Speaking to thousands of bibliophiles at the world’s biggest book fair, Joy Cowley praised the work of New Zealand teachers who “do not sacrifice creativity on the altar of conformity”.
The famous trade fair hosts 7500 exhibitors from 110 countries and is attended by a quarter of a million people. Because New Zealand was Country of Honour, Joy was invited, along with poet Bill Manhire, to give an opening speech.
With an audience of thousands of people from all over the world” most of them listening to a simultaneous translation through headphones Joy says her speech was an opportunity to pay tribute to New Zealand teachers. “After all, this flood of creativity that had come from the Country of Honour has its roots in the New Zealand classroom.”
Joy says New Zealand punches well above its weight in most fields of endeavour largely because our education system fosters creativity, individual excellence and a rugged, self-reliant spirit that fits well with the Kiwi do-it-yourself culture.
This is what she told the Frankfurt bibliophiles:”Like all New Zealanders I am a product of teachers. So here, as a citizen of the Country of Honour, and a writer who has been shaped by many teachers, I would like to pay a tribute to New Zealand teachers who promote individual excellence and do not sacrifice creativity on the altar of conformity.”
A prolific author of children’s picture books and educational series as well as adult novels, and winner of a dozen awards and honours for her writing, Joy Cowley was made a Distinguished Companion of New Zealand Order of Merit for services to children’s literature in 2005.

The road to writing

Joy Cowley describes how New Zealand’s education system worked for her. In the 1940s, schools in New Zealand were run with military precision that had us marching into class with Sousa band music and a teacher roaring like a sergeant major if we got out of step. With roll call came inspection, hands on desks to see if fingernails were clean. In those days, schools were run with more threat than encouragement.
After World War 11, a new breed of teachers saw children as people, rather than adult investment. We were in transition from an educational system based on teachers’ teaching to one that catered for the child’s learning needs.
There was more emphasis on literature and the arts, and teachers set me on the road to become a writer.

My favourite educator

Ian Forsyth was a young man back from the war who went into a Form 1 class in a country school.
He got the rapt attention of the entire class, and even the big 14-year-old boys with nicotine-stained fingers, who were counting the days to the end of school, were leaning forward to learn about “Ship-building on the Clyde” and the cloud formations as perceived by a pilot.
Mr Forsyth was keen on art, drama and literature. We learned rollicking ballads, and for the last half hour of the school day, he read to us: Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, R M Ballantyne’s Coral Island.
That teacher got exemplary behaviour. If there was any disruption, the afternoon reading was cancelled. The class soon became self-correcting.
Mr Forsyth taught me how to paint with water colours, and he never saw the ink blots and scratches on my writing. He made me visible to myself as a writer.

A teacher who knows you

About 30 years later I met him and was able to thank him for setting me on that road to discovery. He then told me something I didn’t know he knew. He said I used to read a book in my lap while he was talking, that he had often tried to catch me out with questions but I always answered correctly. It is a tribute to him that he never stopped me reading under my desk.
My obsessions at school were drawing and writing. Everything else was tolerated, although I think I did well enough. I was dux of Foxton Primary School in 1948. My quick memory kept me going for another couple of years and then I had to learn to put effort into schoolwork.
My parents moved around the Wellington province when we were young, and I had attended six schools before I was 10. I was a slow learner in many ways and didn’t grasp reading until I was nearly nine. There were probably many reasons for this; different schools, wartime, overcrowded classrooms and tired teachers, and a phonics-based reading system that had no meaning for me until I had enough skills to encounter story.

Rugged individualists

We are a nation of individuals, and while this may not work well on the roads, it does mean that we tend to be responsible, creative, good problem-solvers and often have gifts of leadership. All of this comes back to our teachers.
I have worked in schools in countries where the emphasis is on politeness, conformity, obedience and patriotism, where children learn by rote and individualism is not admired. Creativity is not a product of this type of schooling.
My grandchildren are all in their twenties, and the great-grandchildren are babies. It pleased me that my grandchildren enjoyed school, but I did worry about the amount of homework they got, even at primary school. At times this seemed detrimental to family life, and I wondered if it was necessary.
My own children did well with very little homework at primary school. We heard their reading, spelling, times tables, and then had time for family games and conversations. These days, children seem so busy after school that they don’t have much family time.

What needs fixing?

I think the answers are obvious. I could list three things which would make a difference, but they are not likely to happen:
– free breakfast for all low decile schools
– for the first three years, no more than 15 children in a class
– more live-in schools for special needs students.
Ideas for little touches that can make a big difference:
At the beginning of the year, a teacher sends a personal note to parents thanking them for pleasure of having their child in the class. (I know a teacher who actually visits each family and this and has magic results.)
Teachers go to seminars led by minority citizens as an introduction to their culture. Mutual respect is very important, and some teachers may unwittingly offend through ignorance.
At 76, I have retired from school visits because I can’t keep up with the demand. But over 40 years of class visits and talking to children, I always addressed them as “Ladies and Gentlemen”. Their initial reaction would be surprise and then they would all sit just a little taller.
What do I think education is for? It is to teach us how to learn for the rest of our lives.