Forget about ‘walking the talk’, University of Waikato Faculty of Education lecturer Chris Brough believes in ‘living the talk’. Education is her life, teaching her passion, and children her motivation. It was with a heavy heart, therefore, that Chris recently resigned from her full-time position in response to ongoing complications from cancer treatment. Her departure was met with great sadness by colleagues and ex-students alike, as evidenced in the record number of tributes posted to the University of Waikato, Tauranga Facebook page.
One of those ex-students is Richard Williams, who graduated with a Bachelor of Education (Primary) in 2013. Richard remembers very clearly sitting in his first lecture, feeling nervous and overwhelmed at his decision to return to study. His doubts were immediately assuaged, however, when Chris Brough walked in wearing a Dr Seuss t-shirt and began reading a children’s story to the 40-strong adult class. Now a fully registered teacher in a Bay of Plenty school, Richard is effusive in his praise of Chris, and singles out the personal connection she made with each and every student in her class. “This is something I strive to do in my class, with my tamariki; Chris taught me that relationships and the way we teach are so important, and that we get the chance to change lives for the better. To do that, we need to love what we do and show our tamariki this every day.”
Chris’s story is all the more remarkable given that her own school experience was not positive. “I didn’t fit. I found school boring and irrelevant and consequently a place where I experienced an overwhelming sense of failure. However, these experiences shaped my vision and influenced the way I teach as I strive to make learning meaningful, positive and highly engaging.”
It is no surprise then that Chris chose to explore democratic teaching practice in her masters thesis in 2011, for which she was awarded the Rae Munro NZARE Best Masters Thesis of the Year (2011). Her research involved student-centred curriculum integration, which places children at the centre of their learning as the teacher involves them in classroom decisions and curriculum planning. For ex-student, now full-time teacher and participant in Chris’s research, Deidre Duggan, the experience of working with Chris was life-changing. “It became the most significant influence to discovering my true teaching pedagogy and resulted in a change of teaching environment that encouraged and embraced this.”
Chris says that whenever possible she designs her tutorials to replicate the classroom setting where her students will eventually teach. Starting every class, for instance, by reading a children’s story allows the students to become familiar with children’s literature and the merits of reading to children. This practice again proves to be the antithesis of Chris’s own childhood experience. “Reading was not prevalent in my home as a child, but my best friend introduced me to Dr Seuss stories on a wet caravan holiday when we memorised an entire story. This is where my love of Seuss began.”
With Seuss’s other life as a political cartoonist, it is the deeper meaning found within the clever text that inspires Chris. “I enjoy his subtle messages, his quirky use of humour, nonsense and rhyme which appeals to children’s imagination and sense of fun. I always read The Lorax in year two and unpack the environmental issues that Seuss brought to light so many years ago. And then, at the very end of their training, in the final class, I read Oh the Places You’ll Go as it has messages about new opportunities and overcoming challenges they may face on their teaching journey.”
Chris now faces her own personal challenge, but she intends to continue to ‘live the talk’ and describes her leave period as temporary. Ex-student Andrew Newton is not surprised at such a positive and determined response. “Chris is the reason I finished my degree and wanted to not just be a teacher, but a great teacher. Chris would always say as teachers we are in charge of the weather in the classroom, so make every day a sunny one.”