and where we all take responsibility for this happening.

How we choose to teach and lead are personal reflections not only of our vision and practical theories, but also of our values and character and our responses to the unique situations we face.

So what is the job of the teacher?

As teachers we know that instrumental knowledge has a significant place in education, for this is how we come to terms with our world and in some sense to understand and control it. We know that there are skills needed by all of us which can be named, and which good teaching can help us to acquire.

But as well as this knowledge that is specific and easily measurable we know that there are also other forms of knowledge for which outcomes are less predictable, less easily defined and less measurable. They are manifest in processes of interpretation, reflection, criticism, intuition and imagination. They recognise an essential open-endedness and ambiguity in life. There must be a readiness to be taken by surprise. There are forms of knowledge which recognise that the world can never be totally grasped or understood or explained and it is important to leave room to respond to its sense of mystery. Humility and tentativeness are sometimes as important as attempts to achieve mastery in coming to terms with life.

Access to this knowledge is truly liberating

In her poem Pathways Fleur Adcock wrote

The best teachers are that track to the top.

Historically there is an enduring constancy in the organisation of schools, of classrooms and even of teaching itself. On the wall in my office I have a post card of the classroom in which Shakespeare is supposed to have been taught at Stratford-on-Avon Grammar School. Despite changes that are in some ways revolutionary in schools, such as the opportunities offered by ICT, looking at this classroom beside today’s classrooms you know that the business of both is the same. I keep it because it serves as both encouragement and a warning.

However these images ignore the complexities, uncertainties and dilemmas of being a teacher. For teachers need to make dozens of decisions daily, need to command a wide body of knowledge and skill and need to learn to react wisely in the most difficult situations. And while there are principles and precepts, skills

and techniques to guide this work, being a teacher is also work that demands the ability to improvise. It demands creativity, reflection and judgement.

There are qualities and skills that you must apply if you are apply the lessons from the past, and the best practice of the present to develop models for the future. Being a teacher involves making difficult and principled choices, exercising careful judgement, and understanding the complex nature of education. While teachers employ knowledge and skill, at the same time they must always be aware of the ethical dimensions of education.

The primary aim is to foster the development of learning, of skills and of understanding while responding to a wide range of individual human needs and conditions. Teachers have a responsibility to the forms and standards of knowledge across all disciplines and to the students they serve. Having acquired a repertoire of people skills, management strategies and teaching methods based on training and experience teachers have to remain critical and reflective about their practice.

Education and learning, for which you are responsible, is often seen as a conserving activity - transmitting culturally valued knowledge and skills to succeeding generations. It is that and more.

You also have a responsibility to question settled structures, practices and definitions of knowledge, to invent and test new approaches and, where necessary, to pursue and manage change in both the process and the structure of the whole system. Teachers must contribute to the dialogue about the kind of society we all seek to both serve and improve and they must help to prepare New Zealanders of the future to take their part in this ongoing public debate.

And the context for this is New Zealand, where everyone knows best about education and like the Ancient Mariner will feel compelled to share their views with you.

I have raised these ideas with you to encourage you to reflect and ponder on what Mitchell and Sackney called the tough problems and deep mysteries of teaching and learning, of professional practice, and of profound improvement in educational adventures. And because professional leadership is required of us now with an urgency that has never been more demanding. We can provide this leadership

In Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities Marco Polo, an adventurer who was born in Italy over 700 years ago, tells Kubla Khan, the great emperor of China, about his travels all over the world. But at one point the great Khan turns on the storyteller and reproaches him bitterly for telling lies. Because the stories are outside Kubla Khan’s experience he says that the places Marco Polo is describing never existed, that they’re idle tales.

But Marco Polo answers:


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