Wednesday 24 May 2017

Chatham challenges: RTLB in New Zealand’s remotest community

The Ministry of Education’s intrepid RTLB (Resource Teacher: Learning and Behaviour) team offer their services across the length and breadth of the country, and those living lives of scenic isolation on our far-flung island paradises are not excepted from access.  

The Chatham Islands are home to New Zealand’s most remote community, but that doesn’t mean that the three schools on the islands shouldn’t be able to access support when there’s a need for learning or behaviour intervention.
Lying some 800 kilometres to the east of Christchurch, around 600 hardy souls live surrounded by the bracing beauty of the Chatham Islands. The community is dependent on primary industries for its living, with commercial fishing making up 60 per cent of the Chathams trade. It’s a community of hard workers who don’t ask for much from the outside world, says RTLB Cluster 34 manager, Maureen Allan, who has been working closely with the three Chatham Islands principals in recent years.
“They get on and do the job – that’s what living on an isolated island is all about.
“These are just typical country New Zealand schools. They follow the curriculum, they report on National Standards, all of those sorts of things.
“The kids are a little bit different though, I suppose, in the respect that the island is their playground, and my impression was that lots of them could be described as really ‘earthy’ kids. When I was on Pitt Island, the students were talking to me about working with DOC on a conservation project; they go hunting after school, and they can tell you all about fishing.”
While the community may seem romantically unique to mainland ‘townie’ eyes, agencies like the RTLB service do their best to make sure that the three Chatham Islands schools aren’t disadvantaged by the tyranny of distance in accessing at least some of the support structures that are readily available to mainland New Zealand schools.
Maureen and her team took up responsibility for the Chatham Islands as part of the Te Paeroa Cluster 34 in late 2011, after the RTLB service was substantially re-organised. She first visited in April last year – on a mission to kick things off with the three schools – and gather information as to where their resources could best be directed.
In a community that is an astonishingly expensive flight (up to $1200 both ways) away from the institutions that mainland New Zealanders rely on every day, the line of separation between school and community at large is far less defined. With this in mind, Maureen and her team realised that their efforts must involve parents. After identifying a need for literacy intervention, Maureen and RTLB Jane Bates on subsequent trips implemented the Biddulph Group-developed programme Reading Together. The purpose of the programme is to support parents to become great ‘first teachers’, and help their children to get the most out of reading at home. A slow start gave way to enthusiasm and momentum, says Jane.
“On the day I arrived, we worked with the teachers, and then spent two days with parents. On the first day, we had seven parents turn up. We don’t ever get deterred by small numbers, but on the second day, 17 parents attended, remembering that this is a tiny school with a roll of 50-odd. Word spreads fast on an island!
“We did a community information session and workshops. That was really great. We were able to take it beyond just working with the school and teachers. I guess that could be said to be one of the advantages of living in a small isolated community; we’re able to cover more ground in a shorter space of time.
“I think on the Chathams it’s perhaps even more important to get to know the community to be really effective. On islands like these, the community is very close and self-sufficient, so it becomes very important to involve the community in everything you do. That’s part of our liaison skill set as RTLB teachers.
“We can’t be seen to be going into these communities and dictating to them, being prescriptive as to what a school, teacher, student or parent needs. We’re here to work with all parties.”
The glaring obstacle that Maureen and Jane have constantly in front of them when helping a community like the Chatham Islands is, of course, time. Resource constraints mean that any visit to the islands can’t usually be longer than a couple of days, requiring some serious planning as to how to achieve anything meaningful, as Maureen explains.
“As RTLBs we have a standard case process, and we had to shortcut our way through lots of that [on the Chatham Islands].
“Our priorities were to get the assessment information, talk to teachers, and get a handle on what’s actually happening, what are the specific challenges that these communities are facing. We had to do that really quickly and accurately. It required lots of talking with the people around you, so that a really clear picture was gained. Also it’s really important that we’re listening as well, because they’re the ones who have to run with it after we’ve gone, so it needs to belong to them and be useful to their needs. We can’t just pop back next week and amend something that’s not working!”
Fresh eyes
Barbara Moore realised a career-long fascination with the Chatham Islands when she accepted the role of principal at the largest of the three schools, Te One. Perhaps it was her tenacity that stood out to those who interviewed her?
Barbara applied for a job on the Chatham Islands as a fresh-faced graduate but missed out. Her first impressions have only been reinforced over the two years she’s been leading Te One, says Barbara.
“It’s a place of striking beauty, yet it’s so different to other islands like Stewart Island, which I’ve visited a lot, just in terms of flora and fauna. It’s home to a really lovely community of hard-working and friendly people. My impressions haven’t changed in the time I’ve been here. In fact, it really is one of those places that continue to grow on you.
“It’s a very welcoming and generous community. If you’re prepared to join in, then you’re welcomed with open arms, in my experience.”
Originally from Canterbury, professionally Barbara is no stranger to rural communities. She has taught in Central Otago, South Canterbury, and North Otago, at some very small schools. The Chatham Islands though, is on a completely different scale of isolation, she says.
“I came from an area that had a really strong rural principals group, and I missed that. The three Chatham Islands principals work closely together, but we’re still very isolated from each other. Our school has 60 pupils and three teachers, but the other two schools are sole charge, making it difficult for us to get together regularly.”
Barbara says that having regular visits from Maureen and her RTLB team has allowed her and the two other teachers at Te One to get re-inspired simply by virtue of having an outside sounding board to bounce off. Problems can go stale without input from fresh eyes, she says.
“We’ve got such a small network within our three schools, so that means that there’s only so much discussion of ideas that we can do.
“When we’re confronted with a situation around children that need help, and we’ve tried all sorts of things, and we’re not making any progress, that’s where the RTLB service is absolutely invaluable, because they come in and offer a fresh perspective.”
Barbara doesn’t hesitate to admit that she inherited a school with some entrenched problems. As can happen in a more insular community, which isn’t subject to the scrutiny that can be brought to bear in larger centres, issues can stick around. When Barbara flew in, confidence in Te One within the community had been seriously eroded. Much has been achieved in mending this ruction, and Barbara says that the ongoing involvement of the RTLB service further signals to parents that she’s very serious about the success of Te One.
“I guess in their minds, hopefully at least, it reinforces the idea that we’re always looking out for the best interests of our students, and asking ‘what more can we be doing for these children? How can we help them?’
“[The community is] very happy that we’ve identified children who are having difficulties and that we’re following through with action and effort – firstly to further our own knowledge as teachers, and secondly, to put a plan in place that is designed to help these children progress.”
Cooperative plans
Now that there’s momentum on the Chatham Islands, Maureen, Jane, and the rest of the Te Paeroa RTLB team are looking at where they can apply their expertise to further boost achievement. They’re starting to coordinate the involvement of other agencies, as in the case of the speech and language therapist who will now be visiting the islands once a year. Jane explains that this inter-agency cooperation is beneficial to all involved.
“It’s great because it means we can cement relationships with other organisations that are providing support and meeting the needs of Chatham Islands schools. That kind of interaction between agencies is really important because, as we know, children’s needs don’t fall into neat little boxes that can be dealt with by one agency. Often there’s lots of overlap. Our practice needs to be adaptive at all times, maybe more so when we’re working with a community as unique as that of the Chatham Islands.”