The Enduring Effect of Exemplary Teachers of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Most Disengaged Secondary School Students: An Ideology of Hope

Rachel Maitland (Ngāi te Ruahikihiki, Ngāti Huirapa, Ngāi Tūāhuriri) is Assistant Principal at a school that caters to learners sentenced or remanded by the New Zealand Youth Court to a Youth Justice residence.  

I watched the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final between the All Blacks and England from a pub in Australia. It was a rare and shocking defeat for the All Blacks, and following this, I observed New Zealand’s reaction to our boys bringing back bronze. For the next few days, my phone screen was flooded with notifications about the “devastating loss”. Third place. New Zealand was not happy.

At that stage, I was midway through writing my MEd thesis and, although I shared in New Zealand’s nationwide disappointment, the rugby result played on my mind for another reason. I had just come across a report looking at educational inequalities across 41 of the world’s high and middle-income countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and/or the European Union (EU). The report presented a glaring illustration of the dire gap between New Zealand’s highest and lowest achieving students with New Zealand ranked 33rd overall in educational inequality. That’s a whole lot worse than third place in a rugby competition. Despite a myriad of policies, initiatives, and strategies dedicated to the issue of New Zealand’s much-lamented tail of educational underachievement, this blight continues to thrive.

Risks of Disengaging from Education

Disengagement from education is strongly linked to poor physical and mental health, increased involvement in high risk activities including substance abuse and unsafe sexual practices, and is also one of the key predictors of youth offending. For the last 19 years, I have worked as a teacher and Head of Department in alternative education (AE), and as a teacher and Assistant Principal in a decile 1 state school delivering education to learners sentenced or remanded by the New Zealand Youth Court to a Youth Justice (YJ) residence. AE is a provision funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Education with a goal of catering to the educational needs of 14 to 16 year olds who meet specific criteria indicating disengagement from mainstream schooling. AE and YJ learners sit at the very end of New Zealand’s tail of underachievement, and represent New Zealand’s most marginalised communities and our most educationally disengaged secondary school students.

In my career, I have worked with a number of teachers whom I consider to be exceptional in their ability to engage the most resistant learners in the learning environment. Over time, I noticed these teachers had some interesting practices and intriguing characteristics, which inspired me to write a thesis on the topic.

Teachers are known to be one of the most significant factors influencing educational engagement. My thesis presents findings from a qualitative research project into the beliefs, practices, and knowledge of exemplary teachers of New Zealand’s most disengaged secondary school students. I had two research questions:

  1. What are the understandings, beliefs and practices of highly effective teachers of at-risk secondary students?
  2. What teacher knowledge, mindsets and strategies can help to engage Aotearoa New Zealand’s most educationally disconnected secondary students?

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The research findings were presented using Sergiovanni’s (2007) head, heart and hand framework. Six generalised statements represent the key findings within each of the three dimensions, and are a compilation of direct quotes and ideas offered by the research participants.

The Head: What exemplary teachers of at-risk learners know:

Mātauranga: knowledge, wisdom, understanding

  1. They know they don’t necessarily know how to teach the student sitting in front of them.
  2. They know that what works well for these learners would work well in mainstream, and not the other way round.
  3. They know themselves, and they consistently turn up as themselves.
  4. They know their own personal and professional limitations, and are skilled at working within a collaborative team of other adults.
  5. They know what is happening in students’ lives beyond the classroom, and strategically adapt their approach, curriculum content and anticipated outcomes to reflect this knowledge.
  6. They know the risk.

The Heart: What exemplary teachers of at-risk learners believe:

Kaupapa: purpose, passion, vision, values

  1. They love their work and believe that they can make a difference, but they do not think that they have been sent to save the world.
  2. They believe that students are doing the very best that they can with the tools they have, and they do not personalise student behaviour.
  3. They like their students, and believe their students are capable and competent and have mana.
  4. They have empathy for their students, but they do not pity them. They have empathy but these people are not pushovers.
  5. They challenge their own beliefs, the beliefs of the students, and they challenge the system.
  6. They believe that there are many variations and models of life, and that there is no ‘one’ pathway or solution to achieve a life well led.

The Hand:  What exemplary teachers of at-risk learners do:

Tikanga: methods, techniques, practice

  1. They build powerful relationships and connections with students, students’ peers, families, and communities.
  2. They create a safe place, a place of refuge, a culture and climate that allows students to detox from the chaos in their lives.
  3. They design resources and are resourceful.
  4. They carefully tailor their approach to suit the relationship between the teacher and the student, enhancing the student’s mana never diminishing it.
  5. They anchor students with a sense of belonging.
  6. They create opportunities for fun and laughter, giving students a bank of happy memories to anchor them in tough times.

The findings of this research project regarding exemplary teachers of New Zealand’s most disengaged secondary school students suggest that more recognition and value be placed on distinctly different knowledge, mindsets and practices, such as teachers’ ability to disengage their ego, to see young people from a holistic perspective, to use time and space strategically, to employ mana-enhancing practices, and to challenge young people to see themselves and their world in a different light. It is hoped these findings provide fresh insight and food for thought regarding how the educational needs of disengaged learners might be met.


CaptureRachel Maitland (Ngāi te Ruahikihiki, Ngāti Huirapa, Ngāi Tūāhuriri) has a teaching career spanning almost two decades. During this time, she has worked as a teacher and Head of Department in alternative education, and as a teacher and Assistant Principal in a decile one state school delivering education to children and young people in state care.  Rachel is based at one of the school’s seven campuses educating 13 to 18 year old rangatahi sentenced or remanded by the New Zealand Youth Court to a Youth Justice residence. In 2019, Rachel was awarded a TeachNZ Secondary Teachers Study Award, and recently completed her Master of Education thesis at the University of Canterbury.

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