What can be learnt in a Dean’s office

A few years ago now a presenter came to the school I was working at and said that schools could either reflect the woes of their community or be a model of how that society should be.  He looked at us and said: “Do you want to be a mirror or a lighthouse?”  As it happened I was reading Walden at the time and this sentence leapt out at me: “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate himself by conscious endeavour.”  I wrote this out and pinned it to the wall in my Dean’s office.  Next to the post-it note I had on the whiteboard that said: Mirror or Lighthouse?

I am a very idealistic person.  This was the surprising conclusion I was forced to reach about myself after believing for years that I was cynical about most things, and completely uninterested in civic matters.  I think it took me about fifteen years to realise that I was neither cynical about most things, or uninterested in how the world works.

Those fifteen years began in Japan where I worked for about five years.  Japan, we are told, is a homogenous country, but for a New Zealander it was hard not to notice the homeless people.  They lived in almost every park in shanty towns of cardboard and tarpaulin, or emerged into the covered shopping arcades after the shops closed at night.  It was hard not to notice this in a city that also had the flagship stores of the most desirable and luxurious consumer goods from around the world.  It was harder to notice that Japan wasn’t homogenous, but when I was transferred to Fuse in Osaka I discovered that it was a place filled with Korean people.  Sometimes third or fourth generation Korean people living in Japan as a legacy of World War Two, at the bottom of the heap, unable to claim full citizenship.  The invisibility of this group, and the indifference of the majority to them dismayed me.

There were other moments in those fifteen years that were challenging.  A holiday to Vietnam stands out in my mind.  It was the first time I saw real poverty.  Somehow in Japan it became possible to see the orderly homeless people who never begged or interacted with the mainstream as almost an alternative lifestyle choice.  In Vietnam poverty was more confrontational.  I remember the faces of poverty more vividly.  The little girl who begged for food and made me flee into a bookshop shamed and confused; the man with no legs who sat by the Italian ice cream shop where tourists bought gelato; and the old woman I saw, squatting in the street, in ragged clothes, seemingly friendless, soiling herself while dozens of people passed her by without even noticing.  Vietnam shook me.  It grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and threw me about, and asked me to explain myself.  Who are you, it asked, who are you to be given a life of privilege and ease over any one of these people who were born, like you, and were a child, like you, loved, and happy once, and day-dreamed perhaps about a good life with a family of their own, and food on the table, and the satisfaction of work?

On our way back to New Zealand we took a long detour to Europe.  Out of all the great things we did, one moment lodged in my mind with particular force.  It came in Rome.  We went to see St. Peters.  I am not a religious person, but I think I am a spiritually empathetic person, inclined to Francis Assisi.  On the roof of St Peters I found a shop, staffed by nuns, selling tourist rubbish.  It was something I noticed about many temples in Japan too to be fair.  It wasn’t really that they sold this junk, it was that this vast church filled with all its treasure suddenly appeared to me as a statement of indifference about suffering in the world.  It was a hugely revealing symbol of misplaced priorities.  I think it was Phillip Pullman who said that Jesus and the church had a strange relationship.  Without the church to act as a cup Jesus’ message would have been like water poured into sand.  True.  But such a shame that the cup had to become so ornate that people didn’t notice the water anymore.

Let’s skip over a testing year or so and visit me a few years into my first teaching job.  I had started out as a Dean, and listened to that man ask me if I wanted to be a mirror or a lighthouse, and I had pinned Thoreau’s quote to the wall.  As a Dean you end up with a core group of students that end up with you because they are always in trouble.  You get to know them pretty well and, because they are invariably interesting people, you grow to like them. 

Sometimes though, students arrive at school so disoriented by their upbringing that you can’t even get to know them.

My first failure as a Dean came with a 12-year-old Maori girl who lived with an Aunt.  Somebody had cared enough to buy her a school uniform and bag full of books.  In the month she was with us she went to one class I think.  The rest of the time she walked around the school with friends.  When you managed to catch up with her she laughed, quite good-naturedly, in response any of your questions.  Usually she ran away laughing.  We had to exclude her.  She was so unprepared for school it was like she was a wolf forced down off the hills and asked to suddenly perform the obedient tricks of a house-trained poodle.  About a year later a school way up in Northland contacted us wanting to know her attendance and results.  Well, she had no attendance, and she’d be running away so long she had no results.

There were a few like her.  Even at 12 they were beyond the help of a school used to dealing with problems and filled with compassionate, hard-working people.  Some lasted a bit longer because they could cope with sitting in a classroom for a bit longer, but when any kind of pressure came on they ran, and when we came to try and work with family there was often no one there or they ran too.  We managed to get one boy to the Year 9 camp but he stole some lollies and got in trouble and ended up doing a lot of swearing and crying when confronted with his crime.  He was tough as nails and a 12-year-old boy.  He was sent home.  Whatever that was.

The best thing you could achieve – and it was worth achieving – was a long, tempestuous relationship with a student and their family.  It slowly dawned on me when I talked to the parents and caregivers of these students that they were suffering too, much more than me, and that what I had to do was be as positive and helpful as possible and encourage people: angry teachers, and despairing parents, and myself, to see the long game.  Sometimes I failed.  Sometimes I threw my toys.  A very wise woman working at that school who was a councillor looked at me when I was sulking about a student and said, very kindly, “I try to remember that they’re just children.”  It was true.  13 or 14 or 15 years old.  Children.

I could go on and on with this, but let’s move to where I am now.  It is a diverse community that is successful.  I am not a Dean.  Now that the excitement of moving to a fresh environment has died down I can see my classes more clearly, and although the proportion of the ethnic mix is different I see the same issues attaching to the same groups.  I notice the preponderance of a certain type of name on the detention lists, I notice the NCEA statistics by ethnicity fall the same way (better, but the same trend), and I notice that the few students who get shifted on to the activity centre tend to be from those same groups.

When people say to me that Maori should get off their arses I tend not to react.  You are dealing with two things.  You are dealing with the specific and the general.  At a school you are dealing with the young.  Where the young fail we look to the parents.  If the parents let us down we are suddenly dealing not with the specific anymore, but with the general.  You are dealing with a generation that did badly at school themselves.  How can they advise their child how to do well at something they did badly at, or were done badly by?  Suddenly you are dealing with a community.  You are dealing with groups of students who fall out of the system and find support in each other.  You are dealing with a legacy.  History.  You look for explanations there.  Because you are not racist, and do not believe that skin pigmentation has anything to do with potential.

So far I am yet to meet a young Maori boy or girl who has blamed society, or white people for their problems, or has asked for special treatment.  I once snapped at a boy for blaming his behaviour on the death of his father when he was a kid.  My father died when I was a kid, I told him, and I don’t blame him for anything.  The boy acknowledged my point graciously enough.  As most of the troubled kids did when you were honest.  They were used to being in trouble so they knew the drill.  They knew the people who cared and the ones who didn’t.  Sometimes I had meetings with them and the teacher they had offended and as the meeting played out I realised that it was the teacher’s behaviour that had made the situation happen, and that it was the teacher’s vanity that had been wounded.  At the end of those meetings you had to ask the student to be the grown up.  It was ridiculous.

Of course, it was usually the kid’s fault.  I did meet a few boys and girls who spent most of their time falling on their arses but they got back up again.  Inside them was waging a terrible battle.  The desire to do good without many of the tools, versus the temptation to walk away and join friends.  It is hard when you are 13 to see that the kids who seem the most free, who mock adults and run from institutions and their representatives, are in fact the least free, with the fewest options.  It is hard when you are 13 and there is too much alcohol around, too much violence, and not enough money, to disentangle all of those things and see them as symptoms of illness and not the natural condition of things.

I think there are two forms of rebellion: destructive and creative.  Watching kids take the path of destructive rebellion is awful.  Turning away from them is heartless, whether it is turning away from the specific boy sitting in your office fuming at a perceived injustice, or the group at the bottom of a community.  As a society I think we need some creative rebellion.  Rebellion against some of the norms of our society that adjust us to injustice, and permit us to witness suffering and not feel compassion or responsibility.  I believe we should act against injustice and suffering.  Not because I am specifically responsible for the situation of another person, but because a truly rich society looks after all of its members.

How we do that is something I’m not sure about yet.

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20 thoughts on “What can be learnt in a Dean’s office”

  1. thank you for writing this and opening my eyes, i had no idea, neither of japan, or new zealand, it is well written posts like this that keep me in blogland, from you i have learnt and those gaps in my knowledge filled, thank you, i am only sorry i had such ignorance, and that i cannot think of a way to help in any of the situations you mentioned, but thank you for making me aware.
    i hope you have a restful evening

  2. Great post JP. Your final paragraph calling for an unspecified creative rebellion reminds me of a friend, reflective and furious and sad about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, concluding that we needed to wage an anti-war. I’ve lost contact since and don’t know if he ever made something concrete out of the notion but the phrase had a power for me, obviously, since I remember it years later.

  3. I cried for the boy ‘hard as nails’ who cried (some ‘nails) and got sent home for stealing lollies.

    Want to know where to start? Ask yourself ‘How important is this? Really ‘ So he stole some lollies. So what? Kids steal lollies. He’s here on camp. This is maybe THE chance for him to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, that teachers/adults are human, humane, that there is hope up ahead. Without hope why try?

    He was ‘confronted with his crime’. Number one, it wasn’t a ‘crime’. Number two, you don’t ‘confront’ young creatures of any species, surging with feeling induced chemicals (anger, fear, grief, shame, confusion not to mention the sex hormones!) unless you are actively looking for a fight/actively looking not to teach them anything.

    If they are from a predator species (eyes in the front of the face) you stand beside them and look the same way and make your opinion known, the consequences (which must be fair and proportionate) clear and the right thing to do possible.

    If they are from a prey species (eyes on the side of the face) you allow them to move their feet and you take ‘all your eyes’ off them (turn side on) and make your opinion known etc.

    I’m not talking being namby pamby. You can be as firm and clear as is required you just do it in a way that doesn’t destroy respect and hope and fairness. You work to prevent the fight/flight response and allow teaching to happen.

    Don’t get me wrong. This is a great piece of writing and a kind and humane teacher. I volunteer at a school that is a ‘lighthouse’. I know what they’re saying and I mostly agree….

    But maybe teachers need to train how to teach a horse (bigger and stronger than them) or a dolphin (bigger and stronger than them …and able to swim away if your training methods are crap) before they get to teach children.

  4. Living and going to school in a very different society, country and time, I can nevertheless visualise many of my classmates in those classes of yours. Irrespective of skin colour, nationality or any of the popular ‘descriptors’ as human beings we share the same perils, injustices, and inequalities wherever we are … environments are of course vastly different but the sufferings remain the same. It is the uniquely human condition embedded in our DNA. This is NOT to say that any of those perils or injustices are therefore given and nothing can be done about them … but it is to say that the road to more just, equal and free community of humans depends first and foremost on us – humans. There are no others on this planet capable of inflicting such sufferings or redeeming them. We, as humans do have power and means of changing our world since we created it to start with. So the question is –do we want to?
    P.S. ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

  5. I remember that speaker, as I was teaching at that school then too. His speech blew me away at the time,but I had long forgot about it until now. As educators here in NZ we deal with stuidents like those you have experienced in our daily work. Sometimes I find them a pain, but as I get to know them better I am intrigued to what makes them tick, why the misbehave and how I can harvest or encourage some learning from them. One thing they have in common – they all respond greatly to one on one attention, praise and reward. Many are often on report of some type but seem to crave good comments and feedback and have an underlying desire to try harder, but often it is just too hard for them to get through the day without regressing. I often go home wondering are these students getting any attention, care, feedback or love in their home lives that is of a positive nature? Do they act up at school because it makes them feel noticed, acknowledged and able to get the attention they desparetly desire, even if they have to mis-behave to get it? Maybe they act this way subconsciously because it has become hard wired into them?
    In the big picture of life they may not all be successful at gaining acadmically, but for every teacher who takes some time and interest in these kids to try and set them on the right path, it may not all be in vain or wasted. How does society measure what impact we have had on their lives? Often we will never know, but sometimes we will when we run into them years down the track and they remember us and acknowledege us, and we see they are in a steady job or at a tertairy institute or have made it through to adulthood successfully in one way or another and have not become another statistic. This issue is so huge, but like many of the things you have discussed it is about basic Human Rights, and the basic needs of people (As in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). The basic lower order needs must be satisfied before an individual can fullfill their higher order needs and that included being wanted and loved, alng with having food, shelter, warmth and clothing.

    Let us all try to be a lighthouse and not a mirror.

  6. Another great thinking article JP. Keep them coming. Great feeback from readers too – especially the working with powerful animals analogy from Sunny – something for me to remember in my vanity.
    Just as the rainy day makes the next clear day seem brighter and full of smell and colour. So to these students remind me how good I have it in my own wee world – my relationships are richer and the smiles on my childrens faces are more meaningful, thanks to my knowledge of these students and the lives they lead.

  7. I learned the hard way about exactly what you’re talking about. We didn’t confront that boy. We sat down as a group and talked it through, and some of the people were very strong advocates for him. I spent a lot of time in my deans office trying to go side-on while other people went head on. Schools that “get rid of students” are almost always doing the wrong thing. Get rid of to where? I spent my first year of teaching doing a lot of shouting. By my fifth year I hardly ever raised my voice. Bluster, and confrontation get you absolutely nowhere. I totally agree. Perhaps I need to rewrite that passage, but I will leave it as it stands.

  8. Funnily enough, when we look at a shocking image or clip in History class I ask the student to look at all the people in the background doing nothing and ask them why they think those people are doing nothing. Of course, I suspect, I would also be in the background doing nothing.

  9. Yes. I often want to say: “It’s just school. It will pass. Don’t damage yourself too much and things will turn out alright.”

  10. Whenever I am having a crap day it is usually the students who cheer me up. I remember having my 100th talk with a boy once and suggesting we have a meeting with the teacher who had become annoyed with him and he looked at me and said: “I don’t want to have a meeting. All that happens in meetings is they wait for a long time until you say what they want you to say.” Brilliant! And this is exactly what happen in meetings with people who don’t understand what restorative justice actually is. I had a chat with the boy myself suddenly realising he was an intelligent chap of wisdom and insight. I hope he’s doing alright.

  11. Yes. It applies to all parts of life big and small. How do we want to be as a country? How do I want to be as a Dad?

  12. we can all come up with do gooder words,without the mirror the light don’t go far,without direction the light is of no use,without its programmed blinks it can be mistaken for another light to follow onto the rocks. Without the surface being polished….The wandering girl ended up shoplifting then drug abuse prostitution and then had kids. The boy stole and broke into my car because I was European and considered rich,he knew it and said so at the restorative justice meeting I asked for.The parents refused to tell me where the stolen goods were,they mocked me and the Police.The Police told me to forget it and didn’t I have insurance. There were no boundaries,the school said he got beat up at home,but it wasn’t true,he didn’t get any discipline at all.not even a loving smack,but he said he did. They believed him. He was really a bully. Later he said if only someone had the guts to say bullshit to me. There are no answers,just different solutions at different times,some involve violence as a fact of life. You teach in schools that have an imbalance of women teachers,who don’t participate in sports and after school activities,no pay no stay,no sense of vocation and rush off to pick up their own kids after 3.30pm. Until that critical male recruitment is driven home to balance the solo mum production line we aren’t being honest. You notice the preponderance of ethnic….but it takes the next paragraph to say Maori. We are a gutless lot,with too many excuses for poor manners and dishonest people,not races not ethnic stats. yeah,let them wander about the school,after all there’s only so many hours in a day.In Avondale College they have a language class that students don’t turn up,they are chinese,the roll isn’t checked and the students are at one of their mates’ home playing internet games,the school doesn’t care they have the money and they don’t carry out spot checks to see if the students are well fed or even happy. This from one of the biggest foreign student revenue gathering schools in NZ. Hopeless.

  13. This is certainly a long list of woe. I think the best response is to try and do something about these problems. Your restorative justice meeting was certainly not successful because all parties need to feel restored, and nobody won out of that meeting. I have been involved in some that have also failed. It sucked. I felt bad. But I gave it a go again for the next kid.

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