Back to basics

Sometimes the way forward is to go back. Particularly, it seems, with our education system. This week the government announced a technology revamp for schools, a small detail in the tsunami of change that sector is undergoing.

But, nonetheless, it is a detail that shows just how complicated our national conversation on education has become.  The truth, however, is that it really doesn’t need to be this hard.

I learned that by experience. I loved school right from the get-go. But it didn’t love me. In Primary School my teacher took mum and dad aside to have “that” talk. You know, the “your child is the dumb kid” talk.

“Narelle is not gifted,” was the gist of it. “School just isn’t for her”.

My weekly spelling test score came in at two out of 20, and I remember being astonished one week to find I had spelled the word “so” incorrectly. Despite all this, my baffled teacher acknowledged, my reading comprehension was fine.

Then we went to Africa. And the small, missionary-run school I washed up at would probably qualify as third-world by our standards. We worked in classrooms where the ceiling fan ran on generator-operated electricity, we walked on cool cement floors, and we gazed out of wooden-shuttered windows set into bare brick walls.

But we had everything we needed for a world-class education right there.

We had excellent, dedicated, hard-working teachers with plenty of time to help out the stragglers. They invented a catch-up curriculum just for me. Every day I sat alone at the other end of the classroom working while my peers carried on with the usual content.

I still distinctly remember that sunny African afternoon sitting in Science class when we got our test scores back. I was ready for my usual disappointment – a fail mark most likely.

Instead, “98 percent” was scrawled on the top of the page in red. I was absolutely speechless.

That moment altered the course of my life. By the time my feet hit Kiwi shores again I was in the top band for every subject. I left High School with a scholarship in English (thanks also to the magnificent Ms Bigge, who urged every inch of excellence out of us). I walked out of the University of Canterbury as a member of an honours society.

And then, best of all, I got a job doing what I had always loved doing: writing.

Quite obviously, if it were up to me none of that would have happened. It took some very dedicated, passionate teachers with time on their hands to produce those results.

And that is my point. It was the time with teachers, not the technology, that made a difference. It always will be the teachers, because nothing can replace the power of a person who cares.

But in order to show how much they care, to know a child and meet their needs, teachers need time. Our teachers are drowning in an ocean of administration, endless sheafs of health and safety paperwork, and untold hours on assessments. Their energy is drained in after-hours work instead of in the classroom with kids. Technology revamps are all well and good, but they won’t make a difference unless they really are about giving teachers more time to do what they love doing; to teach.

So far the word “time” has only been whispered around the edges of this reform, and that doesn’t give me high hopes.

That is why I say we need to go back if we really want to move forward. Right back, to the very basics of learning; to a teacher, a child, and time. We need to remind ourselves that everything else is just a support for those three things, not a silver bullet to bypass them.

This article was first publised on Stuff.co.nz

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