At the end of last year I was eating lunch when my mobile rang. The voice on the other end explained very matter of factly that I had won The Breeze radio station’s competition and had 2 free return tickets to anywhere in Europe. I squealed and hyperventilated and tried to explain that leaving New Zealand for the first time made this a very exciting call to get.

It was fantastic. We squeezed 11 days in England and Scotland and then jumped on a bus to see the highlights of Europe in 15 days. It is true we were the ultimate tourists, dazed and happy to glide through Venice on gondolas and shocked into silence by the magnificence of the Vatican and St Peter’s . We took lots of pictures, a few of which the kids have seen under sufferance. Only mum and dad sat through 3000 of them flashing across their their TV screen (although I did notice dad snoozing through the afternoon viewing). My brother agreed to come for dinner – only if didn’t try to show him any.

I got back to work part way through Term 2. Students were self-referring to Learning Support in numbers barely able to be dealt with. They were anxious about their lack of excellence in assessments and their inability to understand exactly what information the question wanted. They spoke of long hours of study, of dance practice and trips away with sports teams. They worried that they were disappointing mum and dad. That they were dumb. That their friends got high grades and that despite hours of study they were barely scrapping by. I heard of pains in their stomachs, of nights not being able to sleep. They cried and picked at the hems of shirts and blazers and blamed themselves for not being better organised.

Could I help them to do better?

Not for the first time I wonder what we doing to our teenagers? This relentless pressure to do well in NCEA and the assessments that pepper the school year. The said and unsaid assumption that without those grades, we cannot hope to make a successful life.

Successful lives are surely happy ones lived doing what we enjoy while earning enough to finance the things we need. Finding what we are good at and what we enjoy doing is part of our life journey not necessarily something we discover in our teenage years. Teenage years should be about trying out different paths; a time to have the creative freedom to explore and discover what our talents and interests might be.

I listened to many sad young people in my office, all desperate to learn at the rate of a classmate or in the same way as a friend. Surely it is time to focus less on rewarding high achievers and more on teaching students that learning is a unique experience. That as successful life long learners they have their own unique ways to see, experience and interact with the world.


When my son was in Year 11 he did not pass his NCEA. I cried when the results came out and he stared at me for a while before finally muttering, ” I don’t know why you are crying mum, it wasn’t you that failed.” I still think of that as I watch him working hard at completing his Post Graduate degree in History at Auckland University.

As parents and educators we need to wake up to the part we play in shaping the world our teenagers inhabit. Perhaps creative thinking, not algebra, will be what our children will need most in tomorrow’s world. That leaders and innovators  may not achieve numeracy or literacy in Year 11.That our learning takes its own path and travels at its own speed.

Did I learn anything from wandering briefly through Europe with my mouth wide open? What a beautiful world we live in. That the simple potted geranium plant and magnificent palace all add something wonderful to our experience of life. That grades and scores cannot possibly define who you are and what you bring to the world.

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Julie Mulcahy is married to Peter, a Primary School Principal and is descended from a long line of teachers. She has taught Years 4 through to Year 13, moved from country schools in Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Northland and spent the past 10 years in Auckland where works in a high school.

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