Sunday, July 14, 2013

Paul Wah's autobiography tackles education, racism

A former principal of Taita College has written a no-holds-barred autobiography and "social documentary" tackling education, discrimination and the scourge of gambling. Wooden Man, Stone Heart, by Paul Wah, is a highly readable account of how a shy and bullied Chinese boy who grey up in a rural town pushed himself to succeed in European New Zealand society. He says the person who proof-read his original 260,000 word version told him "print this, and you'll be sued". He cut it back by about a half because his publisher advised it was too long to sell well, but he was determined not to pull his punches. He wanted to tell his story but also "get issues I feel strongly about out in the open". He is not worried by legal aspects "because it's the truth - admittedly as I saw it". Mr Wah, now 80, has packed a lot into his life but Hutt people may be particularly interested in the 22 years he was at Taita College (1962 to 1985). When he started teaching science and maths at Taita College - at the same time his family was running The Martinique Cafe in Naenae to make ends meet - the no-nonsense Syd Rockel was principal and the school was doing reasonably well. But by the early 1970s, Mr Wah says pressure was put on the college by social changes, an influx of Maori families and - with no zoning - the growing tendency of Hutt Valley High School and to a lesser extent Naenae College to grab the brightest pupils from Taita and Stokes Valley. Mr Wah says the next two principals were unsuitable and out of their depth. Taita College was "moribund" and a "shambles" by 1976, its roll - particularly the crucial third form intake - slipping into a "D" funding category that would require half a dozen staff to be let go. He had proved himself as an able deputy, but his application for the top job had already been overlooked once when the post came up again in 1977. But would the board have the courage to appoint a Chinese principal? He writes: "By the 70s, race relations in New Zealand had greatly improved. "Europeans allowed Chinese to wash their shirts, sell them vegetables, cut out their diseased appendixes, teach their children Chemistry and prop up their incompetent principals, but appointment to an influential position and principal of a city secondary school was another matter. Ad Feedback "A principal could shape the careers of teachers, model the school ethos, influence the award of University Entrance and be of pivotal community importance. "It was a moot point whether my time had arrived." His was a practical approach. A typical example: To defuse a bitter and escalating stand-off between Maori and Pakeha factions in the school, he allowed a wrestling match between the protagonists that proved enough of a vent to settle things down. While Taita College's roll stabilised, even today Mr Wah has strong feelings about state secondary education, and the continuing "David and Goliath" fight between the "struggling" Taita and Naenae Colleges v Hutt Valley High School serving the wealthy parts of town. While today there is zoning, there are too many loopholes. He says if the Government is serious about a high standard of state education, it should put the schools on a more even playing field using extra funding, strict zoning and appointment of school leaders who are "visionary". Instead, the focus is on performance pay for teachers and, in the primary sector, National Standards, both of which Mr Wah believes "have as many pluses and minuses". He considers performance pay a "red herring" and potentially divisive. For an astute principal there are a number of ways to reward teachers who make an extra effort anyway. "Any teacher who came into my school that was any good was seized on and avenues created for their promotion". A firm believer in "streaming" classes according to pupils' abilities - "a practice that just about cost me my job [as principal]" - Mr Wah believes the key factor in education, and especially tackling the 20 per cent low-achieving pupil "tail" - is what happens in the home. Getting parents engaged and understanding it cannot just be all left up to schools, requires a shift of mindset in New Zealand society, "and the Government should be taking the lead". Mr Wah struggled with the issue of corporal punishment. Philosophically, he was dead against it and hated administering the cane. But he admits that for some "wreckers" in the classroom, it was the only thing they would respond to. While it is too late to re-introduce corporal punishment in schools - "that was an era of hard labour in prisons, no parole . . . society has moved on now" - he says it is an irony that the social reformers and sociologists who crusaded against the cane now decry the only other harsh sanction left to principals today - expulsion. With little else to tackle the disrupters, we have "layers and layers of caregivers, counsellors and [ultimately] jailers". "If that's society's stance it has to pay for it." Mr Wah's book also covers his time with the Department of Education and as a school inspector, and his distaste for the "political correctness" and "laziness" around tackling problems in Maori education. He taught in China at a Shanghai University in the late 1980s, at a time of huge civil unrest, official corruption and rampant inflation - pressures that culminated in the Tiananmen Square square shootings. If some educationalists will not appreciate his book, neither will some in the local Chinese community, he says. He speaks out about the Chinese love of gambling - a grandfather lost his business in a Mah Jong game, and his father squandered money the family could ill afford backing horses. He rebelled against a tradition that females and children acquiesce and keep their heads down. Arranged marriages frequently did not work. Rugby - one of the few activities that was "colour-blind" in his day - was a saviour from bullying at school. "When I played well the whole town knew about it; when I played poorly, it wasn't because I was Chinese." About 130 people, including some from Australia, have accepted invitations to the launch of Mr Wah's book at The Dowse on November 26. It will be available after that from Paper Plus Lower Hutt for $32. - Hutt News SIMON EDWARDS Last updated 09:56 20/11/2012

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