Recounting why I stayed in education

By Nicola Eccleton

Ellipsister’s post about leaving school pushed so many buttons for me. My white, middle class, happy childhood provides a contrast to the experience of institutionalised racism offered by Ellipsister, but also finds some parallels.

My almost complete academic failure at school, after having been the girl who was thrown the dictionary at aged seven because there were no more spelling lists, has indelibly shaped my perception of my place in the world. My parents said that I was about ten when the light went out, and I certainly remember my adolescent and teenage years being thrown ‘extension’ work that was meaningless and inane, until I tired of it all and established myself as the school shit stirrer. I don’t even think I was particularly bright – just a bit above average and bored.

I still went to university after just one year overseas, but without much guidance or insight I bumbled my way through a year or so of Art History and Languages, dropping out at the beginning of second year to pursue my social life and a ‘career’ in hospitality – waitressing paid and studying didn’t. A second rudderless attempt a couple of years later saw me studying towards a teaching degree, during which time I flatted with (and briefly fell for) a physician who waxed lyrical about his job, and I can still feel the thud in my stomach listening to him, and knowing I was still studying the wrong thing. Thinking the world would end if I changed course again, I completed my degree in an extremely mediocre and loveless fashion, with a few bonus points for consistency – I ensured my GPA stayed well below par for the entire three years.

I took my teaching degree to the north of the north, and ended up in a Decile One high school with an 80% Māori roll. With my shocking GPA and lack of interest in the training, I felt totally underprepared to teach any class. I did not yet have a social science degree, and had no formal knowledge of the complex structures inherent in our institutions, but I did have a finely honed sense of social justice. I was acutely aware of the failure of our educational institutions to provide positive outcomes for Māori. I worked hard to treat each child as an individual and for them to feel safe, respected and happy in my classroom. The trip to the local marae where one of the 12 year old Māori boys told me I was his favourite teacher ever will remain forever a career highlight.

During this time I worked with some very talented teachers, and some pretty average ones. I have to say that the colleagues I held in highest esteem were themselves Māori, and for my money that in itself is an argument for significant investment in ensuring that children, particularly Māori children who continue to be marginalised by our education system, are taught by the very people who best understand and most value their culture. Those teachers I so admired spoke of their own experiences of racism and were deeply committed to providing an alternative reality for their students.

When I studied, 15 years ago, the insidious racism that underpins New Zealand’s institutions was not taught well, if at all. On more than one occasion I drew attention to some overt racism and was surprised to be thanked by my Māori colleagues – did the other white people just pretend it didn’t exist? Or maybe, like me, they are often unsure of their place in such a discussion, not being tangata whenua themselves. I can only draw on my own experience of prejudice, and as such, I often find myself making comparisons to gender inequality. Interestingly during my own time at school, particularly high school, I was mostly taught by men at a school that had traditionally been a boys’ school. I spent my last year of school at a girls’ school with women teachers, and I have always wondered if I would have been the doctor my mother so wanted me to be had I started there as a 12 year old. I am not necessarily suggesting women teach girls and Māori teach Māori, but then again, maybe I am. Some fairly substantial changes need to be made to challenge the white, patriarchal foundations on which our education system has been built.

My journey of academic reconciliation means that I am supposed to be revising my Master’s thesis in Political Science now instead of cathartic blogging. As with many ‘mature’ students my GPA is now through the roof and I won I pretty salubrious scholarship, but I still have to engage in some pretty assertive self-talk to try to convince myself that my opinion has any value and that I do not have to spend the rest of my life pining that I have not become a brilliant doctor. I will continue to be pained however, by the fact that there are still far too many Māori kids who will not become brilliant doctors, although they may wish to.

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