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Tackling the hard education questions in election year

New NZEI president Lynda Stuart is a passionate and experienced practitioner, social justice advocate and dreams of a future-proofed education system and has a Better Plan.

When NZEI Te Riu Roa President Lynda Stuart was just three years old, she would gather the neighbourhood children together, and sooner or later she would be playing teacher for an impromptu class.

That early drive to teach never wavered, and Stuart began teachers training college when she was two weeks shy of her 16th birthday.

“I started teaching my first class three years later. When I think about it now, I’m horrified.  My first class was a year five and six class, so they weren’t actually much younger than me,” she says.

“I really loved it, but about six weeks in, the principal came to see me one morning and said, ‘I want to tell you you’re doing a great job,’ and I just burst into tears. I can remember saying to him that it was just so hard. The next minute – he’d obviously gone out and talked to other people in the school – I had this string of people coming in to make sure I was okay. It was that daunting thought that you were responsible for all of these children…and it just all hit me.”

While the feeling of being overwhelmed quickly faded with time and experience, the memory of that time remains strong and partly explains Stuart’s passion for supporting beginning teachers.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with beginning teachers around their PD when they start. I used to run the provisionally registered teachers’ courses, working with them, getting them started and supporting them. That was important to me, because people helped me when I first started,” she says.

As the principal of Mt Roskill’s multicultural May Road School, Stuart is also passionate about being responsive to her school community’s dreams and aspirations for their children.

“I’m really proud that the community felt they were able to ask for and establish a Samoan bilingual classroom in 2013. Our Lumana’i Manuia Mo A Taeao has now grown to three classrooms.

“I was with the children in the classroom the other day, and just the strength and pride they have when they talk about their language, their culture and their identity, that’s a real highlight for me,” says Stuart.

However, she is very concerned that May Road’s bilingual unit is not supported under current education policy.

“The resourcing is not there, the teachers themselves don’t get any additional remuneration for teaching in a Pasifika bilingual setting. They do what they do because they love it and because it’s important to their community. They are dedicated teachers and our educational policies should show a commitment to providing these culturally responsive learning environments. That’s certainly an area where I would like to see some changes.

The big issue of inequity and the impact it has on children’s learning is also something that Stuart wants to tackle.

“I know families in our school, wonderful people who are committed to their kids, but there are some pretty dire circumstances that they live in and some of these families are at crisis point. This is New Zealand and that should not be acceptable.”

The upcoming general election is one of the reasons that Stuart was keen to step up from her role as the principals’ representative on NZEI Executive.

“I really want to keep education in the forefront of people’s minds, so people are making choices based on what is best for the future of New Zealand and what is best for our children and our communities.”

Stuart is frustrated by some of the failed overseas policies that are getting pushed on to our schools, and the sidelining of the New Zealand curriculum because of the Government’s focus on National Standards results.

“Those are narrow indicators of what educational success is. They do not show the success of the individual. We have an opportunity to be future-focused and to ensure that our education system is responsive to the needs of the individual – that it fosters talents and strengths and supports students who have additional needs.

“One of the things that really concerns me is that our education system relies on the political whim or ideology of our politicians and there is the potential for us to swing in different directions with every change of government,” she says.

“In this country, we’re small enough to have a conversation around what we want our education system to look like.”

Stuart’s dream would be for all political parties to agree to a 20-year vision for education, working alongside educators driving the professional knowledge and using good evidence.

“It would mean that whichever political party is in, that there is a commitment to a shared vision and the direction we’re going in, rather than just having policy that comes in at us from left field. That’s really important to me.”

Becoming NZEI President has also meant stepping down from her role on the Education Council. Stuart was put forward by NZEI and was selected by the Minister of Education on the appointee-only council. She didn’t know what to expect of the council, which replaced the democratically representative NZ Teachers Council 18 months ago amidst a storm of anger and protest within the sector.

“I went into the Education Council with some trepidation at first, but I’ve really enjoyed my time on the council. Everyone in that room has a real desire to do the very best they can to make it work for children and for teachers and the profession as well. Everyone has children at the heart of what they do. That’s been really positive, because I didn’t know whether it would be like that.

“I’m not sad to stop because I know that that’s what I need to do, but I wish them all the best and I know I’ll still be working alongside them in a different way,” says Stuart.

“Becoming NZEI President has never been one of those long-held dreams, but as time has gone by and we’ve faced challenges and opportunities, for me it’s become clearer that I do have a part to play at that level,” she says.

“It was a gradual realisation that I would like to do this if people want me to, and I think the time is right.”