Hardnose media personality Duncan Garner is best known for his verbal stoushes and political scalp-taking, but he is surprisingly soft on teachers.

“I completely value what teachers do,” are Duncan Garner’s last words in a short interview with EA. “I understand how tough it is – I have four children – and I see it on a daily basis so I want to make sure that gets across. Have a good day. Bye.”

It’s the equivalent of a finger-jabbing moment; something he was accused of a few years ago when contradictory accounts had him confronting a beleaguered former Cabinet minister. As a political journalist, Garner has led the pack in scandals that claimed the scalps of, among others, John Banks and John Tamihere. Yet on teachers, he’s almost effusive with a few reservations of course.

“My two daughters have gone through kohanga reo and my son is at an early childhood centre. I’ve seen what you guys do and I think it’s phenomenal. I mean you do remarkable jobs under enormously pressured and stressful circumstances. You guys really make a difference. And I wonder whether we treat teachers well or whether we reward them enough compared to jobs that other people do in society where they get paid three or four times as much.”

His own memories of the education system are almost all positive; he attended kindergarten in Northcote, then Willow Park School, Birkenhead Primary and Westlake Boys’ High. “I have fond memories of coming second in a talent contest singing ‘You are my sunshine’. I remember running all the way home with a one-dollar note. I remember being really engaged by teachers at Birkenhead. I don’t remember any bad things happening.”

But then he balances the story with a couple of less flattering anecdotes. He had a teacher who was very good but a bit stern. He recalls making up a rhyming poem about her which doesn’t bear repeating. And it sounds like he’s really only just forgiven his primer four teacher “who treated us like she was our mum, she was really warm to us, but I did lose a little bit of faith in her. “She was so good to me and so good to all our class. But one day, I’d been outside and my pants had got really muddy, and she made me take them off and do the rest of the class in my underpants. That wasn’t a great call.”

He would also have liked more music. “I wish I’d been pushed more into music. It was more,˜you go and play rugby’. I would have also liked to have been a singer, you know what I mean.” At secondary school, he was grateful to a journalism teacher, Paul Ferner, who told Garner, “The world’s your oyster mate, you clearly need to do this.” Garner credits him with creating “a framework and environment where I could achieve.”

Nowadays Garner fronts TV3’s current affairs programme 3rd Degree as well Radio Live’s late afternoon Drive with Duncan Garner. But he’s no shock jock. He says he likes to look at the best and worst of every policy or political party and call the big issues as he sees them. “The thing that worries me is inequality, is the gap between rich and poor, and I see this in the gap between rich and poor schools. I go into these rich schools, which are phenomenally resourced. “Then I can be in places like South Auckland and also in the provinces and to be honest it’s like a different New Zealand. Parents are simply struggling to make ends meet and that means they cannot raise the money or pay fees for the extra resources.”
He says inequality means not all children get the same education. “The wealthy schools have the ability to pull the lever. That worries me about our education system.”

He’s critical too of politicians who treat their job like a game” “and some of the most important things, that is education, aren’t properly debated and discussed.” He thinks the only way a proper debate will happen is on a one-to-one level. “It’s got to happen in lounges and houses. It’s not a collective conservation. I think it’s an individual conversation. “I think parents need to be more engaged in their kids’ education. And I’m by no means perfect – I should be doing a lot more with my kids and I wish I had the time to do it.

“I do wonder if we’ve become too busy in this massive capitalist society so we’re leaving everything to teachers and not doing it ourselves. That’s the discussion we need to be having.”

-Jane Blaikie