Learning our Living: a teaching autobiography
Cape Catley, $29.95,
For many people a teaching autobiography might not seem an exciting prospect. Charmaine Pountney, however, is no ordinary teacher. This book is an account of nearly 60 years of involvement in education as learner, teacher, secondary school principal, university dean, community educator, counsellor and advocate for the rejected. Both practical and passionate, it joins a distinguished list of books by writer-teachers such as Jonathan Kozol, George Dennison and Deborah Meier. Like them, the book expresses commitment and at times anger at the loss of human potential and the waste of young lives.
Pountney’s book is in two parts. The first, the autobiographical section, takes us through her schooldays and her teaching career up until recently, when she gave up all full-time involvement in education and devoted herself, with her partner Tanya, to organic farming in Awhitu. Part two is a commentary on some of the burning educational issues in this country. Although she gives some of the historical background to these issues, this is no academic treatise. Nothing could be further from the usual text in philosophy or sociology of education. Pountney unashamedly admits to presenting a personal opinion in often immoderate language. The great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire always maintained that education could never be neutral; this book is a perfect example of what he meant, a passionately committed expression of personal views.
Like all good teachers, Pountney was also a learner, who obviously enjoyed school, finding secondary school exciting because she learnt new things. She does, however, confess to being a sometimes less than perfect student, admitting with shame her form’s persecution of a French teacher, which drove the “gentle, scholarly woman” into early retirement.
Pountney gained her teaching experience at two of Auckland’s more interesting secondary schools. She loved teaching, although she felt slightly embarrassed about admitting it, mainly because of the way teachers were portrayed in the media. From the beginning, there were certain aspects of life in New Zealand secondary schools that she could not accept, such as corporal punishment and uniforms. Like most beginning teachers, though, she had to compromise, often settling for a spelling test or dictation of notes just to keep the class quiet.
In 1978, Pountney became Principal of Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, the work for which she is undoubtedly best known. She was probably exactly what the school needed at that time. The oldest girls’ school in Auckland, it had a strong sense of tradition and an atmosphere of order and decorum. Because of its situation in central Auckland, it was strongly multicultural. It was also close to the red light district of Karangahape Road.
Although an innovative principal, Pountney was no radical. She had a strong sense of the practical realities of the job. For example, although she regarded uniforms as “a symbol of the emotional insecurity of New Zealand society”, she did not wade in and abolish them. The traditional uniform (including navy skirts, ties and black stockings) continued, although the issue was regarded as an educational rather than a control one. In a nice reversal of the usual situation, she once told a student not to wear her uniform, because it looked absurd with the girl’s rather grotesque hairstyle.
One of the most potent influences on Pountney at this time was the work of Benjamin Bloom at the University of Chicago, whose passion for equity was translated into practical ways in which all students could reach the highest levels of attainment. For Pountney at AGGS, the challenge was one of race and culture. “What are you doing to challenge the racism of your staff?” a friend once asked her. She agreed that the school was, in fact, monocultural, although multiracial. Her attempts to deal with this issue are typical; she treated it as essentially a learning issue for all staff, including herself. Inevitably, in a conservative environment, she ran up against opposition, particularly from the heads of the two boys’ grammar schools. But she survived, and when she left after ten years, she felt she had done all she was capable of to shape the school for the future.
The autobiographical section of the book concludes with an account of a year as Acting Principal of a South Auckland school, Hillary College, which was in a very sorry state. This is Pountney at her best, writing with commitment, rage and pain. I can only compare this chapter with Jonathan Kozol’s brilliant book on black schools in Boston, Death at an Early Age, and that is praise indeed. Hillary College is in a suburb where “tens of thousands of adults live on the margins of society”, and the overall quality of the school had steadily declined. The good staff had mostly left, exhausted by the struggle to maintain standards; some of the remnant, she writes, were appalling, “ignorant, lazy, dishonest, violent, contemptuous of children, racist, or all of these”. Those advocating market forces in education would say that such a school should be allowed to die, a system once described by a visiting Swedish educational administrator as “the wild Klondike system”. As Pountney points out, though, schools do not die quickly, but linger on, providing less and less for the poorer children. There is not space here to detail all the things she did to restore Hillary College, but she notes that the school is now recovering, with a growing roll. Nevertheless, among the conflicting feelings that she had at the end of the year was anguish at unfinished business, “outrage that a school should ever have been allowed to deteriorate so far, and fury at the bureaucrats and politicians who had so often seemed obstructive rather than helpful.”
In the second part of the book Pountney covers the three main areas where she believes change is needed in schools and in the New Zealand education system as a whole – excellence, equity and evaluation. The key to excellent schools, she believes, using John Hattie’s extensive research, is to put in place systems which help teachers improve, so that they become effective lifelong learners themselves. We need to have democratic procedures in schools to give students practice in democratic participation, procedures of the kind that are built into some European systems as a matter of course. The same she believes is true of the curriculum: “a living curriculum is one which is shaped within schools by teacher, students, families and the wider community working together.” However, she does believe that students should have a real choice of what school to go to, which is something of a contradiction of her opposition to market forces in education and the practice of allowing bad schools to die.
A concern occurring throughout the book is that of examinations: “When I begin to talk or write about our national examination system I become enraged.” Exams such as School Certificate she regards as a hoax, playing a confidence trick on young people and their families. Pountney’s discussion of evaluation is excellent, drawing on her long experience. She is scathing about Ministers of Education who insist that 50 will be a pass and 49 a fail, a procedure she regards as absurd: “Imagine an airline pilot who got off the ground 50 percent of the time.” Not that she believes that internal examinations should entirely replace external ones; we need both. The real argument, for her, is one of equity: educational selection for some versus educational excellence for all.
Learning our Living is a lively read, even inspiring when Pountney is writing about her life in teaching. It will, no doubt, infuriate many people who may disagree with her forcefully held opinions and unashamedly emotional writing. It will appeal more to people with interests in the secondary school sector rather than, for example, primary schools, but that is inevitable given the author’s background. New Zealand education needs more books like this and, indeed, more teachers like Charmaine Pountney.
Jim Collinge is Associate Dean in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Senior Lecturer in Education at Victoria University of Wellington.