School Daze

Lincoln-High-1For the last month and a half or so, I have been observing Mrs. Litten’s English classes on Mondays and Tuesdays at Lincoln High. Twenty minutes outside of Christchurch, the township of Lincoln is kind of the “country” of Canterbury, but developments and suburbs have been growing ever since the earthquake.

To an extent, teaching is teaching, regardless of place. But there are so many idiosyncrasies, both formally in the structuring of school and assessment, and less obvious cultural differences I notice in the undercurrents of my interactions with students.

Some initial differences:

Years vs Grades

It’s a year off – high school goes from year 9 through year 13 (8th-12th grade)


Aka 20 minute mid-morning tea time. Everyday. Everyone just stops working and chills. I am definitely living amongst an English colony heritage.


While America’s education curriculum is molded by End of Course and AP exams, SAT/ACT, and other standardized testing, NZ is run by NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement). You have a few major assignments or exams for each class, which you get about three credits for each. Some exams are “internals” (done in class, marked by the teacher), others are “externals” (standardized and created by NCEA). You get 12-18ish credits in each class, and you need so many credits to graduate. Some credits are way easier to get than others.


There is little to no grading number. When there is, expect a much lower one – an “A” is 80-100, “B” is 70-80 and so on. Those NCEA assignments mentioned above have four marks: not achieved, achieved, merit, and excellence. If a student has enough credits already, there is little motivation to even sit the exam. And there is no way to mark smaller class assignments or motivate them to do homework or other practice because it’s not feeding into a larger cumulative class grade or gpa. On the flip side, there seems to be a lot less pressure and stress among students.


It’s alarming how much I had become accustomed to textbooks, assessments, and someone else telling you pretty much exactly what you have to teach. The curriculum here is conceptual; its broad nature gives a lot of breathing room for teachers to be creative, teach what they like, and be responsive to student needs. But with freedom comes responsibility to figure all that out. It’s going to be great in the long run, but it’s a little overwhelming now.


Cute little kilt-wearing Christmas trees aren’t they? All the uniforms look very private school-esque to me, but it’s normal in public schools here. The year 13s have the privilege of wearing what they want.


Camp & Sports Days

I am in a rugby-playing, sport-loving rugged land. All the year 10s miss a few days of school go to camp  and do some team building and outdoor activities. This isn’t just at Lincoln; it’s common among all high schools (can’t wait to chaperone those!!). Sports days are like a big field day where different school houses get to compete against each other in a variety of athletic events. Also standard in NZ secondary schools.


I watch a kid ask for refill paper or a pen every. single. day. How are you at school without these essentials?? They also have to top-up and provide their own printing money, so they’re remiss to print anything out.

Where is your lunch room??

Outside, apparently. There is not common area for students to gather other than the grounds. Even when it’s cold, they stay outside. Only in a torrential downpour of rain are students able to eat lunch in the hallways.


Don’t eat in class. Almost ever, but certainly not without asking. Some teachers in America are strict about eating too, but here it’s more of an understood social more. Also, don’t sit on tables or desks. That rule has to do with Māori values of a table being for food, not your rear.

“Muss,” and other Colloquialisms

Sometimes they call me Miss Compton, but most of the time, teachers are just referred to as “Miss.” Or rather, with the kiwi accent, “Muss.” On the flip side, they smirk and playfully echo me just about every time I say “y’all.” Yesterday a student had his phone out, and I told him to “put it up.” “Where, miss? How can it go ‘up’?” I had never thought of this one before, but, rightly so, phones should go “in the bag,” not “up.”

Though I’m technically not on official placement yet, I have begun partnering with my mentor and teaching some lessons in her classroom trailer.

Fondly referred to as the “Hobbit Hole” because the ceiling is so low

The kids themselves are so great. I love high schoolers’ sass and spunk, their assumed invincibility, the way they are really starting to figure themselves and the big ol’ world out. I can’t wait to be a full time teacher and get to know them through daily classroom interactions, build relationships with them, and participate through some extracurriculars.

They’re also hilarious. The year 12 classes have been practicing how to analyze a film through a close viewing of Children of Men. They’ve had plenty of scaffolding along the way, and they’re allowed to use their notes and watch the scene as many times as they want in the final assessment. It’s officially test time now, and I have been moderating. Despite all the practice, their ability levels span the gamut. One kid raised his hand. He had a few notes scribbled down on his chart and the first sentence of a paragraph on his sheet of paper.

“Miss, I don’t know what else to write.” He didn’t sound defeated or apathetic, just matter of fact. I can’t help but laugh a little on the inside. Well I can’t very well write the essay for you. Even so, I gave him a little guidance for a theme to work with and some potential techniques.

On the other side of the room, there are a couple of girls that do think critically, but they’re more concerned with getting the mark than branching off and proposing an iota of an original thesis.

“Miss, will you read this last paragraph?” they eagerly ask. “Is this right?”

Once again they’ve got me smiling. There are times where you can be flat out wrong in English, but do tell me – since when has there ever been a “right” in English? It’s right if you can back it up with logical evidence that makes it right.

There have also been some face-palm failures – like in 10SM, a group of unengaged fourteen-year olds that isn’t too motivated to read, or learn in general. It’s the kind of class where it’s hard to get to the actual teaching because of behavior management. We’re reading a book together, and I tried to switch it up by experimenting with choral reading, where we all read in unison. Bad idea. The smart ass students read slowly and loudly. We couldn’t get through a paragraph.

“Miss, this isn’t working,” one girl complained.

No dip it’s not working! I’m trying here.

So we returned to the teacher reading and class following along. We’re nearly done with Term 1, and we’re only halfway through the book, so I’ve tackled a few more unsuccessful strategies. Mrs. Litten and I paired students, instructing the stronger readers to read aloud to with weaker ones. Plenty of people disregarded the partnering. When we went to the library reading area, another class was taking an assessment and the teacher asked us to keep it down. So back to silent reading. E.g. half of them staring off into space.

One of the māori concepts we’ve talked about at uni is “rangatiratanga” – it means self-determination, and it encapsulates the idea of becoming an effective and competent teacher with skills, knowledge, and diligence. It’s someone who has “mana,” or the near supernatural force within a person who can act with autonomy, integrity, dignity, and respect. Without it, teenagers will pull the leash out as far as you’ll let it go, and then they’ll run around you and get you all tangled up in it. With practice I’m learning how to reel them back in. I’m finding my presence, I’m striking moments of rangatiratanga.

Mainly I feel a lot like Maria did before she meets the VonTrapp family in The Sound of Music – a little timid, a bit unsure. But then I remind myself to “seek the courage I lack,” to be “firm but kind,” and to have confidence in me. I will get there.

I must dream of the things I am seeking
I am seeking the courage I lack

The courage to serve them with reliance
Face my mistakes without defiance
Show them I’m worthy
And while I show them
I’ll show me! So!

Let them bring on all their problems
I’ll do better than my best
I have confidence
They’ll put me to the test
But I’ll make them see
I have confidence in me

Somehow I will impress them
I will be firm but kind
And all those children
Heaven bless them
They will look up to me
And mind me

With each step I am more certain
Everything will turn out fine
I have confidence the world can all be mine
They’ll have to agree I have confidence in me


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s