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The bigger question

 I spent yesterday with a bunch of young actors, a Year 13 drama class, and a colleague rehearsing what will be their final piece of performance at our school, a play called Arrival. As is our wont these days, we’re trying to create a story of hope, one that lifts the collective gaze. It seems to me to be the most powerful gift we can offer the kids who pass through our care, the chance to believe that life can be good, that the years ahead are littered not just with things to suffer and survive, but also with those moments of joy and connection that will make their lives worth living.

 We can add only a small amount to their worlds in this way of course, for each marinates in their own set of stories, through their friends, their home lives, the movies and the television they watch, the conversations they happen upon, the websites they visit, the social media they consume. And yet, we are inescapably part of their worlds too, as adult role models we teachers stand as one of the options before them, one of the available ways of being a grown up in the world. And as writers and directors in drama, we give our young charges intimate access to the stories they tell; not only will they absorb them as an audience, but they will live them as actors, trying on the emotions, experiences and points of view of another. And then their immediate community, their family and friends, will gather to absorb the story in that atmosphere of immediacy and warmth that school theatre does so very well. They’ll remember the performance for the rest of their lives, many of them; it will become a part of who they are.

 With Arrival I’ve wrestled with the usual story telling difficulties. The demands of a school production are many, for as well as creating a narrative to hook the audience, there is also the need to produce a piece where every role is meaningful, that no actor is left feeling their contribution is not significant. Ensemble pieces are the rule of thumb then, in this piece we have ten actors on stage pretty much all the time. That in itself is a writing challenge. Then there is the need to match the resources of a school. Simple, spare sets work best for us, for it is all we can afford; our lighting rigs are minimal, our budgets non-existent. And finally, to properly test the acting craft, I demand of myself that these stories leave the kids not with one more gloomy tale of suffering and trauma, in a culture where they so easily slip into thinking that it is trauma that will win them attention and prestige. 

 This last challenge is the greatest of all from a writing perspective, which should be obvious but somehow isn’t. Tragedies, from a narrative point of view, are easily constructed. People make errors of judgement and as a result ill befalls them. Problems grow, snowball, and the narrative trick is simply to find ways of connecting the cause and effect of turmoil. This is not to say the art of writing tragedy isn’t complex and beautiful. The difference between a work of nuance and searing insight, and one produced by a plodder, will always be a chasm, and much great art is indeed tragic, but from a narrative point of view, it’s just easier. A tragedy poses a problem, a story of hope poses a solution. Which of those two is simpler, do you imagine? To build a house from the ground up, or to tear one down?

 Because there is a tradition in literary analysis to pretty much ignore the merits of narrative, there is a strange snobbery that has evolved in favour of the grim, with the mistake being made of equating misery with profundity, which says more about the lives of academic critics than it does about the world in which we live. But that is a whole other issue. For now my point is simply this – writing stories of hope is difficult, from a narrative point of view particularly so. Not only does a solution to the problem raised have to be proposed, but it must be made dramatically powerful (tricky, as in the real world the best solutions are usually gentle and are constructed slowly) and also credible. Hopeful stores are the means by which we make the young a promise that the world they inhabit can be lived in with peace and joy. We do not shy from the fact that this will be hard work, perhaps the hardest work of all, but stories capture the imagination, and help us believe it is work worth doing.

 It is an interesting question what are the defining components of hopeful stories, and one I’ve been dwelling on a lot over these last few years. It is central to the job I do. There will never be a checklist, or some binary criteria such that stories fall into the categories of hopeful or hopeless. But there will be certain elements that, when they are allowed to blossom, make our stories more hopeful.

 The most controversial of these, I suspect, and the most complicated, is that hopeful stories tend to eschew the morally ambiguous, that relativistic pose that so often dresses itself up as sophistication, and instead put a stake in the  ground within a given context and say ‘no, this is what goodness look like.’ At a basic level, hopeful stories take as their premise the fact that goodness exists, that words like better and more desirable, within a moral context, make sense. On the surface this is not controversial, we are as moralistic as we have ever been (witness the moral fervour with which we turn our attention to the environment and the threats posed to it) but beneath these instincts lurks a deeper and more difficult question which the modern world has little taste for discussing: What are the belief superstructures that must be in place before the notion of goodness can be made both credible and compelling? Must we speak of the spiritual, to make sense of these values, or is there a way of making these notions equally powerful and grounded within a materialistic context? I don’t wish to dodge that question here, but it deserves its own post, perhaps many more posts. Spoiler alert though – the truth is I’m not really sure of the answer.





‘Not a gender thing.’

The All Blacks’ coach, Steve Hansen, has just been quoted as saying domestic violence is ‘not a gender thing.’ Possibly he was misquoted, but looking at the context of his comments, probably not. He was bumbling his way towards making a remarkably foolish, ignorant and harmful point, by means of justifying the inclusion of Sevu Reece in the All Black squad. Yes, the man assaulted and injured his partner in a fit of uncontrolled rage, but, the line goes, he’s remorseful, and rugby is making him a better person. He was discharged without conviction and now we forgive and help him forge a better life. Okay, I’m all for forgiveness and rehabilitation, it’s got to be part of the solution to our appalling track record with violence against women, but Steve Hansen, a tremendously influential public figure, just said domestic violence is not a gender thing. And that makes him an idiot.

See, he knows it’s a gender thing. He knows that the victims of domestic violence are disproportionately women, because it’s kind of impossible not to know that. More than 1 in 3 New Zealand women will experience domestic violence in this country. Women’s Refuges exist for a reason. A dismal, shameful reason. The causes are complex, sure, but in part we’re just not angry enough, ashamed enough, motivated enough as a society to do something about it. To do something about poverty. To do something about breaking the cycle of violence in homes. To do something about the ridiculous male culture that celebrates acts of violence on the sports field. To hold people to account.

The argument that Reece can become a better man by being an All Black falls down on its own premise. The case is made that Reece is already remorseful and his involvement with The Crusaders (let’s not start on the name – how did they not change that in a heartbeat? Cowards) is helping him on a path to a better, gentler life. Okay, excellent, so being in The All Blacks is hardly a necessary part of his path back to righteousness, is it? We’re not doing it for him. But what it does do is send a crucial message that somehow it’s not that big a deal. If he’d assaulted a child, he wouldn’t be an All Black, because we actually, collectively, believe in our bones that is a truly shitty thing to do. If he’d professed religious beliefs about who is or isn’t going to hell, he might well be on the outer too. But drag your partner to the ground, injure her, bring her into your ugly world of intimidation and terror, well we’re not really that appalled, are we? ‘Cos, you know, not a gender thing.

Yeah, it’s a gender thing. It’s about we men refusing to call one another on our caveman behaviours. It’s about our lack of refinement, of restraint, of self-respect. It’s about us not caring enough. And only men can solve this. Men in positions of influence and authority have a special responsibility. On this issue, Steve Hansen needs to grow a pair.

There was an opportunity here for New Zealand rugby to send an important message to its largely male following. A message that says, we no longer tolerate this in our society, we are better than this. New Zealand cricket could have done the same thing, taken a serious stance on rape. Both institutions chose not to, and history will judge them poorly for it. I’m rather hoping both teams fall over at their respective world cups now, for both sports are clearly led by dickheads. Sort of literally.


Power in a Union

This week secondary teachers meet to vote on whether to accept the government’s new pay offer and, unless something very weird happens, we’ll accept it. I’ve had a quick look back over teaching salaries for the last forty years, and the figures provide an interesting window on our recent economic history. The figures below show the value of the top of the teaching pay scale over time, as expressed in 2019 dollars. It’s a slightly rough and ready conversion, using the Reserve Bank’s CPI figures, but gives a sense of what the teaching salary has been worth over time.

1980         96,000

1985         98,500

1990         70,000

1995         67,000

2000         75,000

2005         78,000

2010         80,000

2015         78,000

2020         85,000

A bunch of things stand out to me. The first is just how brutal the reforms of the Douglas/Lange government were. The election in 1984 saw an initial big boost for teachers, to catch them up with the losses to inflation in the previous five years, but that was quickly eroded by further inflation and a fanatical commitment to slashing spending and ‘reforming’ the economy. In many ways teachers were the lucky ones, we at least kept our jobs, but an almost 30% drop in real incomes is a great reminder of just how viciously working incomes fell during that period, at a time when the fortunes in the financial sector were soaring. The transfer of wealth from the productive sector of the economy to the speculative financial markets was real and in the New Zealand context remains curiously unremarked upon.

I entered teaching in 1990 and became a union rep the next year. Incomes at that point were historically low but our time and energy was largely taken up with other battles. The Richardson/Bolger government introduced the Employment Contracts Act which sought to break union power and in schools we were pushing back against Bulk Funding, which would have undermined forever our collective bargaining power. It wasn’t until the second half of the nineties and the beginning of the twenty first century that we saw a rise in real teaching incomes. During this period there was also a restructuring of teaching pay, with an increase in discretionary management payments so the top of the scale from this point on is probably an understatement of the average teaching income. These gains were not easily won, and the largest round of industrial action I’ve been involved in, including wildcat actions from feisty branches and serious divisions emerging within the union, played a large role in refocusing negotiations on real rather than nominal gains.

Following that stoush and its subsequent pay jump, a consensus of a kind emerged, with negotiations beyond that point taking inflationary adjustments as an agreed starting point. The result was more than fifteen years of relative calm, from the 2002 to this latest round of action, and during this period secondary teaching incomes remained stable. The current proposed settlement then, represents the second significant step forward in my thirty years of teaching, and once again come son the back of a round of industrial action. This time round we’ve benefited greatly from the lead of the primary teachers’ union, who put in three strike days to ramp up the pressure, and it is wonderful to see that a meaningful return to pay parity across the education sector is a key part of this deal. Although the proposed settlement won’t bring us back to the pre-reform levels of teaching income it is heartening to think that over my teaching career real incomes have risen by over 20%, probably more like 25% when unit payments are factored in. That hasn’t happened by accident, but rather represents the gains that only a powerful national union with a membership committed to action can achieve.

Strikes raise the ire of the public, who are quick to see us as self serving, lazy and entitled. But there is a better way of seeing this, I think. Without effective unions, fair pay rates are impossible to defend and work becomes quickly casualised, with workers forced to compete with one another for a decent and sustainable standard of living. The neo-liberal market reforms of the late twentieth century ripped the living standards and lifestyles of our workforce to piece sin so many instances. Every example we have of a union resisting the forces of diminishment and inequality should be celebrated, as a reminder that an effective economy doesn’t just generate wealth, it also champions participation, stability and dignity. I’m proud to have played my part.


In Praise of Islam

New Zealand received a lot of good press in the wake of the Christchurch shootings, some of it deserved, some of it weirdly self-congratulatory. That our government acted decisively on arms control is no small thing and must be applauded, so too the way our prime minister led the way when it came to acting with proper respect and empathy. Not everybody behaved well, of course, witness Brian Tamaki objecting to the broadcasting of an Islamic prayer for goodness sake, or the threats of violence received when an RSA suggested a similar prayer at an Anzac Day ceremony. So we have idiots in our midst, who knew, but by in large there was a proper focus on the value of tolerance and the celebration of diversity. But whether that’s to be lauded, or rather falls better under the banner of ‘not being a complete arsehole’, I’m not so sure. If any group deserves particular praise and admiration following the attacks it is  surely the local Islamic community. When these things escalate, it is because the victims get all het up and masculine and go seeking retribution. Remember the US response to 9/11? What we didn’t see in New Zealand was any overt show of anger or appetite for vengeance from those who’d suffered most. Rather we heard words of love and peace. We saw a real openness to the wider community, and we saw a tremendous degree of grace and patience. If anything stands as an antidote to Islamaphobic bigotry it is the behaviour of New Zealand’s Muslim community over recent weeks. If that’s the value set and living example they bring to our country, then lucky us.

Tolerance, of course, is an easy word to use, almost to the point of being rendered meaningless, and a tricky one to practise. Witness the predictable explosion of public vitriol following rugby player Israel Folau’s latest post suggesting most of us, one way or another, are going to hell. His inclusion of homosexuals in the list of the damned was bigoted and hateful, no doubt about it, and speaks of a faith genuinely held but in need of change if we are to move quietly forward to a more inclusive and peaceful future. How to gently pull cultures in that direction, rather than simply alienating them with our admonishments of secular piety, is the bigger question.

What is striking, as journalist Mark Reason recently wrote eloquently of, is the level of righteous indignation we seem to be able to muster in specific cases, while conveniently ignoring what appear to be far worse transgressions elsewhere. Fair to say Rugby culture has a long way to go to earn its right to call itself inclusive when it comes to sexuality, and while the calling out of Folau is in some sense a step forward, and it’s been great to see the high profile players repudiating this point of view with force and passion, there’s something slightly dodgy about the whole holier than thou thing too. Reason points to Australian rugby’s airline sponsorship, owned by a state where homosexuality is not exactly celebrated, and it’s a fair point. It’s also  worth asking whether the fact that Folau has Pasifika heritage has anything to do with our response. Would this issue play our differently with a pakeha All Black, I wonder. I like to think not, but then again, anyone who has read of the Scott Kuggeleijn trials will understand that you can indeed do far worse than express a hateful opinion and have it have no bearing whatsoever on your sporting career. Maybe the difference isn’t race, and our sporting culture just doesn’t like women much. Either way NZ cricket’s behaviour was shameful and that they were not called on it by the general public astonishes me. We do indeed selectively choose when to indulge in the guilty pleasure of judging others.

There is difficult difficult journey ahead if we are to genuinely attempt to help the likes of the Destiny Church lunatics who recently attempted to make their protest outside a mosque to a softer, more inclusive version of belief and celebration (dare I say, in the cases of Tamaki and Folau, a more Christian version?) But New Zealand’s Islamic community have provided us with a timely reminder that there is a way forward, and that when the conditions are right, and the support is heartfelt, the moral arc of the universe can indeed bend towards justice.


Falling for Story

Many years ago, fourteen if I remember correctly, I wrote a book called Falling for Science, which attempted to look at the difference between science and storytelling, and specifically at the way the two interact. Were I to rewrite that now, there is no doubt much I would change, but the basic principles I would remain the same. We as humans do two interrelated yet in an important sense vastly different things when we attempt to comprehend our world. We build models of the world which allow us to make predictions about what is most likely to happen next, and we tell stories about this world, which imbue it with purpose and meaning. It is these stories which allow the emotional and spiritual engagement with existence, which provide us with our motivations, our values and, crucially, our sense of self worth. In the wee small hours, when our confidence shrinks to its smallest, most compressed self, what is it we can say with confidence about the life we live? What gives us cheer, hope and the will to move forward. What allows us to access our joy and our enthusiasm? The answer is story.

In Falling for Science I focussed mainly on the way we have misunderstood the link between science and storytelling, and the danger of thinking we are doing science when in fact we have slipped, unnoticed, into storytelling mode. That’s an important point, I think, particularly in an age so given to facile reductionism, but were I to write the book now my focus would be much more on story itself. What are the dominant stories in which our young are being raised and what is this doing to them? And from this, what is the responsibility of the storyteller, and perhaps most important of all, how can we deliberately and effectively change the stories we tell ourselves?

This is not the time for a philosophical diversion, such things tend to hijack useful discussions, but it is worth noting quickly that the problem in part is that people have become dismissive of stories. ‘It’s just a story’, ‘it’s not really true’, such statements are hangovers from the age of logical positivism, a conviction that there really are true facts about the world, and the stories we tell are simply whimsical decorations added for entertainment and diversion, but in some sense insubstantial. There is a belief that if only we understood the facts of the world, the truths, then there is no place for story. This is nonsense on stilts, for at least two important reasons. First, in philosophical terms, the idea of truth and fact is nowhere near that simple, and the idea that we can draw any neat sort of distinction between facts and stories is very hard to justify; it is for this reason that I am a pragmatist, philosophically speaking, convinced that the only helpful criteria we can apply to any model of the world is ‘how useful is this model to me?’ It is not that truth is irrelevant, but rather that this appears to be the only way we can usefully speak of truth – as a measure of helpfulness. On the psychological front, the idea that we simply have to understand the facts of the world massively misunderstands the nature of the human mind, and the way we go about making sense of the world. Most of the situations we encounter are too messy to be accurately modelled (we can’t predict how a coin toss will fall, but we really think we can rationally plot the progression of a relationship?) What’s more, even when we do have a strong sense of what is likely to happen, our response to the situation is still massively influenced by our emotional attitude towards that set of circumstances, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world play a huge role in driving that response.

This year, then, as a teacher, I want this truth of the world, the way we shape our stories and the way they shape us, to be a central understanding that my students move towards. We are currently experiencing an international surge in mental health issues amongst the young. I am of the opinion this is in part a result of the stories they have grown up surrounded with. Clearly it’s not the whole deal, but it feels like an area where we can at least make an immediate and positive contribution. I’ll give you just a couple of examples which may clarify my stance. The psychologist Martin Seligman has a lovely phrase, Post Traumatic Growth. He contends that the normal response to trauma, citing a figure of 90%, is, in time, personal growth. We are knocked over, it is completely devastating, we feel lost and experience despair, but we move through it, and come out the other side stronger. Mostly. Yet, if we look at the dominant mode of storytelling, intended to gain audience by being as ‘gritty’ ‘real’ and ‘shocking’ as it can possibly be, we see stories where trauma leads  almost inevitably to devastation. What’s more, because devastation sits at the heart of these stories’ appeal, devastation itself, the inability to carry on, becomes glamorous, and there is the danger of a culture of competing towards the most suffering credibility by falling the hardest. Because we aren’t surrounding kids with stories of overcoming devastation, because we are not making heroes of those who soar above, we potentially create a world where the young miscue their responses to pain, believing that now it is their turn to slowly sink, to join the ranks of the inevitably despairing. Psychologists speak of the ABC model, where it is not actions that have consequences, but rather our beliefs about actions. Is it possible that by surrounding the young with stories of hope, and by explicitly communicating with them the truths of not just survival but recovery, and giving them the power to redraw their own stories and deliberately reframe their beliefs, we can make them more emotionally resilient and hopeful? Many researchers in the field believe we can, and I can’t see why I wouldn’t want to try it. If Seligman and co are correct, then it is a perfect example of the way our experience of the world is determined largely by the stories we tell ourselves about the world. I can’t protect my students from trauma. Terrible things will happen to them during their lives. Of course.  Wonderful things will happen too. But what if I can change the expectations they have about how those terrible things are going to affect them?

My second example is to do with purpose. What our purpose in life is, is inevitably the result of story. Existentialists found this a very challenging fact and so were prone to collapse into a pit of despair, saying odd things like ‘there is no meaning, it’s all invention.’ Actually there is plenty of meaning, as much of it as we want. That it is all invention is not a bad thing, it’s rather a wonderful opportunity (why oh why are there not more pragmatists?) We get to decide what our life is all about, and in this we will be constrained by our culture and our nature. So, given the kinds of folk we are, and the kinds of world we live in, what kind of purpose should we choose? This too strikes me as an excellent question to pose to our young. The thing I want my students to consider is that, if they do not explicitly address this question themselves, the world will provide any number of answers. What makes me valuable? Well, how about how I look and how others judge my appearance? How about how much money I have, or how influential I am, or how many friends I have, or how smart I am, or how much cool stuff I own, or how funny I am, or how many people I have sex with? There is a completely overwhelming cultural narrative spinning a thousand different ways of enslaving ourselves to forces beyond our control. I can’t really change how I look, it takes tremendous effort to change what I earn, making more friends only makes it more difficult to sustain the friendships I currently have, and in the end it’s the friends who will choose as much as I will. The singular danger of so many of the purpose narratives is the way they disempower, urging the young developing mind to seek external approval as a way of feeling worthwhile. And here is where one of the most ancient understandings of purpose has such wonderful power. For what if the primary purpose in life, the way by which we should most judge our worth and sense of self, is kindness? It accords well with our nature, all the research suggests being kind makes us feel good, and wonderfully it is also entirely within our own control. In a given day we will face a hundred tiny moral choices, opportunities to be either kind or selfish. It is the very fact that it is up to us how we proceed, that we are not constrained, that makes these choices moral. So we get to choose whether or not we are kind, the world doesn’t judge and label us on this one, most acts of kindness will go unnoticed, we get to make the call. And that is the definition of empowerment. The difference between trying to be kind and trying to look hot is twofold in this respect. First, the external world judges our looks, we judge the quality of our decisions, and second, hotness tends to be competitive. It’s not that everybody can look great, because looking great tends to be defined as looking exceptionally great. It’s a stupid road to mass misery. So too being wealthy, smart, influential or popular. These are all games which you have very little control over and which only a few, by design, can win. They’re stupid games. Kindness by contrast is not comparative. If you set your worth by being kind, then the kindness of others does not diminish you. Rather is raises you all up. This before we even consider how it’s good the person receiving the kindness.

So, again, here is a story we get to tell ourselves. Buy into a story that kindness matters, that your moral qualities define you, and you give yourself tremendous power when it comes to flourishing. The stories we tell ourselves about what makes us valuable profoundly change the way the we experience the world. Maybe there are better examples than kindness, ancient wisdoms identify a range of virtues worthy of consideration, but it strikes me as a good place to start.

Here’s to the power of storytelling, and the realisation that no storyteller will ever influence us more than the one residing inside our own heads. If I ever write a follow up book I shall have to call it  Falling for Story.



Schools these days have value statements, an attempt to distill that ethereal sense of what it is they are about, what they believe in. The idea is that these values become a touchstone in the decision making process, in the way resources are allocated, the way conversations conducted. More often than not these statements are odious things, more store front slogans than meaningful attempts to engage with a philosophy of learning. Nevertheless, when we get it right, when we frame for ourselves a set of values that we believe in and which have the capacity to enhance the lives of our students, to allow them to flourish, they can become useful levers in the ongoing war against the ambitions of mediocre spirits.

I was delighted then, properly joyful, when my school chose as one of its four value pillars the virtue of kindness. Imagine, for one moment, what education might look like if its primary goal was to guide its young charges on the path to living with proper kindness. Actually, imagining such is no easy task, for moving from the abstract to the concrete is essentially a process of begrudging compromise, and while it is easy to speak of the value of kindness, it is far trickier, I think, to pinpoint what it is that best allows this value to flourish. What’s more, my personal suspicion is that kindness, like creativity, gratitude, hope or enthusiasm, is carved slowly from life’s granite, accumulating as habit through the application of a thousand conscious practices. One thing I am sure of, however, is that any serious attempt to embrace this value would constitute a radical departure from much of our current practice. This is the fact that will quickly sort the slogan from the deep seated belief. A great deal of my teaching energy over the last few years has been given to exactly to this question, how does kindness become a normal part of the everyday life in a school, and there are days I despair of ever getting closer to the answer. Other times though, little stories occur that convince me it is all worth the effort. So, as the year draws to an end, let me offer one of them, a beautiful act of joyful generosity from one of the finest classes I have ever taught.

This was a year 13 Drama class, one of two in the school. They were preparing for their end of year production, a piece of theatre which essentially signs off their five years in our drama programme. They tend to have proper passion for this project, instinctively understanding how the success of their final play together will colour and shade the memories carried of all the years preceding it. Their piece, a tricky play that zapped in real time between two rooms, with the audience split between the spaces, and then seeing the play run a second time in the same night, from the other perspective, was all that it needed to be – a properly joyous celebration of the talent, energy and capacity for caring these particular kids naturally possessed. The audience had a ball. The kids felt a million dollars. But that is not the story.

It is the easiest thing in the world to seek to celebrate our triumphs as exclusive, comparative occurrences. ‘We were amazing’ slips so naturally into ‘we were the best show this school has ever seen’ ‘our class is particularly talented etc.’ Indeed, human beings find it very difficult to conceive of their own worth in any but comparative terms. It is also a lousy and limited lens through which to view the world. So, our class had finished their play, meanwhile the other Year 13 class was, in the following week, to offer theirs to the world. The piece could not have been more different, still where ours had been kinetic, contemplative where ours had been comedic, abstract where ours had been naturalistic. I spoke to my class, although in fact they needed no  such prompt, of the virtue of mudita, that experience of joy detached from ego, the ability to feel proper and profound happiness at the achievements of others. We felt great this week, I said, and now the very best thing we can offer is for the other class to have the opportunity to feel even better. That’s an easy concept to get once you consider it, once you explicitly acknowledge the stupid human tendency to need to feel better than others, that stupidity that fuels jealousy, competition and performance anxiety. The kids had no trouble understanding. So here’s what they did.

They went out to dinner together before the other class’ show and then, en masse, missing only one student who was terribly sick, they attended the other class’s show and provided as generous an audience as I have ever seen. Their laughter was authentic and giving, their spellbound silence in the moments of poignancy palpable, and when the show was over they raced forward to hug, analyse and congratulate. They created great art in that moment of looking back, by talking it into existence. And what they experienced was not the diminishment of their own prior achievement, as they might have anticipated, but rather an extending of the collective concern. They experienced the pure and unmitigated joy of giving a shit, and with it they learned the most valuable of lessons about kindness – your achievements don’t diminish me, indeed my celebration of your achievements raises me up. They learned a little of the reflexive stupidity of our culture, with its emphasis on paranoid competition, borne of the myth of limited resources. Nothing that is worth having in life is lessened by the consumption of another. Rather, it is the joyful presence of the other that makes life worth living.

I loved that class, the way they responded so well to our theme this year of hope and gratitude, and the easy grace with which they shifted the focus from their own talents to the strength of those around them. When we get education right, when kindness really does matter, it can be the most wonderful thing to behold.


Yesterday’s Schools

2019 will mark my thirtieth year as a secondary school teacher, and in that time I’ve worked for ten different principals and had dealings with a great many more. Like all of us, principals come in all sorts of flavours, with their own strengths and weaknesses, but it strikes me that there is one test that will tell you a great deal about the quality of leadership within a school and I mention it now because it has become publicly pertinent.

Some principals are loyalists by nature, intent on making the school they lead the very best school it can be. They think primarily in terms of community, relative achievement and reputation. It is very clear whom they serve, it is the school itself, they believe in the identity of the school as a meaningful thing. They are ultimately tribal in their thinking. These are the principals who openly revel in their successes on the national stage, their sports team victories, scholarship pass rates, the triumph of their school choir, whatever.

The second type see themselves not as serving their school, but rather the education system more broadly. They seek to contribute to the wellbeing of all students, and take no joy in their school outperforming another, for that speaks simply of the loss of students elsewhere. They understand that education is a zero sum game in this regard, that for every champion there is a runner up, and a thousand also rans who also enjoyed the game. They understand that reputation building is a terrible waste of resource, and they instinctively get that a little kid running barefoot around a field is gaining just as much life affirming pleasure from their game as the member of a national champion squad. They understand that the very finest achievements of humanity are those which do not come at the cost of another. They eschew  competition in favour of co-operation, and celebrate the quotidian. They see the function of the school as that of serving students, rather than seeing students as a means of enhancing the standing of the school.

Obviously, it is the second type I admire. I mention this because a taskforce led by Bali Haque has just reported back on the Tomorrow’s Schools experiment, and has argued that the competitive model has come with significant costs. The group have recommended that we do away with local community management of what are essentially bureaucratic functions (managing buildings, for example) and they have proposed a model whereby schools fundamentally re-imagine themselves as parts of broader educational communities. Of course, there will be all kinds of fish hooks in the nuts and bolts implementation, but the very fact the report has been written fills me with great heart. Our school system has been deeply compromised by the competitive model and every day I am saddened by the sheer stupidity of an educational model that seeks to celebrate the elite and in doing so misses the far more valuable qualities that can be nurtured in all. This is the system that oversaw large scale white flight out of schools, that has fostered an ugly rise in adolescent anxiety, has endorsed massive levels of over assessment and has gutted the curriculum of a genuine love for learning. It has created a system hugely vulnerable to lurches in fashion, and so generated unspeakable waste in the endless rush for the latest promise of educational revolution. Most crucially, it has underpinned the great rift between the haves and have nots, and has seen far too much of the resource base jealously guarded by those schools that need it least.

I can not speak adequately then, of my contempt for those school principals who are speaking so aggressively against the proposed reforms, talking of the destruction of our education system and threatening to march on parliament in defence of their right to put the interests of their privileged communities ahead of those of the nation’s children. If you are considering schools at the moment, and wondering how to judge the quality of its principal, asking what they think of the proposed reforms would be a good place to start.

And on that note, all power to the Minister Chris Hipkins, in standing strong against these little empire builders. There is huge potential for good here, and it is to be hoped he is not frightened from his course.


Are New Zealand schools really racist?

Words change over time, of course. Gay, mood, literally… take your pick. Meaning has never been fixed and nor should it be. Often these changes in usage are of little consequence, and tracing the way their meaning has shaded over time is little more than a parlour game. Other times though, the way words change matters very much. In education over the last  two or three years I have noticed changes in the way we are using a particularly important word, possibly you have too. That word is racism, and the term racism is loaded with such emotion and moral judgement that changes in it should be carefully scrutinised. This change is interesting in that my perception is the new usage began on the left of the political spectrum, and now is being cynically exploited by the right.

Alwyn Poole is the latest to get in on this game, calling New Zealand’s education system racist, as part of a bizarre article in which he continues his tedious attack on teacher unions whilst at the same time promoting himself as the saviour of New Zealand education. The nature of his arguments in both cases were essentially self rebutting and I’ll waste no time on them here, but the use of the word racist, reflecting as it does a broader trend, is worth examining.

Poole’s stated case was that New Zealand’s education system is racist because certain ethnic groups (primarily Maori and Pasifika populations) underachieve within it. That’s a really unusual definition of racism. Consider for instance the field of oncology. Maori have far higher rates of death from lung cancer than non-Maori in New Zealand. Very few would argue that this in and of itself means that oncologists are racist. The fault in this case lies more broadly with a social history which sees, predictably, tobacco industries preying on vulnerable populations. Now, it may be that when it comes to accessing health care, there are barriers for Maori: financial, cultural and geographic. Likely this is true. But even this would not, in old language, make the health system racist. It would make it racially biased in terms of delivery, just as education to some extent also is, but not racist.

Racism’s old meaning was a tremendously important one, and there will be important implications if we lose the use of this word, because it describes something we must always be on the guard against. Losing this definition will in time trivialise something that must never be trivialised. Language is powerful in this way. Old racism was a belief that particular subsets of our population were both less capable and less worthy than others, and that this quality was a function of their race. Certain groups just wouldn’t succeed, racists believed, because they were biologically limited. It wasn’t, therefore, worth helping them. This belief system, which misunderstood biology, and undervalued diversity was an ugly and self serving feature of self-appointed messiah cultures and we must make sure we oppose it wherever it appears. An education system, then, is racist if it is peopled by those who believe that certain students underachieve because of their race. A system where people, consciously or otherwise, lower both their expectations, and the time and resource they offer, based upon the colour of a person’s skin. That undoubtedly exists to some degree in New Zealand’s education system (racism isn’t binary), old ugly ideas die hard, and a great deal of it is at the subconscious level. All teachers, regardless of our perceived sensibilities, regardless in fact of our own race, need to critically self monitor the way easily read markers (race, class, gender, religion etc) affect our expectations and interactions.

The trouble is, this is by no means the only reason why a particular group might underachieve within an education system, and there is good evidence that within the New Zealand system it is by far the least powerful influence. If, then, we call an education system racist simply because we are not seeing equal outcomes, we are falling for what we might call the oncology fallacy. This matters both because the   casual use of the word racism is inflammatory and divisive, but also because it will misdirect resource and attention to those factors we need to fix.

There is a relatively simple test we can apply to see to what extent racially biased attitudes are responsible for educational underachievement. The trick is to attempt to compare like with like. If Maori students, for example, are underachieving because teachers, upon seeing a Maori face, lower their expectations, or because the way we teach is more difficult for Maori students to access, then statistically speaking this effect will show up once other, non-race based factors are allowed for. We call this multi-factor regression, and a good way of thinking of it is in terms of predictive capacity. How well does a certain piece of information allow us to predict a particular outcome? So, for example, if you give me two students who are similar in every way, beyond the income level within their home, does this single difference tell me much about their likelihood of succeeding in school? The answer is yes, it does, household income is a strong predictive factor of educational achievement. So too mother’s highest educational qualification (moreso than father’s apparently), number of schools attended and so forth. There is serious inequality in educational achievement in New Zealand and if you want to predict where to find it, the best clues to follow are socio-economic. This is true the world over, although in New Zealand the affect is somewhat magnified and there is interesting work to be done trying to  discover why that is – socio-economic factors are in themselves very rough and ready measures of something far more complex, and our history appears to have allowed the particularly brutal eroding of social capital. Our economic reforms in the 1980s were, by international standards, especially unforgiving and it would surprise me not at all if that were a crucial factor.

The point is, if we take two students with as much identical predictive profiles apart from race (so for example a Maori and non-Maori with same income levels in the home, same gender, same education level of parents etc) that residual achievement difference predicted by race, that we can properly attribute to the way schools view and treat race,  is a relatively small factor. We do, undoubtedly, have a degree of racism in schools, of course. The remnants of that are everywhere. But to link achievement outcomes directly to this is plain silly. We still have massive racial inequality in education, and we still need to do something about it, but naming the problem racism in education is very unhelpful, because it misidentifies causes and therefore quite possibly solutions (although here we must be careful, for causes and solutions are not necessarily linked in the way we imagine. For example, a problem caused by social inequality can sometimes still nevertheless be solved by good education. As ever, the real world is more complicated than Poolean rhetoric would have us believe.)

I said at the outset that the new fervour for blaming schools for outcome disparities has a whiff of the right wing politic about it and I think that’s a very important part of this story. In New Zealand, over the last 35 years, we have pursued a set of economic policies which have shamelessly disregarded the needs of our most vulnerable. Once we prided ourselves on being one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet, in terms of economic opportunity and reward. Now poverty is accepted as an inevitable cost of doing business. In 1991 Ruth Richardson cut benefit levels in a move decried by opposition at the time as inhumane. They were right. Since then successive governments of all persuasions have come and gone, but benefit levels were never restored. There just weren’t votes in it. There is solid evidence that the financially stressed are incredibly disadvantaged in education, that this is both causal and reversible (changes in economic fortunes very quickly translate into changes in educational performance). New Zealand’s history, like that of so many countries’, is steeped in racist exploitation and exclusion and it is no surprise then that we have racially identifiable subsets of our population that have been effectively shut out from meaningful participation in our economy. Fixing that should be an absolute priority, and returning benefits to at least their pre-cut levels in real terms is a no-brainer. An extended, more generous, no-fault benefit system would do more to address educational inequality in this country than tinkering with the way we deliver in the classroom. Selling the lie that education can be transformative in this way takes the pressure off exactly the reforms that are needed, and as such is something of a darling of the political right, because it diverts attention from economic crimes which could much more properly be called racist.

None of this is to argue that we shouldn’t, in schools, do everything we can to help the disadvantaged. Poole has written well on the urgent need to divert educational resources towards lower decile schools, and do this on a massive scale. He is right. And we have an absolute moral duty to celebrate diversity, and make every student feel like there is a place for them in our schools. It’s our job to become comfortable using languages not our own, to examine the way our own practices might make students feel they do not belong in our classrooms. As teachers in New Zealand we have an obligation to play our part in the meaningful expression of bi-culturalism. And always and everywhere we must guard against letting our expectations be coloured by, well colour. But, you know what, we’re trying. Schools are full of good people who care desperately about the plight of their students. Calling us racist for no other reason than to inflate one’s own importance is a stupid thing to do, not to mention an unhelpful abuse of language. A self proclaimed educational leader should know better.


More plays

Just to let you know there are another four play scripts available here to be downloaded and used in whatever way pleases you. It’s been another delightful year for my school drama. Along with touring Two Nights about the place, Talking to a Stranger, Three Nights and This is not a Love Story were all new pieces for me. It’s a special privilege, being able to work on a script and then have it come to life within a couple of months. having access to a theatre, a ready made audience and a constantly evolving and revolving cast of beautiful actors is such a treat. Admittedly, it does keep me away form writing novels, but you can’t have everything, and from my perspective it feels like I got the better end of the deal here. School theatre is always about something more than the work itself; at heart it is about a community coming together to celebrate the courage talent and tenacity of their sons, daughters, grandchildren, friends… That the audience is entertained, provoked, moved is in the end peripheral, yet still important. What we are able to do, in the end, is bring people together in a spirit of hope and in the end I’m convinced that’s what good stories always do. This another argument, I’ll develop it at a later date, but might we not have had enough of introspective bleakness in our collective narrative? Can’t we, in this age of endemic anxiety, make room for a little more celebration of the fact that we are here, alive together, our capacity for growth apparently limitless? I say yes, on both counts.

Time for boys to step up

Last week, in his column for the Sunday Star Times, Sports journalist Mark Reason wrote a piece about the response at Serena’s Williams’ outburst at the US Open, his thesis expanding from the framing of the subsequent debate in terms of gender to a wider look at the way, to his mind, women have increasingly been given permission to denigrate men in public. Given that he cited a debate I participated in as part of his evidence, I feel somehow obligated to respond. And as it happens, it’s something I feel rather deeply about. It’s very hard to spend three decades teaching adolescents and not become vitally interested in the playing out of gender politics.

On one level, Mark’s point is important. However we proceed in creating a society where gender does not determine advantage, we need to proceed together. Somehow, and this is no easy task, we have to come to understand that gender inequality is everybody’s problem. And that is why I found the inevitable anonymous bluster in the ensuing Stuff comments section so depressing. For, irrespective of the way the original article was constructed, the keyboard warriors who jumped on board simply wanted to shout out their simple minded and frankly offensive message… ‘yeah, women, leave us alone. It isn’t fair. We hurt too. Look at male suicide rates. You’re all so nasty to us…’ And when a handful of determined female voices attempted to point out just how thoroughly disturbing the male tendency to want to block out any possibility they still need to change is, it was overwhelmingly voted down (what a ridiculous format this thumbs up thumbs down thing is).

So, briefly, here’s what I think the problem is. Yes, it is absolutely true that there are a great many fine young men out there, and you know what, we are slowly getting better at working out that our collective humanity matters far more than our gender, but… man we have a long long way to go. I invite anybody who doubts this to visit a secondary school and carefully observe the way young men and women interact. It is still far far too hard for young men to grow up gentle and respectful in this country. The laddish, bullying, foul mouthed, aggressive and competitive culture is alive and well and the vacuous boom box of modern culture only amplifies it. It is still far too hard for young women to gain any sort of attention without sexualising their presentation to the world. Safety in relationships is not improving any, the careful gains wrestled from the world over previous decades being steadily eroded by pornography’s framing of sex in terms of violence, visual assessment and conquest.

Just this week a colleague spoke of watching a class at a shared lunch, the boys tucking in to the food on offer with joyous abandon, whilst every single girl in the room approached the offerings with the guilty nervousness of the calorie counter, their relationship with food already poisoned by the inescapable fact that as a woman you will be looked at before you are listened to.

I look at the way my colleagues ascend the employment hierarchy, and the compromises they must make to gain the approval of their peers. I see they way the assertive woman is dismissed as angry and strident, while their male counterpart is lauded for their fair minded authority. I see the way the body of the man in leadership escapes scrutiny, for the business suit is kind to time’s decay, while the woman’s choice of clothing allows no such luxury, and every curve and accumulation becomes a matter of moral judgement.

I see the way young women still express their opinions as questions not statements, the way they instinctively open their point of view to refutation, lest they should, God forbid, cause offence. I see their fine line in inherited self-deprecation, and I see the young boys suffering too, walking about lost with tangled armfuls of feelings they are not allowed to examine or express. I see young people trying desperately to connect, to be accepted and valued for what they are, wanting nothing more but to be able to relax in the company of others. Young men who want to be able to let their guard down, be goofy, kind, gentle and loving, without the opprobrium of their peers, and young women who want to be engaged with as something more than a collection of body parts, who want nothing more than to escape the prison of body culture that has ensnared them, who just want to be taken seriously as human beings.

And seeing all of this, it is impossible not to want to see the world change. I have three young sons and I want them to grow up free of the confusion, anxiety and ultimately self-hatred that flourishes in a world which doesn’t take gender inequality seriously. I want them to understand how one casual throwaway comment about the way a woman looks can follow her for life. I want them to understand just how diminished their experience of intimacy will be if they do not learn to see the human first and the sexuality second. I want them to be able to embrace the feminine virtues, just as I hope their female peers will feel as free to embrace the masculine. Most of all, I want them to understand with proper weight the brutality of objectification, how completely the relentless reduction of women robs them of their humanity.  And that is a mountain to climb, for we are a long long way from that.

I am not surprised women are pissed off about this, and that their voices grow increasingly strident. You know what, they’ve tried just smiling and passing the plate for countless generations, and it really hasn’t worked. Rather than taking offence, we men need to step up and take on a little of the mahi ourselves. Yes, of course men are suffering too. But this is the whole point, it’s all part of the same problem, and so we all need to be part of the same solution. Therein ends the sermon.