Breath of Clarity

Otari School (Wilton, New Zealand)

mission: to inspire a love of learning through an education that values the development of the whole child

“The whole-child approach attracted me to this position. The over arching value of community is important and 200 students is a good size for building that sense of togetherness. Many of my personal values are linked to the Christian faith and that comes back to seeing every individual as a precious being. No matter what, teachers need to cherish and love them. It’s a given. It’s a way that we need to interact with children because they are deserving of that.” – Clifford Wicks (school principal for the past 13 years)

The school’s close proximity to Forest Reserve allows for full access to the ngahere (the original bush, some of which has been here for 800 years). From about 1956-1990, the educational institution was called Wilton School with only one original strand. When the roll went down to 50 students in 1992, the idea came to start two new strands (Montessori and Te Reo Maori cultural immersion) to complement the existent original track. Those two groups saved the school for the local people, which currently represents 1/3 of the students. According to Clifford Wicks, “they then sought to change the name to Otari because it had a new identity”. Otari is still working on roll management, monitoring the amount of children at the school. In 2012, the administration actually had to insert system that allows the school to deny families who live outside the local zone parameters if there isn’t enough space. Otari needed to turn 16 families away this past year. The school started the 2015 term with approximately 210 students.

Each strand has its own philosophy and teaching style and the moderate size of the school allows for cross-strand activities. The classrooms are structured into ‘whānau groupings’ which means that there are mixed-aged groups within each class. Wicks explained that the school is currently working on “addressing the balance between whole school and individual strands” and exploring ways to unite the school while still be strong in different strands. Next year, they plan to look at student inquiry in the classroom and share different teaching models between staff members of various strands. Overall, the environment nourishes the concept of whanaungatanga.

Every term, the school chooses six virtues from The Virtues Project list to focus on. They were originally developed by the Bahai people. However, according to Wicks, studies show that these are ideals most cultures value, regardless of religion. According to Wicks, the system is “good for teaching a diverse group of children, [as] they contribute to our culture really well”. Wicks explained that the staff uses the virtue terminology in discipline language. For example, this week’s concentration is mercy. It’s a more complex, higher-thinking term, so the school conducts exercises investigating what it looks and sounds like. It helps the children understand teachers’ language in specific situations and at the end of the year they evaluate which they want to improve on.

NOTE: The school is funded by the government. The operation grant pays for teacher aids, property and equipment. In addition, the Ministry of Education pays the teachers’ salaries. The bulk grant pays for everything else, and that is what the school is responsible for budgeting. This is the aspect of the funding that has altered in recent years, depending on needs suggested by the staff. The small-size of the school allows for the budget discussion to be collaborative among faculty. Any other income comes from donations and fundraising (i.e. the school fair) and that money helps maintain established programs.

My work as a student-teacher fits into the school’s mission because my presence allows for more students to get individual assistance during work time. The picture of the young girl above is a screenshot taken from a video I recorded of her reciting the poem she wrote during a work cycle. I guided her through the whole process. She was able to develop more as a writer because I was constantly giving her feedback on each choice she made to form the written piece. So, she could adjust the same section multiple times and understand why changes needed to be made. So, it was great experiencing that joy with her when she finished the project. The EnviroSchools program I’m involved with also is aligned with Otari’s mission because it develops the whole-child in terms of training them to be environmentally sustainable. Projects we’re working on is identifying specific tasks needed to bring the students’ vision into reality. I’m facilitating meetings in which kids create blueprints for their projects and are brainstorming all the necessary resources required. Through working on these projects, it’s teaching them that environmental consciousness must be carried out in practice, instead of just supported in theory. The second photo shows the Montessori equipment used for learning multiplication and division. Working with groups of kids using the beads makes me feel as though I’m making a strong impact on inspiring their love of learning, which is an aspect of the school’s mission. Noticing that certain students learn more effectively using the equipment shows that addressing the diversity in student learning styles is the key to keeping them motivated.

The final picture is a screenshot of the video I took of the children playing my favorite game from primary school. In the states, we call it Indian Chief but New Zealander’s named it Beat Detective. It represents the most valuable lesson I’ve gained from Otari so far and am pumped to bring back home. Otari is a really laid back atmosphere, very different from America. I’ve learned that the slower-paced way of life has its benefits. It allows for more thoughtful conversations and also getting more comfortable with the self, as moments of stagnancy force us to manage our thoughts. It helps develop a skill of knowing the self, detecting the beat that runs within us. So, this internship taught me that efficiency and getting top status doesn’t always need to be the chief concern. Fulfillment, instead, comes from a healthy mind.