How do you become the best kaiako (teacher) you can be?

This blog is a kind of public space where I can broadcast whatever it is that I’m working on or thinking about.

For many years, it’s been about education. More recently though, it’s been about other things including music, culture and entrepreneurship.

This one though is about my current work in tertiary education in Aotearoa New Zealand, where I get to spend a lot of time thinking about the question in the title above and what the possible answers are.

One of my jobs is to help develop professional standards for kaiako (teachers and tutors) and others, including support staff, working with foundation level learners in Aotearoa New Zealand.

If you’re unaware, foundation learners are adult learners who need literacy and numeracy support built into whatever kind of content they are studying.

These learners are often, but not exclusively, Māori, Pasifika or youth, or some combination of these.

By definition, these learners also need approaches for education and support that are responsive to their cultural backgrounds.

And I’m not talking about some politically correct post-modern BS. I’m talking about basic stuff.

Like if I was the teacher, I should how to pronounce their name correctly.

Or say hello to them in their own language.

This means that to work in this part of the education sector in NZ you need to have a skillset that encompasses the following:

  • Knowledge of and practical experience in your vocational subject area. For example, this might be horticulture, painting or farm management.
  • Knowledge of the issues facing your tauira (learners). At a minimum, this is going to include low adult literacy and numeracy skills as well as reasons why this is the case for your particular learners.
  • Practical teaching and learning approaches you can use to work with your learners where they are at to get them to where they need to be. This includes developing the literacy and numeracy skills your learners need so that they can get to the content that they have to learn to pass the course.
  • A working knowledge of – at least – some aspects of your learners’ cultures and the practices or behaviours that arise from this.

Some kaiako (tutors and teachers) know this because it’s part of their deep lived experiences.

Others know it because, although it’s not part of their background, they’ve realised they’re on a learning journey and getting up to speed is a non-negotiable if they want any kind of relationship with their learners.

One starting point, particularly from a government funding point of view, for working with these groups is that they are over-represented in all of the statistics for all of the bad stuff.

As well as low levels of adult literacy and numeracy, this means low incomes, poor life choices, no or low qualifications, limited employment prospects and so on.

This isn’t a baseless assumption… you can look up all of the evidence if you want. I’m not going to cite it here.

The point is that these at risk groups often disengage from education for different reasons.

One reason is that they sometimes see education as irrelevant to their lives.

Another is that they often feel no sense of connection with their teachers.

Sometimes, their teachers are rubbish.

Often, though, their teachers are amazing and truely dedicated to making a difference in the lives of their learners.

It’s hard to put a finger on what lies at the root of all of this.

We can talk about colonisation, the enduring effects of generational poverty, the impact of technology and so on.

But this can be a diversion.

I don’t want to minimise these factors or their effects, but I do think it is possible to move forward towards a solution without getting overly bogged down in the issues.

One possible solution includes the development of professional standards for practitioners working in this field. I say possible, because as of yet, it’s an untested solution.

In the education sector, we already have professional standards for some different kinds of teachers. For example, there are standards for teachers at primary and secondary school levels.

There are also standards for teachers in the Adult Community Education (ACE) sector.

Up until now, there has been nothing like that for our foundation learning teachers and support workers.

If you work in the post-secondary-but-not-university-or-ACE teaching space you already know that the tutors who inhabit this world are different to their colleagues in these other, often more academically-focused sectors.

In particular, I’m talking about people teaching and supporting programmes that sit at Level 4 and below on the NZQA qualifications framework.

Something I know from personal experience is that tutors working in the foundation learning space often find their way into education from industry.

This means that they often have a very “hands-on” approach to how they do things.

And in industry (and on the Marae and in other non-academic teaching environments), relationships, skills and experiences often trump the traditional qualifications and credentials that we’ve historically valued so much in the academic world.

It’s no wonder that our vocational tutors are so suspicious of our professional development offerings.

We make it worse when we try to bring in approaches that, in the eyes of our audience, seem too academic.

The same thing happens when we offer professional development programmes that are delivered by academics without the kind of street cred that vocational tutors inherently recognise.

The Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy and Numeracy that are now well-established as part of our educational infrastructure are a case in point.

After quite a few years, there’s a sense of acceptance for these. However, in the early days, they were pitched in an overly academic way to the steel fabricators, hairdressers and engineering tutors who were supposed to use it.

The result was a lot of angry tutors. And it wasn’t because they weren’t smart enough to understand it.

I like to think (and possibly I’m naive to think this) that we’ve fixed that issue and moved on from it. But it’s a lesson that is firmly in my mind when it comes to new developments.

Which brings me to my current question:

  • How do *you* become the best kaiako (tutor or teacher) that you can be?

The answer to this is open for discussion. And here is what I think are some of our starting points and assumptions:

  • We now have a robust suite of entry-level professional qualifications for vocational tutors and trainers in Aotearoa New Zealand.
  • The knowledge base and infrastructure that underpins these qualifications, while never static, seems to have matured in recent years.
  • Government agencies with a stake in education and training now have access to a lot of data which suggests that certain approaches are working for our learners, while others are not.
  • Key priority groups such as Maori, Pasifika and youth are already well-identified with strategic initiatives underway that we need to tap into.
  • There are organisations and individuals doing tremendous – and often unrecognised – work with our most at-risk learners in foundation education.

From here I think we have a firm foundation from which to start recognising our best vocational and trades tutors as well as key learning support staff and to unpack what makes them great.

And in doing this we’re on the way to moving beyond one-size-fits-all approaches to professional learning and development and towards more bespoke professional development pathways.

And this, ultimately, means benefits for practitioners who should be working towards developing their capabilities in areas that are relevant to their learners, programmes and organisations.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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