Talking About Depression Helps Break The Silence – Here’s My Contribution

When a celebrity commits suicide we have a brief and tentative public discussion about mental health and suicide before it quickly dissipates and we forget about the issue for a time. While we are having that conversation, we remind ourselves and each other again and again that if you are struggling to get through the day that you should reach out to your friends or family and ask for help. Considering the number and impact of celebrities committing suicide and our country’s horrific statistics , it is an increasingly important message. However, as much as we say it is okay to feel down and that you should reach out, it isn’t always that easy. It’s not even easy to admit that you have depression.

Trust me, I know.

Until now I have told only a handful of people, but I feel like I need to do my part to help break the taboo and silence we seem to have around mental health. I want to talk about my experience with depression not  because I think I am special or that I have particularly amazing insights or experiences that will help others overcome their problems, but because hopefully it helps at least one person realise that they are not alone in their struggles. I am not after pity or attention because I am okay now, and if I wasn’t alright I doubt I would be so open. More importantly, I hope that if I am willing to admit to having these feelings and can post it online for anyone to read, someone who has suffered in silence might feel that by comparison, opening up to a couple of close people isn’t so bad.

Dealing With The Black Dog

For years I struggled with depression without really knowing what it was. I stayed up late most nights feeling miserable and I would either break down and cry or I  just lay there running circles in my mind, overthinking my personal situation and criticizing myself. In my mind, I was dim, unattractive and socially awkward compared to everyone around me. Despite this, I was still a fairly social person and in those moments spent in the company of others, I was happy and content. The problem was that as soon as I was left with my own thoughts too long,  the wallowing and self-pity would kick in. I often thought about self-harm and all those dark things, but fortunately they remained thoughts and nothing more. I would often became withdrawn, irrational, and a touch aggressive (emotionally, not physically) although that was normally only inflicted on my partners. Alcohol made everything worse, and more than once I lost the plot during a night on booze.

While it is hard to explain why I felt these things, I know that some of that was down to my insecurity and worrying about how others perceived me. As easy as it is to say “Who cares what other people think!”, it isn’t that simple. In a time where social media plays such a massive role in our lives, it’s hard not to compare yourself to the standards set by others. We see the best parts of other people’s lives on our news feeds and make the assumption, whether consciously or not, that their lives are always like that. Similarly, we are bombarded by ads that promote preconceived standards of beauty and attractiveness, and when we don’t meet those standards, our self-esteem naturally takes a hit. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake those insecurities because I was constantly comparing myself to people around me and subsequently finding aspects of my personality or appearance to dislike, despite my best efforts to think positively about myself.

I can explain all this with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time I didn’t understand why I felt this way. At almost no point did I think about talking to anyone because if I couldn’t understand what was going on inside my head, how could they? From my point of view everyone was just so confident, they had their lives sorted and knew what they wanted to do, and I was just a mopey kid pretending to be an adult. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than wanting to help others, and I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that. The lack of direction made me doubt everything I did and see those actions as pointless. I often felt like I was just going through the motions day to day. I felt lost.

To make things worse, I couldn’t shake the belief that I had no legitimate reason to feel this way. See, everyone has their own reasons for feeling depressed and they vary. Some people have traumatic experiences that affect their confidence and sense of self-worth, while others experience financial and material hardship that takes an understandable toll on their mental health. Whether is because of failed relationships, losing loved ones and struggling with one’s identity, there are a range of factors that contribute to depression. For me personally, most of these didn’t apply.

I’ve mentioned before that I was raised well. I never went hungry, was never mistreated, I was loved and learned from my parents how to be a good person, which I think I have done a reasonable job of so far. We weren’t poor, but we also weren’t flush with cash. I had everything I needed. Maybe a six-pack or more confidence would have made life a bit more enjoyable but I can’t complain. When I thought about the life I had lived, I felt I had no good reason to feel depressed, which made things even more depressing.

This made me feel helpless and feeling helpless made me feel weak. As we often mention when we discuss mental health and suicide, it is not weakness to ask for help. People like myself don’t reach out because we have this idea that showing emotions is weakness and if we appear vulnerable, people will think less of us. We worry what they might say to others behind our backs, maybe laugh at how weak we are or that they will give us a hard time for feeling down. I felt so weak I resisted the idea that I was even experiencing depression and almost convinced myself that I was just an impostor who was passing their melancholy feelings off as depression. Eventually I did go get treatment, but I threw the pills away before long because I thought I didn’t need them and they weren’t doing anything anyway. To this day, I’m not sure they ever did.

It Gets Better

I have written this in the past tense because much of this no longer applies. As I said earlier, I got better over time. Perhaps the biggest source of my self-loathing was the disconnect between my values and actions. Like so many others who study Arts subjects, I went in wanting to change the world. The more I learned about the social and environmental problems in the world, the more resolved I became to help solve them. This led me down a path many others have walked down before me, where a greater understanding of the global economy, politics and human nature took me from youthful optimism to cynical pessimism, and the problems became so large and the solutions so much more unlikely that there seemed no point to even try make a difference.

I had an idea of the person I wanted to be and I constantly failed to live up to those standards which made me even more disappointed in myself and perpetuated the whole depressing cycle. Things only started to change when I got so sick of being miserable and I seriously re-evaluated what I was doing with my life and questioned how much longer could I continue to wallow in self-pity. I realised that I needed to start living up to the values I believed but rarely lived up to and resolved to do something that in any way, shape or form made the world a better place. I accepted that I may not find it straight away, but if I am moving in the right direction and I am happy with what I am doing then that is enough. This is ultimately what led me to teaching and now, years later, things are much better and I am happier. Having purpose and direction helped me put my insecurities in perspective and while they still affect me a bit now, I don’t get caught up in vicious cycles of overthinking like I used to.

With this and the support of an understanding partner, I managed to overcome many of these feelings, but that doesn’t mean the dark thoughts have gone away completely. Some days I will wake up feeling crap about myself and just feeling downright miserable.  And you know what? That is okay. I’ve come to accept that feeling this way from time to time is alright as long as I don’t dwell on things for too long. Those feelings of hopelessness and despair are always there, lurking just out of sight, but if managed right they don’t have to bother me too long. For a while I had convinced myself that I had beaten it, like it was the flu, and that  it no longer plagued me. Now I know it’s not something that goes away with the snap of the fingers, but it does get better. For me, accepting that it is an ongoing process and that bad days are a part of that process helps me get by.

What also helps me cope is the knowledge that, contrary to what some would have us believe, the causes of depression are not just internal. We live in a society where we are convinced to compete with each other for jobs and for money, and in order to make ends meet, we are working longer hours for stagnant pay while our bosses and celebrities become excessively rich. Meanwhile, we are struggling to make ends meet, adding stress and uncertainty to our lives.  We are materialistic and often place our sense of self-worth in purchased goods that serve as symbols of social status that we use to compare ourselves to others. When we don’t behave or look a certain way, we are ridiculed and made to feel isolated. I could go on, and indeed researchers have linked depression to inequality and capitalism which shows that aspects of the structure of society is exacerbating our mental health problems, but realising that many insecurities are manufactured aren’t just in my head is reassuring.

You Are Not Alone

Remember that this is just my experience. I haven’t reached the lows that other people have felt nor such dire circumstances that led them there, but that shouldn’t diminish my experience. Mental illness is still mental illness, and while some may have it worse than others, comparing experiences accomplishes nothing. Everyone suffering needs love and support from those around them. We all need to start caring for each other and thinking, before we say something that might cause pain, what struggles a person is going through. I would disappoint people if I didn’t get political for at least a moment to say that the government should be funding the crap out of mental health services.

This shouldn’t be something we only do when a celebrity commits suicide. This should be normal. We need to get into the habit of being open with how we feel, not necessarily online for the world to see and not for the purpose of garnering sympathy, but because we should be able to get help from those around us. To reiterate what I said earlier, if you are struggling, reach out to someone you trust. I can’t say to anyone how they might overcome their struggles because we are all unique, but they’re probably not going to be conquered if they remain a secret. I can say that opening yourself up is not weakness but strength, and I know this because writing this up and sharing it is one of the hardest things I’ve done in a long time. 

 

Some Thoughts on Empathy and Combating Racism

I started writing this as a draft script for a video on New Zealand history, with the intention of creating a visually compelling and informative clip that might debunk some of the myths about New Zealand and Maori history. You know the sort of tired ideas I am talking about, beliefs like all Maori willingly signed away their rights and land or that they are ungrateful, greedy, or have special privileges, uninformed opinions regurgitated by the likes of Hobson’s Pledge. Our goal was to address in some small way our collective failure to understand history that is ultimately responsible for the ignorance we see too often today. But the more I looked into it, the more I realised, or remembered, that facts do little to change people’s minds, at least the more extreme cases. Too often we are ruled by how we feel and what we believe, and it is the myths that remain in people’s minds rather than the facts.

Of all the myths that persist, perhaps the most damaging is the idea that everybody has the same opportunities in this country. We hear it mainly from people who currently occupy the middle or upper classes rather than from lower class people. The belief that we are all equal is accompanied by the assumption that if you are struggling on the benefit, then it is because you are lazy and need to work harder. Stop having so many kids, some will say. Stop having so many kids or wasting your money on the pokies, other sages advise. Despite this wisdom, rarely do they ask why people in such desperate situations do things that clearly are not in their best interest. Clearly, some people lack the ability to empathise with others, if they even know what empathy is.

Empathy isn’t simply putting yourself in someone’s shoes and saying “If I were in this situation I would do this or that…”. That isn’t removing your biases or prejudices. That doesn’t even acknowledge that they are a different person to you with their own unique thoughts and values. All you are doing is forcing your own opinions and perspectives on them and basically demanding that they be just like you. No, empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and genuinely trying to understand them. What experiences has this person had, or what sort of life have they led that has made them the person they are today? Why do they think the way they do, and how does that make them act? If you really want to know what makes someone tick, these are the sort of questions you need to ask. We are all shaped by the lessons we learn growing up, from our family, friends and school. We are the products of our environments, so what may seem like a logical decision to one person makes no sense to another.

Those who would say hurtful things about others should certainly bear this in mind, but those of us who (justifiably) call such people out for their bigotry and racism should also bear it in mind. It is easy to resort to anger when you see someone saying some racist crap. When I see someone say something like “If it wasn’t for Europeans you Maoris would still be wearing flax skirts killing each other” (someone told me that once), of course I am going to get pissed off. Feeling angry in a situation like that is only natural and shows your moral compass is correctly aligned, but when you step back and think about it, lashing out at them in anger isn’t productive.

Taking a step back requires you think about why someone thinks it is appropriate to say something so uninformed. Perhaps they grew up in a home full of people that thought this way. It could be they learnt nothing about New Zealand history at school and took what they knew from people around them who also knew nothing. Maybe they have never really gotten to know many Maori people and therefore never had to give much thought to the concerns of Maori in general. It could be a combination of these or something else, but like any other person in the world, their values and beliefs are shaped by their experiences and those around them.

Considering they haven’t been exposed to experiences that might teach them the same compassion or empathy that we might possess, is it really fair to attack them for it? I know it may seem absurd, excusing people who are often the walking definition of ‘privilege’ for racist speech or actions, but if they really don’t know any better, is it really so different from yelling at a child for not knowing math?

The privileged live in a bubble. Many have not known hardship because of their social status and the social status of those before them, granting them opportunities that are simply unattainable by others. To them, that privilege is invisible and a part of their life, making it difficult for them to understand why others struggle. Because of this they assume others simply do not work hard or bring misfortune on themselves. We might know better, but remember that although they are adults  they are so stuck in backwards ways of thinking that calling them racist will accomplish nothing other than make them angry and reduce what might be meaningful dialogue to a shit-throwing contest.

While such people may be privileged in the material sense, they are not worthy of our anger or envy. Instead, we should pity them. They might not have experienced hunger or discrimination, but they were also not taught what it means to care for people who are different to themselves, from different cultures or walks of life. They may think of themselves as compassionate or empathetic, but clearly that only applies to certain people in their lives and excludes others. That is their loss. There is beauty in each of the different cultures and worldviews that people in this country have to share, but appreciating them and their people only comes through understanding. Those who would make generalisations about others, try to exclude them or diminish their culture are missing a vital part of what it is to be human in our modern global society.

It seems counterintuitive that the people we would normally call disempowered are the ones with the power to change things, but I think it’s true. People who have lived experience with discrimination have the power to show others a better way of treating each other, and in this sense are privileged. It is our role to help the ignorant overcome their fear of other people and show them some compassion for their fellow man and woman, and it by listening to their concerns and then talking.

There have been articles posted recently saying old white men need to shut up. This kind of nonsense does more harm than good. It assumes based on age and skin colour that they have all experienced privilege and power in their lives. Blaming all men for being overpowering or sexually abusive as some ‘feminists’ (not actual feminists) do assumes men have never been in similar positions. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing, we make some awful generalisations about others that risk making enemies of those who might have supported our cause, but because we insulted and made generalisations about them, now no longer will. I say this because the tactics of some animal rights and ‘feminist’ activists have had this effect on me, making me resent them rather than wanting to listen to what they have to say. Attacking me for eating meat or simply being a man assumes that I am not a good person or that I don’t care about those issues, and their cause loses my support because they pissed me off.

Consider some of the stereotypes we make about old, white and wealthy mean. The general assumption is that they must be conservative, don’t care too much about the environment and probably are a little bit racist. No one would say that about David Attenborough, but they would about Trump. They belong to the same demographic yet represent vastly different ideas and values. Some say white men have held all the power for too long, yet many old white men throughout history have also lived in poverty and without power. On the other hand, some of those old white men who hold positions of power and influence have progressive ideas and are trying to make the world a better place for everyone. Within any demographic there is a spectrum of beliefs and experiences, and while it is true that certain demographics as whole have worse experiences than others, generalising a group of people dismisses both the struggles and contributions of individuals.

Not everyone has the patience to deal with recalcitrant people and that is fair enough. There is also only so long you can try understand someone before you accept they may be a lost cause, but it is important that we try, and equally important that we move away from painting everyone with the same brush. If we are to change people’s minds, we need to understand who they are, what drives them and treat them like we would treat anyone else.

 

Disparity by Design: Challenging Neoliberalism

Whether we understand what neoliberalism is or not, the reality is that it affects our lives more than most people may realise, and not in positive ways. We might come across the term in an article or see someone post about it online, and we even heard our soon-to-be Prime Minister claim that it had failed New Zealand in September last year although her government is doing nothing to challenge it, yet if we don’t understand it we may not give it much thought. It is important to talk about it because over the last three decades it has played a significant role in many of the social, environmental and political issues we experience today and in order to address these issues, we need to understand how exactly it drives these problems.

Understanding Neoliberalism

There has long been contention about the use of the term, especially by free-market advocates that claim people, mainly critics on the left, use it as an insult without knowing what it really means. While the term does have an interesting history and the meaning has changed over the years, variations of the common usage of the term have become accepted, not only in the academic literature but also by society in general.

David Harvey gives a definition of neoliberalism as “... a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade.” Basically, it is an economic theory proposes that business without restraint is good for everyone, and as liberterians love to say “the freer the market, the freer the people”. It is the realisation of capitalism’s most dangerous ideals, or capitalism on crack if you prefer.

To achieve this market freedom, deregulatory policies were introduced during the economic reforms of the 1980’s known in the United States as “Reaganomics”, in the UK as “Thatchernomics” and here in New Zealand as “Rogernomics”. Prior to the advent of neoliberalism, economic growth in most developed nations was significant due to government intervention, social welfare programmes and more progressive tax systems. What are now known as neoliberal policies gave greater power and freedom to employers, and soon after unions across industries were disempowered and dismantled reducing the capacity for workers to maintain their rights.

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Tax reforms over the years have seen the corporate tax rate reduced from 48% to 30% and top income tax from 66% to 33%, allowing wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a smaller elite. Austerity is often adopted by neoliberal politicians, where concern about government debt results in policy-makers cutting social spending, favouring the economy over the needs of people. Free trade deals, like the controversial CPTPP our government recently signed, are only partially about trade and largely about securing privileges for corporations.

Proponents of neoliberalism somehow believe that the market will regulate itself, as though the demands of consumers will hold companies accountable for their actions, and they also think the concentrated wealth will trickle down to everyone else. This delusional thinking seeks to portray bloated corporations as a vital part of the economy that serves a public good, despite countless examples of free market policies destroying human lives, e.g. Grenfell Tower, human rights, e.g. Apple and most companies that have factories overseas, and the environment in pursuit of profit.

When the government steps back and allows private companies to deliver essential services without supervision, we are all going to have a bad time. Consider the pharmaceutical industry. While Martin Shkreli was demonised in the United States for hiking the price of Daraprim by over 5000%, he is only the tip of the iceberg that is Big Pharma’s distorted ideologies (Watch the Netflix show Dirty Money’s episode on Valeant). But privatisation in any industry is problematic because governments generally pay subsidies, which in the case of British Rail can get rather expensive. It also means workers are exposed to the whims of unrestrained business and the impacts discussed above are exacerbated.
Neoliberal Values Have Become The Dominant Values

In a stricter sense, neoliberalism refers to the policies and legislation that favour the freedom of markets, but in order for these ideas to take place, the collective values society holds must reflect those ideals. Thus, neoliberalism has successfully become the dominant ideology in developed nations like New Zealand by embedding its values within society itself and suppressing views and theories that propose different ways of doing things.

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A phrase often associated with Margaret Thatcher and her support for the market system. It also resembles common responses when challenging dominant ideologies.

Individualism

People often lament that we have lost our sense of community and our desire to care for each other, and it is pretty clear that individualism trumps collectivism, and we are led to believe that happiness in life comes from looking out for ourselves before everyone else. Look at how we define success. A ‘successful’ person it seems is one that has achieved both fame and wealth, and reality TV stars from shows like Married at First Sight and wealthy businesspeople like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos are examples of this. Tragically, they are given more media coverage than people working to improve the lives of others and held up as role models for people to aspire to.

Individualistic thinking in this economy can be dangerous because of the impact it has on people’s health. We are led to believe that in developed societies such as ours, every person, regardless of their heritage and situations, are capable of being successful (in terms of social and financial status) if they work hard enough. Coined ‘magical voluntarism’, this way of thinking convinces those better off that they achieved their wealth through their own hard work and nothing else, even though this is usually untrue. On the other hand, those who fail to achieve those goals are convinced they alone are responsible for their failures, inevitably developing confidence and identity issues that can develop into depression and anxiety and other mental health disorders.

Competition

Individualism breeds competition, and competition is one of the core principles of free market ideology, justified by claims that economic competition results in innovations that benefit everyone. What really happens when companies compete is that shortcuts are taken that have adverse impacts on everyone but the companies themselves.

Competition turns us against each other, not just to the point where we backstab colleagues for a promotion, even people or entire sections of society we don’t even know. Beneficiaries are the favourite political punching bag of conservatives, who make sweeping generalisations about welfare recipients as lazy dole-bludgers who would rather drink, gamble and take drugs than find a job. The disdain held for the lower class by middle class is one of the key ways in which neoliberal values are upheld.

See, although the majority of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very small few, this does not deter the middle class, or even many of the working class, because they genuinely believe one day they will become part of the wealthy class.

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Applicable to more places than the US.

They believe this despite evidence to the contrary that shows the wealthy are not in the business of sharing, after all, it is hard to stay rich if you let everyone else get rich, which is why corporation use their economic and political power to monopolise their respective industries.

Greed

Corporations are essentially given free reign to do whatever they please. No matter how many times they make mistakes or ruin people’s lives, the punishments are so pathetic they keep going as they are. Going back to the example of the pharmaceutical industry above, it is important to remember that Shkreli was not indicted for gouging consumers, after all, that is fairly standard now, but he was arrested for defrauding investors.

Screwing people over is simply good business, which is why Jeff Bezos is painted as a successful businessman despite so many Amazon employees turning to food stamps to survive. The idea enforced by the media that a good business is one that posts high profits, regardless of the corners cut to get there, and we blindly celebrate it. Like politicians who are blatantly bought out by private interests (e.g. most US politicians) or their more subtly corrupt counterparts (e.g. Winston Peters and the racing industry or Judith Collins and Orividia), we give tacit consent to practices that undermine democracy and our way of living in favour of the private interests of industry.

It is fascinating that greed is not considered an abhorrent thing. We actually celebrate those who accumulate masses of money even though that wealth usually comes at the expense of others, and it is amazing people are surprised when private companies undertake such dodgy actions, after all, by definition their obligation is to profit and their shareholders, not the public good.

 

How do we move beyond neoliberalism?

The world’s most powerful people and organisations have considerable stake in the status quo, so to challenge these overarching ideologies is to challenge the extraordinary power they hold. That is not to say it is impossible. While the wealthy and businesses hold a lot of power, in a country like ours they must operate somewhat discreetly as opposed to the blatant corruption we see overseas, and more importantly, their will (possibly) can be defeated by the ballot.

Compassionate Policy

Every generation has their own challenges that are different from the challenges of those that came before them. My generation, the millennials, and the Gen Z’s that follow, are set to inherit one hell of a mess. We are deprived of the same opportunities that those who hold the wealth and power now enjoyed, and many of us are struggling to get by or buy a house. Because of this, and more that will be discussed another time, there is a pretty good chance then that when we take the reins of power we are going to do things differently. Just as the Baby Boomers as a whole voted for policies that suited their interests at the expense of others, there is reason to believe that once my generation realizes its power they will vote for more compassionate policy. Indeed, already questions are forming about the future of capitalism and how long we can keep going down this road. 

Of course, it is not enough to simply wait for change, nor is the blame or burden to act placed on any one generation. That isn’t to say that there isn’t already well organised resistance to neoliberalism, because there clearly is. Jeremy Corbyn has become hugely popular as leader of the Labour Party in the UK and although he is routinely attacked by conservatives and centrists for his socialist policies, the fact that his policies have so much support from the young and the progressive left give hope that a new model for organising society is on the horizon.

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Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally – Source: Sophie J. Brown

Similarly, the support Bernie Sanders is still experiencing following his presidential campaign and the ongoing success of the progressive movement he started in electing progressive candidates suggests that democratic socialism may well find a platform to challenge the neoliberal model.

Social Enterprise and Alternative Models

Here in New Zealand we don’t really have this sort of “radical”  representation in government, with Ardern’s Labour Party being very much a centrist neoliberal party and the Greens moving towards the centre. But there are other ways to challenge the unrestrained ambitions of capitalism, in part by changing the nature of business. Although it is not without flaws, social enterprise does offer a model of business that uses its profits to provide a social good, rather than simply accumulating wealth for the sake of it.

A good example of this is Eat My Lunch. Yes it is a company that is making money, but a good portion of that profit is used to expand its service and facilities while continuing to provide food for children in need. This isn’t simply tokenistic charity to appear philanthropic to promote one’s business, instead it is a different model of operating a business with producing positive social outcomes at the centre of its purpose.Social enterprise is becoming popular in the regions, particularly in rural areas with high levels of deprivation, and many Maori are exploring social enterprise as a way of overcoming intergenerational poverty, although they must be careful of falling into the trap of equating economic development with Maori development. 

Transition towns are an example of local resistance to the global capitalist system. This model proposed enhancing the self-sufficiency of small towns by keeping production and consumption of goods local as much as possible, at times even advocating measures like local currencies. Time will tell whether these initiatives will work in the long run, and their success is determined by the level of support, including financial support, they receive to help them get started. Such models show that thinking big but acting small is the first step in the right direction when governments fail to act in the interests of the people.

Understanding to Overcome

Perhaps the most important thing when confronting neoliberalism in any context is to be aware of its influence. Whether you are addressing poverty, environmental degradation or homelessness, in order to find permanent, sustainable solutions one must first acknowledge that neoliberalism is ultimately responsible for creating the situation, and work to find an alternative that challenges that ideology. Merely tinkering at the edge without challenging the status quo in any way will simply yield the same result.

Change has to be truly transformative, and as discussed above, neoliberalism is enforced by values that are dominant in society.  These values have changed how we interact with each other, so reclaiming the value we place on community, protecting our environment and caring for each other must occur in order for public sentiment towards policy to follow. We have been conditioned to compete with each other and think of ourselves, so we need to move towards a society that works with each other and thinks about everyone else.

Currently I am interested in how to improve outcomes for people in rural areas with high deprivation, like my hometown pictured below. While the instinct from the Government is to simply throw money at the area and create jobs, there are countless social implications that prevent this from working, things like substance abuse, disenfranchisement and mental health issues.

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Kawakawa Township – Source: twincoastcycletrail.kiwi.nz

Overcoming the feeling of being isolated and demonised by others, as so many people in these areas feel, does not come from having a job or money but by being shown by your community that people care about you and they believe in you. As my whanaunga said to me recently, a healing needs to take place, a personal, sometimes spiritual healing that counteracts neoliberal values. Once we have looked after each other’s mental well-being and given each other purpose and direction, then those jobs and that money can help turn people’s lives around. 

It’s about money, but at the same time it isn’t. It is about our values and the kind of world we want to live in, and the first step in creating a better world is by actually caring for each other and putting that into practice.

 

Why I Left Teaching (And May Never Go Back)

School has been back for a few weeks now and every so often I feel momentary regret that I am also not back in the classroom, as well as no small amount of guilt for leaving the profession considering the difficulty many schools are having in finding quality teachers. The teacher crisis is very real, despite what some people out there claim, and is a serious problem.

Despite this, I still decided to leave. I taught full-time for two years, and part time for a third while studying. It was toward the end of the second year that I felt drained and realised my heart was no longer in it, a feeling shared by more than a few beginning teachers. For me, it wasn’t the money, although that could have been better, especially living in Auckland. It wasn’t the lack of work-life balance either, for while that was almost non-existent, I was happy to spend that time if it meant developing great lessons. It took time away from school to understand exactly why I felt compelled to leave, and I know now that while part of me left to find ways to make a difference for our communities and the environment, part of me can’t get over the fact that certain aspects of our education system make it too difficult for me to be the best teacher I know I can be.

We are failing our Māori and Pasifika students

Like many other teachers, I was inspired to join the profession by my personal experiences in school. Attending a predominantly Pākehā school, some people made more of a fuss than was necessary about the fact that I not only made it through to Year 13 and was going to university, one of only a handful of Māori students to do so, but that I did so fairly easily. While most people were positive and my friends thought it no big deal, other Māori students called me ‘white’ because I always followed the rules, did my work, and listened to ‘white’ music, that is, rock and metal rather than hip-hop. While they were only the sentiments of immature teenagers, those attitudes made me think that I wasn’t a ‘real’ Māori and discouraged me from wanting to connect with or even understand the culture.

Because of this, I embraced my ‘whiteness’ and decided my identity is solely defined by my own decisions and nothing else. However, the colour of my skin always made it clear that I was different. Sometimes it was the poorly disguised surprise when I opened my mouth and I didn’t speak like a stereotypical Māori. Other times it was comments like “You’re smart for a brown guy!” which while meant to compliment, only enforced the idea that when you are a successful Māori, you are an exception to the rule that your people, generally speaking, are not very successful.

As much as those experiences had an impact on my identity which took years to work past, they are still far less damaging than what other Māori must endure. This is why I vowed to only ever teach at low-decile schools, to show show those students that despite the obstacles they face and what they believe, they are more than capable of surpassing them. However, some things, like institutional racism and unconscious bias, are not so easily overcome. One might think we have passed that stage, but only this year the Children’s Commissioner reported on the racism that students still experience, from their teachers of all people, where students recalled being told they weren’t going to succeed or felt they were being ignored in class because they weren’t Pākehā.

Put yourself in the shoes of these students for a moment, and imagine how utterly demoralising must it be to have to endure stereotypes by the media and public (mainly by Pākehā) about the chances you have of succeeding in life, only to go to school and have predominantly Pākehā teachers telling you what you can and cannot do every hour of the day and to put you down. The degrading comments are just plain wrong, but even the commands, which are well-meaning as it is the teacher’s job to help students focus in order to achieve, exerts a level of controlling power that adversely affects Māori and Pasifika more than other students. Some would say that it is just school, everyone is treated the same and it is not about race, but when when you exist outside of the dominant culture, it is always about race.

Māori and Pasifika remain outsiders because they are forced into a system that tries to change them and often undervalues them. Conformity is coerced through methods such as enforcing uniform requirements which are often justified along the lines of affordability and tidiness. Pride in a uniform is often demanded rather than earned, just as rules are often enforced without the time being taken to explain the rationale behind them. Failure to comply to these expectations results in a student being labelled a troublemaker, given punitive punishments and being excluded from schools, all while the underlying issues that drive such behaviour, such as not understanding work, dealing with the trials of poverty and undesirable situations at home, remain unaddressed.

It is no surprise then that alternative education is comprised primarily of Pasifika and Māori students, and it shows that conventional schools are failing to truly engage with these students and are not providing them with the right motivation to continue in school. For example, educators know that Māori learn best in ways that differ from traditional teaching methods, preferring to work collaboratively, learn from communities and whanau rather than just teachers and would rather learn by doing, not just reading or listening. Sometimes it is simply innocent ignorance of these methods that explains why they are rarely used, and perhaps teacher training courses warrant some scrutiny in their role in this ignorance, and other times it is simply a lack of trying to understand other cultures.

Despite great improvements in recent years, there remains in education a lack of appreciation for other cultures, and in particular, for other cultural worldviews. Moves to target “priority learners” only reinforce the idea that the blame for poor educational outcomes are the fault of the students themselves, and that they need a helping hand to keep up with everyone else. This also assumes a homogenous view that the purpose of education is for all students to achieve academic success as defined by the dominant culture, but although colonisation has long impacted both Maori and Pasifika, it has yet to completely replace the values of community and sharing intrinsic to the former with the pursuit of individual wealth and success that has long been a Western virtue.

Now to be clear, I am not blaming teachers for any of this. Most of the teachers I have worked and trained with are fantastic, genuine, caring people that do everything they can for their students. I would not even say that many teachers are actually racist, although no doubt there are a few bad eggs out there. Rather, I place the blame on an educational system deeply entrenched in Western industrial-era values, a system that pays lip service to cultural responsiveness and equality in education but then places so many unnecessary burdens on teachers that they can’t actually practice what is preached.

Nevermind the paperwork… I just wanted to teach!

In my view, an empowered student is one that thinks critically and logically questions what they are told and the world around them. My personal experience of school was that it didn’t seem to foster critical thinking at all, it was merely rote learning and doing what the teacher said. As stated earlier, I became a teacher to do better than how I was taught and to empower students, but unfortunately, critical thinking is a difficult thing to teach when there isn’t enough time to do so.

A good lesson takes time to prepare. You have one hour in which to teach a limited number of concepts, so activities have to be sequenced appropriately and run according to schedule as much as possible. There are around thirty students, all of whom are at different levels and learn best in different ways, so tasks need to be differentiated to accommodate this diversity. Not all of them will be paying attention, and some will be outright disruptive, so timings have to change to put out these small fires.

There are between three and five lessons most days, with a couple of non-contact periods mind you, but those hours of what should be respite are taken up by things like meetings, giving feedback, moderation, reports, mentoring and appraisal documentation. This often means lesson planning has to happen late in the afternoon or at home, where it tends to be rushed. Such lessons are usually not developed enough to encourage critical thinking because they need to be made with the individuals in the class in mind, not taken out of a textbook or an online plan. Personally, I felt unhappy with many of my lessons as I knew if I had the time, my lessons would have been great.

Teachers are expected to constantly deliver fantastic lessons that raise student achievement while increasingly being expected to demonstrate accountability for their students’ performance. I have heard few policy-makers seriously suggest reducing teacher workload, particularly the expected contact hours and class sizes, both of which must be cut for teachers to deliver those effective lessons. In fact, most of the discourse about education is superficial and focuses mainly on statistics, such as how many people are gaining qualifications across schools, demographics and nationally, and how many credits they are gaining while doing so.

This obsession, which grew worse under National, means the success of a school and a government’s education policies are determined by the number and nature of credits gained by students. This in turn compels students and the schools themselves to panic about getting those numbers up by setting percentage goals for the amount of students that gain each qualification. One problem with such goals is that they lead to “teaching to assessment”, where each course simply moves from one internal to another and the emphasis from both students and staff is placed on the credits those internals offer, rather than the skills that must be demonstrated to do so. This is where exemplars and assessment workbooks, although structured to scaffold students, may do them a disservice by dissuading them from appreciating the true value of the work they are asked to do.

A student’s future is determined by the number of credits they have when they leave school, so NCEA becomes a numbers game. Once the number has been reached a student can kick back and relax, which is exactly what I did at school. There was no drive, no intrinsic appreciation for learning being developed, and personally, I didn’t care that much about Excellence credits when I was in school. I wasn’t after any scholarship or anything special and even now, endorsements seem geared towards gaining scholarships or making CVs look good.

A friend of mine said that schools had essentially become “credit factories”, concerned with pumping out qualifications in order to meet achievement goals, which in part affects funding. To do this, schools offer extra assessments that students can complete later in the year or students go to different institutions to get them. Again, teachers and schools cannot be blamed for this, they are simply doing what is right by students to ensure they can progress to whatever future endeavours they have in mind after school. Unfortunately, this means that for all its good intentions, NCEA is still just another way to define the value of a young person as easily-processable numbers and terms, handy for employers and universities to easily make judgments about their worth.

Education cannot continue to be merely a mechanism that molds young people into ideal employees to exported to the workforce. The previous government’s narrow focus on STEM subjects reflects the industrial-era attitudes that still fundamentally underpins our education system, such as the idea that the skills a student learns in school should be directly related to their future employment. These values are often at odds with the values of other cultures, like how the education system promotes individual excellence over manaakitanga and looking out for one’s own interests over working to help others. Schools, like the wider society they reflect, equates one’s identity with their work, and ideally that shouldn’t happen at all. People, after all, are more than the job they do, and we should start talking to students like this is the case.

Schools should focus on providing students with the ability to navigate the many complexities of adult life, things ranging from financial literacy to civics to even just understanding and appreciating their cultures. They should leave school confident enough to meaningfully interact with people from all walks of life, able to take on any challenge they face with a curiosity to continue learning and improving (the idea of creating life-long learners is discussed in the NZ Curriculum) and be empathetic, active citizens. If they have all these attributes, they will likely succeed in whatever they pursuit they choose.

I may not go back, but I hope it gets better

I knew many of these problems existed before I started teaching, but I underestimated not only how difficult it would be to make the change I wanted to, but also how much I disagreed with the fundamental ideologies that drive our education system. The frustration got the better of me and I felt like I was accomplishing little. That said, the issues highlighted in this piece do not mean that it is all doom and gloom. There are plenty of positive discussions occurring and ideas being put forward about how to make our education system better, such as recent announcements of major reforms provides cause for cautious optimism. There is talk of removing the Tomorrow’s Schools that fostered competition between schools, a review of NCEA and the need to address Māori issues in education. I hope that the changes are sufficiently radical and not the tinkering at the edges we have come to expect from Labour, but even then, I will likely not return to teaching any time soon. The issues, particularly those that face Māori and Pasifika, may be exacerbated at school but they start beyond the gates, and it is that change out in the community and with society that I intend to make. For all those still teaching, I have the utmost respect. Sometimes I wish I had persevered, but students are better served by those whose hearts are still in it.