Q&A | Miriam Pierard: Policymakers need to start listening to teachers

New Zealand activist and educator Miriam Pierard became a familiar name on the country’s political radar when she took a break from teaching in 2014 to run in that year’s general election. Fast-forward to another election year, and the committed advocate for equality of access to quality education for all is close to completing a Master’s in Education and Globalisation at Finland’s University of Oulu, exploring subjects such as Nordic education in the European and global context, and how that relates to education policy.

Sarah caught up with Miriam to discuss her thoughts on what, as a teacher, she thinks works and what doesn’t in the classroom, and why New Zealand has so much to learn from the way Finland approaches, and values, education.

Can you identify some of the key comparisons you’ve found between the Finnish and NZ education systems?
The reason I went to Finland, and the reason I’m excited by the Finnish education system, is not necessarily because they’re up there in the international PISA testing – it’s more about the fact that they are doing so well, but with such a different approach to education than, say, other countries in the OECD. Most other OECD countries, including New Zealand, are following quite a neoliberal approach to education, where there’s greater privatisation of education.

Education’s becoming much more of a commodity – there’s a very strong focus on excellence and achievement, but that’s quite narrowly defined. There’s a lot of standardised testing to assess students, from quite a young age, as they’re going through the system. It’s quite a utilitarian approach to education, it’s about creating young people for the workforce. Whereas in Finland it’s really different – the foundation of their comprehensive schooling system is equality of access to education for everybody.

“Education’s becoming much more of a commodity – there’s a very strong focus on excellence and achievement, but that’s quite narrowly defined.”

Their different policies, and different approaches and mechanisms that they have in their education system are about trying to reduce that impact of family or socioeconomic background on educational outcomes. They’re less focussed on assessment, they’ve got no standardised testing the whole way through school, until their very last year, when they have this matriculation examination. That exam is less about rote learning and regurgitation of content, and students have to write long essays answering really interesting philosophical questions that have strong relevance to social issues of the time.

When you’re looking at some of the countries that are doing the best in some of these international tests, Finland and Estonia have quite similar approaches to education, but then the other countries that are in that top level – Japan, South Korea, Singapore – in all of these countries you’ve got children who, from quite a young age, are in tutoring until 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock at night, and there’s so much competition in the system that there’s heaps of pressure on students to outperform each other. You can imagine the impact this has on their mental health, and freedom to just be children.

“[Finland] work hard to reduce that relationship between family background and education outcomes – and therefore life outcomes.”

Whereas in Finland they’ve got a much more laidback approach. There’s almost no homework at primary school level, and if there is it’s only because it’s worthwhile – they’re not just giving homework for homework’s sake. They all get fed at school, a well-balanced, nutritious meal. We have had such a struggle to pass a bill in New Zealand to feed our kids together like this, despite seeing the differences of lunches that kids in decile 1 and decile 10 schools bring. So many teachers, including myself, keep a stash of muesli bars and tuna for students who come with nothing, and there’s a growing rate of NZ children being hospitalised for malnutrition. It’s impossible to concentrate and learn effectively with a hungry tummy, and all children should have the right to learn whatever their situation.

They work hard to reduce that relationship between family background and education outcomes – and therefore life outcomes – in Finland. The reason I’m so interested in that is because in New Zealand a child’s family background, such as income and cultural capital, has a significant relationship with their education attainment and future possibilities. I’m wary about this idea of transplanting an education system from Finland to New Zealand – I’m certainly not advocating that, and there are many complexities that we’d have to look at. We have to understand the socio-historical, political background of each country to be able to really understand why the education systems are the way they are now.

But I don’t think we should dismiss taking on some of those philosophies, or looking at how they’re tackling the challenges they face. We should be looking to success stories such as Finland and following the research. Instead we’re doing the opposite because of ideological reasons, and adopting policies from countries with education systems that are in crisis, such as the US.

As someone who’s worked as a teacher in New Zealand, what have you found problematic, or to work well, in the way New Zealand approaches education?
I want to preface this by saying that New Zealand actually has a very good school system compared to many countries, but we do not value it or its professionals enough. The Finnish system isn’t without its faults, but there are many things it does very well. I’m a supporter of a strong public education system, which is what Finland’s got. However, my first four years of teaching were at a private school, and I have worked a little bit in some state schools as well.

One of the biggest differences I found between private and public is the class sizes, which impacts the ability to have a good relationship with your students. It’s essential to form those relationships in the environment you co-create in your classroom. I remember John Key referring to smaller class sizes as the reason he sent his children to private schools. And yet his government did not seem to value the role of us teachers much at all. Finland trusts and looks after its education professionals, and we need to be better at that in New Zealand.

How do you perceive of your role as a teacher?
Teaching and education are inherently political. The teacher has to make decisions around curriculum, their behaviour management approach such as restorative justice, and how they deliver the content they’ve chosen or created. All of that has political implications. Especially in teaching social sciences and history, which I teach. We have to be really aware of that. The ultimate end goal of social studies in New Zealand is to develop young, empowered citizens, who are equipped to take action that’s meaningful on social issues.

“Teaching and education are inherently political. The teacher has to make decisions around curriculum, their behaviour management approach, and how they deliver the content.”

It’s interesting, because you come to this – not a conflict, but there’s certainly some kind of a crux – where teachers are told that they need to be a-political, that they have to be neutral in the classroom. Of course, you’re wanting to have lots of discussion and debate, and develop critical thinking in your students, but the best way for your students to be inspired to take social action, I think, is to see that their teachers are also doing it. When teachers are able to engage with these issues, that means that what they’re doing in class, or outside of class in their human rights groups or whatever, isn’t just token.

Well, you’re someone that has been very active politically through the course of your career, alongside your teaching. How did that work for you as a teacher? Did you feel conflicted or frustrated in the role?
I was aware of the potential conflict of interest, and having the responsibility to make sure that whatever it was that I was doing outside of the classroom I was able to be really honest with my students about. For example, our Year 9s were doing a unit on protest, and it included contemporary movements I was very involved with, such as Aotearoa’s Not For Sale against the partial privatisation of state assets.

I just made sure that I was always very open with my Head of Department, and the senior management team, about what I was doing. They were fine with me being politically active, and quite public about it, as long as I didn’t use the school’s name or anything like that. Then in the classroom I always made sure that my students knew what I was involved in, but it wasn’t –

You weren’t trying to recruit.
Definitely not, and when I stood for parliament with Internet MANA in the last election, I left my teaching position to avoid that conflict of interest. But of course, my students would always have all these questions about what I thought about various issues and why. Teenagers can see right through you when you’re not being honest with them.

They’re at an age where they’re very curious and they want to know lots of different perspectives, because they’re starting to come up with their own ideas about the world, and their own feelings about political and social issues that they’re coming into contact with. Oftentimes they’re wanting to rebel against their parents, but they’re feeling quite loyal to their parents as well. It’s a fascinating age, and it meant that we were able to have really interesting discussions.

My philosophy is that nothing is taboo in my class – they can ask me any question and I’ll try to answer it as well as I can. To do that, first and foremost I need to have a really good relationship with my students, and to have an environment that’s safe for them to be themselves but also to challenge and be challenged. Somewhere that they can talk openly about these kinds of issues, and know that no end position is right or wrong, that they’re able to debate and discuss with each other and myself.

“First and foremost I need to have a really good relationship with my students, and to have an environment that’s safe for them to be themselves but also to challenge and be challenged.”

Often I’ll play devil’s advocate, to spark discussion – and to be able to do that you need to have really strong relationships with your students. Ones that are honest and open, and also so that you know them not just in the classroom, but what their interests are, and a little bit about their home lives so that you can be a better teacher for them.

That was one of the things that I loved about working at the private school. I was able to have those relationships with those students, because I only had 14 in my Year 13 class. I think my biggest class was 26, and I only had that once. But then you go into a state school setting, and then you have a problem because you’ll have 34 students in your class, and there’s so little support for teacher aides.

You might have students with a whole range of different needs. As the single classroom teacher, having to try to balance your relationships with lots of different kinds of students – some of which have extreme needs, and you really have to spend a lot of time with them – can be difficult. I wish all kids in New Zealand were able to access the same resources in their education, no matter what school they attend.

Even if you have a room of completely uncomplicated students it’s still a massive undertaking.
Totally, because if you’ve only got an hour with them a day max, then you don’t really get to know them and you don’t really get to build that relationship. The difference between teacher class sizes and conditions is one of the biggest issues that I’ve found in New Zealand. And the pressure on teachers for students to perform really well, without very much recognition of the other external factors that impact on student achievement.

Another of the biggest differences between Finland and New Zealand that I’ve found is the respect for teacher professionalism. For example, when I was training to be a teacher in New Zealand at the age of 21 – I was really excited about it because I’d wanted to be a teacher since I was about 14 – I’d tell people that I was training to be a teacher and they’d say things like, ‘Oh well why would you want to do that? Those who can’t do teach’, ‘You can just fall back on that later’, ‘What a waste of your life’ and all of this stuff. I was always so offended and would argue with people who would tell me this, and oftentimes they were old white men. Almost all the time actually, thinking back on it.

But you’d get that impression from other people too – that there isn’t very much respect for teaching as a profession in New Zealand.

Underpaid, underresourced, underappreciated –
Yeah, and actually the pay is not so bad, except in Auckland it’s really difficult to save any money if you’re a teacher – you can’t buy a house. Talking to my friends and colleagues, especially those who are involved in the union, PPTA, or the primary school teacher union, when they are talking about industrial action they’re not talking about teacher pay.

It’s around teacher conditions, and conditions in the schools, and things like global funding – which is going to have an impact on, say, the numbers of teachers that can be employed in a school. Which means that their class size is going to be affected, which means the relationship between teachers and students is going to be impacted, which means that the achievement of those students is inevitably going to be impacted, because the teacher is not able to spend that much time with them.

“Finnish teachers are highly educated, valued for their professional judgement and given a lot of trust.”

Then of course, when students aren’t achieving as well that reflects badly on the teacher. You can’t assess teachers’ performance based on the achievement of their students. That’s what Finland’s figured out. They recognise that there are so many external factors impacting on student achievement, and they try to lessen that as much as possible. At the same time, Finnish teachers are highly educated, valued for their professional judgement and given a lot of trust.

When I tell Finnish people that I’m a teacher and studying education, they say ‘Oh wow, that’s really interesting. We really care about education over here, education’s so important’. I’ve met a number of people who have said, ‘Oh I’d love to be a teacher but I couldn’t get into the course.’ The teacher education courses are super-competitive. They’re right up there with Med School and Law School as an attractive and valued career pathway.

It’s crazy teaching’s not valued at the same level a lot of the time.
Well it’s so important, and people put so much pressure on teachers, yet the support for them as professionals isn’t really there. Finland’s value for education is so exciting. Having free tertiary education, and really well-funded early childhood education and care – but also at the same time they have social policies that support these education policies.

Miriam with her University of Olou class at a Finnish aid organisation in Helsinki

So, along with their high quality and well-subsidised childhood education and care they also have excellent parental leave options. And flexibility for working mothers, because the research shows that this brings significant benefits to a cohesive society and sustainable economy in the long term.

A holistic, cohesive approach to – human life! Crazy thought.
Yeah! In Finland some companies are even starting to provide grandparents with grandparental leave when they have grandchildren. They understand the complexities of life, and the role of education, in that it is not so much about preparing young people for the workforce, necessarily.

With regard to Finland’s excellent international testing results, you’ll see the educationalists in Finland come out and say: We don’t actually care about this, what we care about is the fact that we’ve got this equitable approach to education, and this is the benefit that education has on our society. We need to maintain our strong public comprehensive school system, and ensure free tuition and support for students in higher education so that everyone in society has access to learning. That’s the line that they take, rather than ‘Oh look, how great are we’.

Can you identify feasible ways of shifting the culture, and shifting that attitude and approach to education? In a country like New Zealand – or the US, to take an even more extreme example.
Let’s not go into America, that’s just an absolute disaster with Betsy Davos as Education Secretary, she has no idea what she’s doing. I think number one would be having an Education Minister who listened to teachers, and one of the things that has really concerned me about the National government is their lack of meaningful consultation with teachers and other education professionals. I went to some of the “consultation” meetings for charter schools. Heather Roy who was presenting ACT’s plan was utterly unconvincing, and unable – or unwilling – to answer the many questions from the audience. ACT had referred to the Swedish example in the 1990s as a model to emulate, but all the research I’ve seen on that points to it being a complete failure.

“One of the things that has really concerned me about the National government is their lack of meaningful consultation with teachers and other education professionals.”

Education Minister Hekia Parata restructured the Education Council and removed the requirement for there to be a teacher on the board. I have problems with that, because it automatically starts to devalue the professional judgement of teachers. If anybody knows what’s going on in education, it’s those people who are working on the frontlines. And it’s not just teachers, it’s also support staff, counsellors, teacher aides, who don’t get enough support – these are the people who know what’s happening in their students’ lives. They’re the ones who are best placed to be able to make judgements around what it is that their students need.

And processes like national standards – when students are assessed externally against each other on this really quite narrow framework, it devalues the informal assessment that teachers do all the time. This need to have quantitative data on student achievement, I don’t think is particularly helpful – especially at the primary school level. There are other ways we can go about that, through the qualitative assessment that teachers are always doing, that doesn’t label students as a success or failure from a young age.

“If anybody knows what’s going on in education, it’s those people who are working on the frontlines.”

Teachers are always on top of what students are up to in their classrooms, whether that’s through projects that they’re doing, or just watching them interact with other students. We’re always aware of what’s going on, and we want to be doing the best that we can. But there’s so much pressure on us, especially admin-wise, and that’s becoming more and more so, that it makes it difficult for us to actually do our jobs. Which is to teach, empower, and equip our students with the skills and attitudes they need in a swiftly changing world.

Thankfully we have an excellent curriculum in New Zealand, which acts more as a guide to allow flexibility for teachers to be able to teach what’s relevant to their students, in their own communities. But our curriculum, and our teachers, are undermined by the standardised testing regime. We have to be careful that teachers’ role does not become merely technical, as it has in the US, where teachers teach to the test or risk losing their job.

Undermining is the key word – undermining the role of the teacher. You’ve been trained to do a job, and then are essentially not being trusted to do it.
Yeah, and I can’t think of any other profession or industry where the professionals are not treated as professionals –

Oh yeah, that too! Something else that’s interesting about Finland – most teachers have a 5-yr research Masters, so teachers are really well-qualified, and they also have to do research around education issues, as well as doing the professional in-practice training. The respect for teachers as a profession isn’t just with the public, it comes from the top. Finland doesn’t have an Education Review Office as an external moderator in the same way we do, and school managers and teachers are trusted to do the job they’ve been trained for. On the whole this is successful.

“The respect for teachers as a profession isn’t just with the public, it comes from the top.”

Of course you’re going to get some teachers who go in from 8.30 in the morning to 3.30 in the afternoon, as you have in New Zealand too, but for most teachers that I know across the world teaching is a vocational job. If you don’t like children or teenagers, and if you want to work a 9-5, it’s probably not the best job for you.

You’re always working in the evenings, oftentimes in the weekends – and yes we get these great holidays, but often you’re working in the holidays. Teachers aren’t in it for the money, we’re not in it because it’s an easy job, we’re in it because we love it. We need to be given the opportunity to be able to teach, and to be able to do the job that we love. I guess we’re seeing it all the time in the newspapers at the moment, with young teachers who are leaving within the first few years. I think it’s almost 50% leave within 5 years. I was one of those, I left after 4 years.

I didn’t realise the number was that high –
It’s really high. And there are a lot of reasons for that. I think in Auckland part of it is the pay, and it’s difficult for teachers to buy a house or anything like that – but a lot of it is just the pressure and then not getting very much back from it. So much of what I get back from my students is in that relationship with them. Just in the last couple of weeks I was approached by a couple of my old history students, and one of them is training to be a high school teacher, in English and drama, and the other one is training to be a primary school teacher. I’m just so thrilled to know that young people like them are coming into the teaching profession, and it just made me feel so proud when they said that I was an inspiration for them to want to be a teacher. That’s the reward that you get.

You don’t often get instant rewards in class, or in teaching, but you definitely get it along down the line when you have these kinds of situations. It’s so amazing to see, especially young women, go on to do all these interesting things with their lives, study around the country and world, and become generally awesome adults. I hope I’ve contributed to that through some of the conversations, and I guess modelling, as their teacher.

Well you’ve been doing some pretty cool things yourself. Can you talk a little bit about the internship you’ve been doing with Amnesty, and what that’s involved?
I’ve been there for the last three months, working with the global human rights education team, and a little bit with the youth activism team as well. A major part of my work there has been to develop activities and resources to support the campaigns on refugee rights and human rights defenders. These modules will be used by educators and activists around the world, with people of all ages. It encourages active participation from students, it’s not passive as too much education can be.

We have a strong emphasis on sharing experiences and perspectives through storytelling and role play. It’s interactive and can be used in settings where there is limited access to resources and technology. I hope that it can help to make human rights, which can be quite an elitist concept, more accessible and meaningful to people at ground level. For people to claim their rights and defend the rights of others, they need to know about them first.

Have you had a chance to look at the UK education system?
Yesterday we were talking about the anti-radicalisation programme here in the UK, it’s called Prevent. A friend of mine’s just finished her master’s in Oxford. Her dissertation’s about this programme, which is basically trying to identify young people in school who could be radicalised in the future, or when they’re still at school. It has significant negative implications for teachers and their relationships with their students.

Read the Rights Watch (UK) report

We’ve got teachers in positions where they’re having to report on students if they talk about something to do with terrorism in class, for example, or they think they might be doing some shady activities in the courtyard. They have to report these students. It’s led to situations for teachers here that I’ve spoken to, who have said that they are too scared to talk about a lot of these issues in class. These are also social studies teachers, who – you know, have to talk about social issues. So it’s just meant that some conversations are now out of bounds –

It’s censorship.
It’s censorship, and it’s because teachers are not wanting to be put in a position where they’re having to report on students. And so some teachers are not reporting on students, but then they end up in a situation where other students in their class might go back to their families and say, ‘Oh so-and-so said this in class today’, and then that gets back to the school and it turns out the teacher hasn’t reported them, and then the teacher gets in trouble.

“If you can’t have conversations about terrorism and radicalisation, there’s no place for [students] to be able to get different perspectives.”

If you can’t have conversations about terrorism and radicalisation, then students who are starting to have these thoughts – it’s in your face all of the time on the news – there’s no place for them to have these conversations. There’s no place for them to be able to discuss this stuff and get different perspectives and realise that oftentimes those young people who are radicalised – who maybe go into that because there’s a sense of community that they find there, that they find some kind of meaning there that potentially they could find if they were able to have these conversations with their peers and their teachers in schools. So, yeah, there’s a lot of stuff happening here in the UK that I’m really interested in too, but again it comes back down to the importance of that relationship between teachers and students.

Miriam Pierard is an activist and educator from Auckland, New Zealand. She is currently completing a Master’s in Education and Globalisation at the University of Oulu. Follow her on Twitter.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.