The most human I feel is when I hang out with my brother, Richie. We are only 16 months apart, so I can’t really remember a time without him. We yarn (in the way only siblings can) about our weird and wonderful upbringing, and crack up about the fact that while our friends were ‘parented’, what we really were was ‘taught’.
We were raised by disruptive educators who brought their work home. Our parents saw every aspect of our childhood as a ‘teachable moment’ where there was no right or wrong, and where every question we asked was answered with a question – a version of the Socratic teaching method that I later used in the classroom.
We were encouraged to make mistakes, to take risks, to challenge, to ask questions and most of all to learn together in a safe space we had ownership of, with people who loved us. While my upbringing was not perfect, I do feel very blessed that this formed my core understanding that teaching is an act of love, humanity and of deep connection.
I came to my work as a teacher, and now to my mahi with Ngā Rangatahi Toa (NRT), as a direct result of my upbringing. I have a clear understanding that our collective thinking on education cannot and must not be reduced to discussing a system of assessments and qualifications, or be seen simply as a collection of skills, facts and understandings.
I know that when the human connection of ako (when the roles of teacher and learner are fluid and interchangeable) is placed at the core of education, it becomes alchemy, it becomes magic and it enables young people to transform their own lives. This is why I do the work I do, the way I do it. Our NRT mantra of ‘before you teach me, you have to reach me’ keeps us all on point and on track.
Education, the act of teaching, is the purest form of human development we have and we must not let this beautiful potential get lost in the conversation of how we make an education system ‘fit for purpose’. Schools are places where much inspirational work is done, but they’re also places where the damage done is equally as mind blowing.
When I look at our education system, I see institutions that do not honour the humans within them because the system is out of sync with humanity.
To change our world I believe we must change how we see education. Teacher and-learner is a primary human relationship, one that we all engage in and one that has a great impact on how we feel about ourselves, how we perceive others and how we see the world. My upbringing and the results of our mahi at NRT may make me slightly biased, but I get really excited by this – to me, education and ako are the holy grail of youth development.
Richie and I were raised by expert teachers, so the act of ‘teaching’ us was always preceded by the act of ‘reaching’ us; there was high trust, love and respect, and it was a two-way street. By connecting on a deep human level with those you teach, education becomes a catalyst for personal growth and social cohesion, going far beyond transactions in the currency of information, assessment and qualifications. Let’s keep it real and be human about it.
Sarah Longbottom is Executive Director of Ngā Rangatahi Toa which, through one-to-one and group mentoring projects in creativity and mindfulness, empowers kids excluded from mainstream school to re-engage with education and build a brighter future for themselves and their whānau. Support its wonderful work at www.onepercentcollective.org
Words by Sarah Longbottom and Illustration by Natasha Vermeulen.