One Good Question with Susan Baragwanath: The Only Way to Break Cycle of Poverty

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Education Equity / Eisenhower Fellowship / Equity / International Education / One Good Question

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

I have never been into deep thinking on education and I am not much of a philosopher. As a practitioner for 37 years I saw immense change from rote learning to the touch of an iPad. Show me a young person who knows the times tables and can write a sentence in the imperfect tense? But does it matter when they can use a calculator and Google ? As a teacher I have always felt it was  my duty to challenge a student to believe that they could do anything they wanted. It was up to me to provide the mechanism so they could achieve to the best of their ability. But now, in the 21st century, what mechanism is it exactly ?

There has been huge investment in technology in recent years. This has facilitated both teaching and learning in ways that we previously couldn’t imagine. The change is so dramatic that the traditional teacher now struggles to keep up.  We used to joke we needed to be ‘a page ahead of the kids’ . Now the joke is on us. Older teachers, with all their wisdom, are so many volumes behind social media, fantasy games, apps etc etc they will never catch up. I see colleagues still trying to put coins into parking meters while a kid is paying with his smartphone.

Many countries have national curriculums and the Education Ministries are given a sum which is then passed on down the line eventually ending up in a school for implentation.  Those curriculums which were once worked on by very clever and sophisticated people are now struggling in this technological world.  Change can be slow and national curriculums can easily end up a dinosaur in their relevance to the next generation. But yet the poor teacher has to implement it and will have a perfomance review based upon it and may be under the regime of merit pay.

Perhaps we should distinguish between policy and law.   The law in most countries is that every child is entitled to basic formal education for a number of years. But government policies create inequities in implementation of those laws. It can also depend on who is in power at the time and if they allow policy to take over. Most countries manage to run reasonable schooling systems within the contraints of bureaucracies.   But one terrible example of a country that doesn’t [run a reasonable schooling system] is  Yemen. Pre-1994, they had a half decent school system left over from the British.  But then the President of the day said that young people didn’t have to go to school anymore. In other words basic formal education was ‘off’. One of the results is that the Yemen is the most dangerous and shambolic country on earth. Young people who should have had the benefit of a basic formal education now appear on our TV screens wielding guns and chopping off peoples heads.

If we don’t believe in investment  and follow the law and make sure our teachers are given every assistance possible to be up with the play in the digital world, then we should remember the example of extreme and utter chaos of the Yemen, because it can get that bad.

We have so many marginalized youth (teen parents, adjudicated youth, etc) who need different supports to access mainstream culture in order to break the cycle of poverty.  What role can education – in and out of school– play to support them?  

In my experience the only way to actually bring a marginalized young person out of the cycle of poverty they live in, is to provide wraparound services via the school.  In one college where I worked (the poorest in NZ with the highest Pacifika population at the time) we tried all manner of things to improve educational achievement.  Most of it didn’t work because students came to school hungry and there was no government sponsored food programme. You cannot teach a hungry child. The family would often be in crisis and children were regularly bashed up by angry  or drunk parents who had no work. Communicable diseases (yes, even in beautiful, peaceful New Zealand) was rife.  Scabies, boils, rheumatic fever, tuberculosis – I saw it all. Try to teach a troubled child from that background the history of the Tudors. You may as well bark against thunder.

In this extreme case, food, pastoral care, health care and education in that order became a solution to the problem of marginalised youth. It sounds easy, but I received a letter from the Minister of Education forbidding (strong word that) me to pay for food out of the ‘education’ budget. I was publically scolded by officials from the Department of Health for ‘making a scene’ over a scabies outbreak affecting 70% of the 800 students as they said that ‘scabies didn’t happen in winter’.  It most certainly did as I and other teachers got it. It became so bad (many students became infected and hospitalized) they considered calling in the military. The blind eye approach to ‘no scabies in winter’ cost the country buckets of money to get it under control. It was real head in the sand stuff. I solved the pastoral care problem by hiring retirees who were not brain dead at 65 but tired of classrooms full of kids who were too distressed to learn anything.

Eventually in my own little world I managed to shame, cajole, shout, stamp etc and I got all those things above that broke the cycle.  It took me ten very long years and I probably neglected a lot of other things including my own children (who thankfully have grown up into amazing adults) but you need to ask the question – why did it have to be so difficult and take so long ?

Once you get over that, education is filling that enquiring mind.  And it is a joy to see the fruits of your labour.

Susan-Baragwanath-NewSusan’s One Good Question :  I am still thinking about it !

Dr. Susan Baragwanath works as an independent consultant. She was a career secondary school teacher and administrator who taught internationally. Dr. Baragwanath is the founder of He Huarahi Tamariki Schools, Maori for ‘a chance for children’. Her program plan was to provide basic formal education and training for teen parents to graduate from high school. These include high quality pre-schools. The highly acclaimed schools were honored and became models, replicated in more than 50 locations around New Zealand.


The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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