What is your opinion on the Primary Teacher Strike? Marrzipan Director, Davina, gives her take…
[Enter Davina stage left…]
I have been following the recent NZ primary school strike with great interest and pondering my own teaching career, as well as my own education. I have been really pleased to read that the strike is not just about higher wages, but also teachers’ demands for smaller class sizes and more special needs support. These are topics I have been passionate about for a very long time and strongly advocate.
When I was at primary school in England, I was fortunate enough (though my friends said I was a “geek”!) to receive a scholarship to our local private school, where no class had more than 18 students. I had come from a state school where there were around 30 in class, which I had found quite overwhelming – often spending half the lesson queuing up to ask the teacher a question about something I didn’t understand.
I thrived in this new environment and as a result, started to really enjoy learning – something I have taken with me into adulthood. I am now a fully-fledged geek and proud of it. But would I have this thirst for learning and new information had I not “learnt to enjoy learning” at school? I don’t think so. We often receive the same piece of feedback from Marrzipan parents about how their child has finally found something they are “clever” at. Because their child is not academic or sporty, the student often thinks they are not “good” at anything. Then they come to Marrzipan and find their niche, their skill, their voice! This warms my heart.
My husband, in contrast to my “private British education” grew up in rural NZ - Dannevirke with exceptionally low class sizes. In fact, his whole school had a total of 14 students – all age ranges in the same class. He delights at recounting how, on cold days, they would run – barefoot - outside at break time and warm their feet up by jumping into fresh, warm cow dung. I think I would have been expelled from my school if I had done something like that! We are still debating whether or not our child is going to be allowed to jump into cow poo or not (a debate I feel I am losing!)
When I started my teaching career at the ripe old age of 20 (feels like a very long time ago now), I worked as a teaching assistant at my old primary school. It was VERY cool going back to my old school as a teacher and being able to go to the front of the lunch queue! I learnt so much from the teachers at that school, who fostered in me a love of teaching and mentored me to be a better teacher myself.
I was soon asked to work with some of the special needs children at that school, which I found immensely rewarding. Interestingly, the parents of those students had to fund any special needs teachers that worked with their children, which I think is pretty unfair. So I am also in full support of the teacher strike requesting special needs teachers to be funded and trained at each school.
Then I was asked to teach “drama” as an extra-curricular program. Whether it is because of my Performing Arts qualifications, my moment of stardom (check out this TV advert I did when I was 16 for a cringe-worthy chuckle 16 Year Old Davina, or because I am a natural drama-queen, I am not sure. But falling in to teaching these drama classes was one of the most pivotal moments of my life, and I knew I had found my calling.
The class size was just six students, and I soon had three classes running, once the word got around about how much fun we were having! This was the first time I had ever taught by myself (i.e. without the support of another teacher in the room), and I loved creating my own content and lesson plans. I was not surprised to learn that NZ primary teachers are requesting more time to plan their lessons, as I used to spend as much time preparing for a class as I did teaching it. At Marrzipan, one of our teachers spends the best part of one week every school holidays, just to create 9 x 45 minute lessons, that all of our teachers then follow in the new term. This would be the equivalent of a primary school teacher spending a whole week, just to create one day of lessons for their classroom!
But back to the class sizes, which I believe is one of the main factors that influence learning… When I started Marrzipan, I played around with the class sizes for the first year – ranging from 10 in a class to 12, to 14 and then to 16. At 16 students, I struggled to get through all the content I wanted to, and found that for the majority of the lesson, students spent most of their time sat watching other students rehearsing and waiting for their own time to practice their lines. I didn’t have time to give as much individual attention and feedback as I wanted – if there are 16 students in a class that runs for 45 minutes, this works out at less than 3 minutes per student!
So we capped our class size at 10 students for a 45-minute class. However, due to demand we often had more students desperate to join, so we decided we would allow upto 14 students in to a class, if we also increased the class time to 60 minutes. This is the model we continue to run on, with no plans to change this any time soon. I am proud to say that our average class size is between just 8-9 students. It is of upmost importance to the Marrzipan pedagogy that our teachers have the time to give the one-on-one attention that children so desperately need.
I believe the NZ primary school teachers do an amazing job, given the workload they are expected to undertake. I am relieved that at Marrzipan, we have control over our own content, can focus on the individual rather than “national standards” and that our teachers get time to recharge (and re-caffeine themselves!) in between classes. I wish the strike the best of luck in achieving their desires.
I would love to hear your views on the strike from a parent point of view, as well as what you believe are the key factors influencing learning. How important are small classes sizes to you? What was your learning experience like as a child?