Classroom ringmaster?

‘So you’re the clever clogs then are ya?’ It was an accusation. He was a big bloke – an old farmer who could probably talk about potato blight until I was ready to stab myself to death with a butter knife. Scarily authoritarian in all of his opinions. There were no others. “ Ummm. Not really. I just thought – you know – it’d be interesting studying. Something to fall back on.’ I sounded idiotic and was infuriated that I was even bothering to give an explanation of my life when it was evident he didn’t feel the need to justify his own. He’d taken offence that I was swanning around studying obscure useless subjects (he did have a point – I was reading a lot of wimmin’s literature and learning a language which at that point in history was entirely useless and obscure: Mandarin. I know. Go figure.) He felt that instead of trailing my scarf through university life I should be hard at it in the real world. The real world meant of course – a job. The truth of the matter was that I had three – which I juggled round a full-time study schedule. For a brief time student allowances were parentally means tested. Which meant that unless you were over 25 or your parents hid their money in trusts or were on the minimum wage students could not claim an allowance. I was silly or at least not risk averse enough to study literature with an unnatural bias towards soviet wimmin driving tractors, but not stupid enough to bet on getting a job that could service a student loan with it. Hence the three jobs.

Despite the appearance of being a ditzy book-loving student I was well acquainted with the real world and encountered it often as I walked home through Cuba Street at 3am after finishing a late shift. There were two choices on getting home at that time both involving shanks pony. One, was leg it through the state housing block at the bottom of Aro Valley which was the unofficial head office of Black Power or two, high tail it up a steep isolated unlit path with forest on both sides; the Brooklyn hill. The sacrifices made were more than worth it – I had and appreciated having the opportunity to study whatever the hell I liked without answering to anybody and I also knew and appreciated from my brief travels that there were literally millions of young women in the world who would never taste that kind of freedom.

A walk in the dark was a walk in the park – to the many women I had seen marrying too young or spending a life-time planting rice without the benefit of being able to read. Experiencing that made me hungry to learn and also retrospectively appreciate the education I had already received but it is not a cultural trait.

We still exhibit our agrarian roots when we display our disdain of both education and the teaching tradition. We do not value it culturally as other nations do.

Try finding one Mum in the Asian tiger economies who thinks education is a waste of time – there, it is everything. They also appreciate to a far higher degree the teachers to whom they entrust their kids every day.

The idea that seems to have found favour with this government that you can save money simply by putting more kids in a classroom and that good teachers will manage this well is absolutely correct. They will manage but at what point does a classroom change from a place of true learning to a tent in which the ring-master demonstrates his or her abilities in lion-taming? Are teachers just resource units who can magically produce a higher yield under pressure or do they hold the key to developing the grass roots of society and therefore have a special value in NZ culture?

There must be some reason that wealthy Asian families pay a fortune to educate their kids here. Coming from classrooms of up to 70 kids I don’t think high teacher student ratios is one of them.

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