A tale of one teacher

Jacqui Burne, Massey University

Every person has a story to tell, and our lives can be defined by our stories.

In the context of Education, teacher stories matter as a way to not only celebrate the present and prepare for the future but also to acknowledge history and learn from it. Stories of teacher happenings can give a ‘face’ to one such teacher and make the experiences of past teachers visible and appreciated. These historic stories can have relevance for teachers and teaching today as a way to identify with similar experiences, highlight current pedagogical developments, and accumulate a rich collection of the activities of ordinary teachers.

In keeping with the importance of teacher stories, my presentation at the 2018 NZARE Conference at the AUT campus in South Auckland was entitled, Why teacher stories matter: A case study of one Commerce teacher (1958–1976) and was a brief summary of my Doctor of Education (EdD) thesis.

Introducing Will Potter, Commerce teacher

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Will Potter. Photo: Supplied.

Will was a Commerce teacher and taught at five post-primary schools during his career:

  • Onewhero District High School (1958–1961);
  • Waiuku College (1961–1964);
  • Paeroa College (1965–1966);
  • Spotswood College, New Plymouth (1967–1974); and
  • Mount Maunganui College (1975–1976).

Initially, he was a classroom teacher at Onewhero but was a (Commerce) Head of Department for the next three schools. At Mount Maunganui College, he was a part-time teacher as, by then, he was 68 years old, and he retired at the end of 1976. Will began teaching in the 1950s, a significant time in New Zealand post-primary history with increased rolls, a lack of teachers and facilities, and the influence of the Thomas Report with its emphasis on the whole pupil and the introduction of various School Certificate subjects, such as Commercial Practice that Will went on to teach.

Research findings: Probing Will’s story

Will’s story has unique characteristics in that he was an immigrant whose first language was not English and who came to teaching relatively late in life (51 years) without teaching qualifications or a degree. He then went on to write textbooks in his chosen subjects. I chose to tell Will’s teaching story because of his experiences and unique characteristics but also because Will was my father. Such a familial link suggests notions of bias and nepotism, so I was conscious of continually being self-reflexive throughout my research.

Data for this qualitative case study came from document analysis, a focus group, and semi-structured interviews, and were analysed using sociocultural–historical theory. Research questions play an integral part in defining a case study methodology, and this study involved four research questions. My findings related to each research question are summarised below.

1. What key life experiences shaped Will before he started teaching?

Two backdrop experiences that shaped Will and his teaching were identified: his colonial background in the Netherlands East Indies (NEI; now Indonesia)—one of servants, Asian culture, and an idyllic lifestyle for the Dutch—and his internment in Japanese concentration camps in the NEI during World War II (WWII).

2. What motivated Will to go post-primary teaching?

Five reasons were identified that influenced Will’s decision to teach, with increased remuneration being the leading motivator. Will needed more money to support his growing family and, in contrast to his previous position as a clerk, teacher salaries were higher for Will.

3. What teaching approaches did Will use?

Will’s teaching approaches included chalk and talk teaching that involved Will (or any teacher) writing notes on the blackboard with chalk and the pupils copying them down—a teaching method that was prevalent at the time and one that emphasised rote learning and memorisation. In teaching this way, Will also encouraged the emphasis on examinations. He also used scaffolding techniques, such as revising information from past lessons, although Will may not have been able to articulate this pedagogy as he did so.

Will was also a raconteur and continually told stories, mainly of his internment experiences. He used his storytelling in his classes when work had been completed, when relieving for sick teachers, in the staff room, and even entertaining the whole of Spotswood College when there were timetabling issues. Everyone I spoke to mentioned Will’s stories. In effect, this thesis is a means to reconnoitre the raconteur.

4. What was Will’s contribution to Commerce teaching in New Zealand?

Will’s main contribution to Commerce teaching was through the 11 textbooks he wrote and which were used throughout New Zealand and overseas.

Reflecting on the research

Within my thesis, I positioned myself as Will’s semi-biographer. I could not tell his complete teaching story as I was not able to talk about all that went on in his classrooms, nor was I able to relate his complete life story. I only interpreted those aspects of Will’s teaching story that I considered related to the research questions.

I was, however, able to make certain teaching conditions real. For example, rather than simply stating that there was a lack of facilities in 1950s’ post-primary schools, I noted that Will’s first ‘classroom’ at Onewhero District High School was actually the supper room of the local community hall, set out with desks, chairs, and blackboards. Associated with this alternative arrangement were the interruptions caused by local community groups who regularly used the hall, thus making teaching impossible at times.

Likewise, rather than simply stating there was a lack of post-primary teachers at the time, Will’s story was that he was able to be employed without qualifications or a degree and, as an immigrant, Will was also asked to take an English class, thus further demonstrating the teacher shortage. Will’s story gives a face to a teacher of the time. Interestingly, a number of these issues, such as the teacher shortage, are currently applicable, giving us an example of why historical research such as mine is important and relevant in the present day.

More stories about teachers and their everyday work are needed. Will’s is one of a Commerce teacher but stories from teachers in other subject areas as well as educational sectors could be useful to not only find out what really happens in New Zealand classrooms but also to keep a record of such findings. Stories from the past—such as Will’s—can offer greater understanding of different historical contexts, and life history examples from present day teachers could add to current teaching knowledge and assist with policymaking and teacher recruitment.

Will is not known nationally or internationally, nor is he celebrated in educational circles. However, this thesis gives him a position in the post-primary sector history and makes real some of his teaching experiences. It also documents the story of one NEI refugee, which is an important contribution as the social history of the Dutch from the former Dutch colony needs to be told.

Teacher stories do matter.


The conference presentation on which this blog post is based was supported by a New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) Student Travel Grant. These grants are offered annually to assist student members of NZARE to attend the association’s annual conference and present aspects of their research.


Jacqui Burne (1).jpgJacqui Burne has recently submitted her EdD thesis to Massey University. When not studying, she also does tutoring, pre reading, and marking for undergraduate papers at Massey as well as proofreading in a private capacity.

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