Learning for life

Professional learning and development (PLD) is a critical part of practice for all educators. But how do they ensure their ongoing learning has the best impact for ākonga? These personal stories showcase some outstanding PLD experiences that benefit students, educators and whole communities.

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In 2018 Ana Te Kani was doing well in her fifth year of teaching, but she had hit a standstill professionally. “I’d sort of lost my passion in teaching, you know, following the same routine every year.” She decided to go home to find it, returning to teach at her own immersion school, Te Kura o te Manutūkē, in Gisborne, where she had gone as a kid. “And I did find it,” says Ana. “It’s the reo.”

But while she loved being back, there was still little room for her to grow as a leader, in part because many of her whānau were already in leadership positions in the school. So she decided it was time to move on. When someone suggested she apply for a principal role at another school in her rohe, she didn’t think she’d have a chance, but gave it a shot.

Under Ana’s leadership since July 2021, Te Kura o Pātutahi is thriving, with a doubled roll and staff, a new school charter, logo and uniform, an overhaul of the school’s technology, participation in inter-school sports and – most importantly for Ana – a growing sense of tuākiritanga, identity. “If kids have a strong sense of belonging through knowing who they are, then they’re unstoppable in where they’re heading to,” she explains. “I’m from here,” she reiterates – her grandfather and his siblings went to the school, and she remembers it as the heart of the community, which she wants it to become again. She says the changes the kura has seen are thanks to the strong whānau community environment that’s growing, but it’s clear that her own drive and skills also play a big part. Twenty-seven when she started out, Ana is one of the youngest principals in the country.

The other critical factor in Ana’s successful start as a principal is a workshop she attended just two weeks before starting at Pātutahi. “Had I not done that PLD,” Ana says, “I don’t think I would have had a clear understanding of my role as a principal.”

The NZEI Aspiring Principals’ Seminar is a one-day, intensive session that provides interested teachers with a clear understanding of a principal’s role through analysing what a ‘Day in the Life of a Principal’ looks like. Topics and skills include staff management, governance, reporting, finance, compliance and strategic planning. Ana describes it as “an opening statement to what a principal is” and says the course convener, Louise Green, did a fantastic job of breaking everything down, helping her to grasp what her new role would entail. “She explained all the moving parts of a school, the mechanics of it, the legal and financial sides of things and we got to practise in a workshop, what we would deal with as principals.” 

Of course, Ana explains, “nothing makes sense until you are in the job and the water’s boiling”, but the PLD was critical in supporting her through the “crash course” which was her first few weeks of being a principal, “meeting finance people, huis with the ministry, getting the school in line regulation-wise, juggling personnel, budgets. I’d never done any of that before.” The course helped her to get started immediately in identifying and prioritising what needed to be done for the students and their kura to thrive. Which was just as well, because three weeks into her new role the country went into lockdown. “Thankfully I’d been able to set the kids up with some tech, create accounts, teach them to use email and so on, just in time!”

Ana says that networking with other principals was a highlight of the course. “It’s really hard to do that now—I don’t have time.” Listening to other people’s experiences and hearing from experienced principals was invaluable. “I was just soaking it all up,” she says. She also found solidarity with other, less-experienced participants. “I felt really tau (content), I knew I wasn’t on this journey alone.”

Seminar convener Louise (“the guru lady”, as Ana calls her) has kept in touch with Ana in her new role, emailing, calling and visiting and giving advice when asked. This ‘above and beyond’ support, and the ongoing benefits of networking are difficult aspects of PLD to quantify, but they make a tremendous difference in improving student outcomes, as many educators know.

3-2-1 contact!

Wes Va’ai-Wells, also a beginning principal at Woodville School in the Manawatū, who attended an Aspiring Principals’ seminar, says that support networks, and time spent talking with other teachers and principals, have been his saving grace in his new role. 

Woodville School tumuaki Wes Va’ai-Wells

“Perhaps the most pivotal aspect of me coming into my role was having a large network of people who believed in my vision, my character and my abilities,” says Wes. “These people are the ones I attribute my successes to because they’ve supported me with every unsuccessful application while reaffirming and reassuring me of my reasons to pursue principalship. There’s no way I could do this by myself. I knew when I chose to walk toward principalship that it wasn’t a one-person job.”     

Wes sees professional learning and development in broad terms, and says it was a whole combination of experiences and learnings, rather than a specific course, that steered him to principalship and helped him grow as an educator. Particularly influential, however, was a TeachNZ scholarship in 2016, which allowed him to finish his master’s degree. When he first graduated in 2005, Wes knew he wanted to go into the schools and communities that had helped raise him – predominantly low socio-economic and low decile. Wes says the postgraduate study kick-started him into thinking about leadership and about a role in which he could have a bigger influence over change.

“I was able to combine current educational research, a deeper understanding of the New Zealand education system, and my own and others’ teaching experiences,” Wes explains. “This provided me with the confidence to do and be more in order to better support the next generation of learners.” 

For Wes, the timing of this learning was critical. As an undergrad, he says, he was more of a ‘Cs get degrees’ candidate, but having now been a teacher “everything I’d been reading about and learning about made way more sense”. Having the practical experience in which to contextualise theory made for better learning. He graduated this time with distinction.

Transforming teacher aide practice

Even more so than teachers, teacher aides can find themselves thrown into new situations with little preparation, and until recently there were only very limited PLD options for bridging that gap on the job. That situation changed significantly, however, when the Teacher Aide Pay Equity claim was settled and a TA PLD Pilot Fund was negotiated as part of the Support Staff in Schools’ Collective Agreement (SSSCA).

Waimuku School teacher aide Glenys Brown

Glenys Brown, a teacher aide at Waimauku School for the past 14 years, was on the Teacher Aide Pay Equity team and was active in promoting the PLD fund that came as a result of the settlement. Another $4 million has been negotiated as part of the new 2022 collective agreement, which is in place until the end of February 2024.

Glenys says the PLD fund has been hugely transformative for the work of teacher aides, a group of educators whose professional demands can change significantly with each new student, and who regularly need to learn new skills for different needs.

“In the past, and right up to now, a new teacher aide was normally just thrown in,” explains Glenys. “My first day, I was put in a classroom with an autistic child who was digging holes in his skin until his skin bled and I just had to get on with it. I had no training.” Working with neurodiverse students is the core of what teacher aides do, and with the approaches and research in this area constantly evolving, it’s important to stay informed and be aware. “The neurodiversity that we’re seeing in schools is huge, and there’s more and more of it, so we need the PLD, we need the training,” says Glenys.

An evaluation report published on the pilot fund cites one participant’s comment that attests to the hugely positive outcomes: “To access proper courses that support you in your work and in turn supports the students is a game changer. Not only for us, personally, but also for the children we work within the schools and for the families as well.”

As part of the next round of the fund, an induction course for new teacher aides is being put together that will cover the basics of teacher aide work; not the cherries-on-top, but the cake. Beyond that there is also a huge range of learning opportunities available through the fund, from literacy and numeracy programmes, to understanding neurodiversity, to managing challenging behaviours, to more generally applicable PLD, such as learning about tikanga. Glenys herself completed a tikanga Māori course through Massey University. “It improved my understanding of why some things are done a certain way, and opened up my thinking in terms of many things, including aspects of our school life,” she comments.

“The neurodiversity that we’re seeing in schools is huge, and there’s more and more of it, so we need the PLD, we need the training,”

Glenys’s school has been supportive of teacher aide PLD, but she has seen instances where the school culture has been a barrier for some. An ongoing challenge to teacher aides taking up professional development opportunities is the fact that release time can be difficult to coordinate. “There’s not a field of relievers for teacher aides,” Glenys explains. “Our work is so individual, based on the relationship with the student. Often, a reliever wouldn’t be able to step in.” She explains that this is why a variety of approaches are offered, including webinars and online courses which teacher aides can manage in their own time, and from remote locations – although access to devices can also prove a barrier, as most teacher aides don’t have school-issued laptops so work off their own phones. Schools are being encouraged to support teacher aides with devices to use for PLD where needed.

As well as helping improve learning outcomes for their ākonga, the availability of PLD for teacher aides has been transformative for the profession overall. “It’s really lifted the mana of teacher aides,” says Glenys, a fact that the pilot evaluation report also noted. “We’re certainly not the babysitters that we used to be thought of.”

It has also given teacher aides solidarity in other ways. “We can network and talk with like-minded people. You can collaborate with others about the people that you’re worried about, and they’ve had similar experiences … that in itself makes you feel not so isolated and actually part of a team … It can be quite a lonely job,” observed one pilot participant.

The new fund will be available to teacher aides from the beginning of 2023 until February of 2024, after which the future of PLD for teacher aides is uncertain. “We would love it to be something permanent,” says Glenys, “but we’re going to have to fight for it again when we renegotiate our collective agreement. So, when the teacher aide PLD fund goes live at the start of 2023 it’s really important TAs make the most of it. Spread the word amongst your colleagues and get your applications for PLD rolling in. When we extend our knowledge and skills we are better able to support the students and teachers we work with.”

Not alone – training for gender awareness

Another area of education where PLD makes a big difference to countering the sense of isolation is in libraries.

Clare Forrest is a librarian at Rāroa Normal Intermediate School in Wellington and is also in charge of professional learning development for SLANZA (School Library Association of New Zealand Aotearoa). “Being a librarian is a very isolated role in a school,” explains Clare. “You are often the only person who has that role, and nobody knows what you do because it’s a specialised role. So it can feel like you’re doing it all on your own.” 

Rāroa Normal Intermediate School librarian Clare Forrest

As well as providing important professional learning support, the online courses offered by SLANZA, both regionally and nationally, bring people together so they can network and learn from each other.

PLD plays a vital role for training librarians on the job, Clare explains. 

“My colleague is a trained librarian, but the way I learnt was on the job, and from fellow librarians who were extremely generous with their time and knowledge, and from the PLD I’ve done,” says Clare. She attended face-to-face courses through the National Library, which are ongoing, where she learnt the basics of running a school library.

“Having access to excellent, current and relevant PLD is vital for school librarians and we need to ensure it is funded and supported by school management so we are recognised for the specialists we are in our kura,” she emphasises. 

“I don’t know anyone who works in education who doesn’t love learning.”

Formal PLD for librarians is very wide-ranging, from learning about the latest online tools that allow librarians to curate amazing inquiry collections of Aotearoa New Zealand history curriculum resources, to the best ways to engage all students in reading, to how to ensure collections are inclusive, diverse and accessible for all.

Clare is herself a PLD educator. She has a passion in particular for increasing diversity in libraries and has developed a module on gender and sexuality in school libraries which has proved very popular.

The module is online, open to 50 people, and runs for three to four weeks, with participants working at their own pace through resources and tasks, then engaging in conversations about the materials. “We look at what gender is, what it means, what resources are available, such as tools to help you check through your collections – for example, looking at your sports section; do you have any books on women? We look at gender stereotyping in books, and how to take a class through their own evaluation of that.” Sexism, censorship, and teaching puberty and sexuality, are also explored, and useful resources, such as primary-appropriate rainbow books to include in collections, are shared. “Though it also varies from school to school,” cautions Clare. “What’s right for my school is certainly not right for another school, and that’s important to understand.”

The gender diversity workshop is a prime example of the importance of continually providing educators with opportunities to learn, and to relearn, so as to keep pace with the world that their ākonga are being educated in.

Clare doesn’t think this is a problem. “I don’t know anyone who works in education who doesn’t love learning. School librarians are passionate about sharing their knowledge – to their ākonga, to their colleagues and to their communities.”

How do you choose?

One of the challenges for anyone looking at either providing or pursuing professional learning opportunities is the sometimes overwhelming number of things on offer. 

When the Teacher Aide Pilot Programme first ran, Glenys says there were some challenges in terms of assessing quality PLD in their stocktake. She says that this time around there are processes in place to make sure the quality is there and that the PLD on offer is appropriate for teacher aides. “It’s got to be good for teacher aide best practice, the school, and it’s got to be good for the students,” she emphasises.

Wes says that one of the most beneficial skills he got out of his own professional learning development was being better at critical thinking, and that this is helpful when looking at what’s on offer in terms of PLD for him and his staff. “You can pick any type of research and build your own convincing narrative around it,” he says. “So I’ll do my research on these programmes, and ask who looks to gain the most from us doing this?” 

The answer, of course, should always be the ākonga, whose learning is what every educator’s role is ultimately in support of, through their professional learning development or otherwise.

“What I ask,” says Ana, “is does it align with my kids? Is it going to improve my kids’ achievements? Is it practical? Can I administer it? I want to source PLD that is child-focussed and specific to the needs of my kura.”

Teaching and learning in the field

Learning support staff are vital to achieving an Aotearoa New Zealand education system inclusive of all learners, particularly those whose learning needs cannot always be met by a classroom educator. Along with speech language therapists, teacher aides, kaitakawaenga, physiotherapists and many other professionals, Ministry of Education (MoE) field staff are a core part of the collective working to ensure that our vulnerable learners don’t slip through the cracks.

Louise Hoggart

Louise Hoggart is part of MoE’s support staff team and someone whose passion for learning, and for helping others learn, is lifelong. After kick-starting her career with a diploma in teaching, she undertook postgraduate studies in early intervention, followed by a master’s degree in specialist teaching. Since then she has engaged with “loads” of further professional learning development, and since 2018 has channelled her passion for education into helping other teachers learn, via a professional development programme called PTR-YC (Prevent-Teach-Reinforce for Young Children).

PTR-YC is a ministry-endorsed programme designed to support early childhood centres in increasing desirable behaviours and decreasing problem behaviours in toddlers and pre-schoolers when other guidance and interventions have not been effective. The programme is originally American, “but we’ve Kiwified it a bit”, says Louise. Six sessions of two hours are held over a term, usually with a focus on classroom-wide practices specific to the centre’s needs, an emphasis Louise says is key. “The inquiry approach is foremost – identifying what teachers need, specific to that community.” At the conclusion of the sessions, teachers are left with a toolbox of changes they can implement in their classrooms as well as an intervention plan. “All the strategies for the intervention are contained within the programme,” explains Louise, “so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” The teachers are also supported post-programme. “We build a relationship, so that when something crops up they can just get on the phone and ask for help,” Louise says.

While the programme can cater for specific children or a group of children, Louise says that fundamental classroom practice is an increasing focus for centres. “More and more in our early intervention teaching we’re coming across teachers who are struggling just with the day-to-day role of teaching,” she says. She wonders if this might be because tertiary training isn’t always practical enough or easy to translate for some teachers, or whether the fact early childcare teachers often move from centre to centre might contribute.

Louise notes that connection and collaboration between teachers and other centres also help ground and enhance learning on the programme. In 2022 she ran side-by-side sessions for two centres based in Kaiapoi, which she says worked exceptionally well. “They got to interact with each other. They got to do the activities in teams and then feed back. They exchanged ideas.”


Find news and information on PLD opportunities from the Ministry of Education.

Explore these professional learning opportunities from SLANZA.

Networks of Expertise (NEX) are peer-to-peer networks providing support for teachers and kaiako.

Kahu Pūtoi is a network of Māori-medium kaiako and teachers of te reo Māori in early childhood settings, and school/kura settings.

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