Story: Primary and secondary education

Page 8. Teachers

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19th century

From 1877 primary teachers were paid according to their grading, which was determined by the size of their school. Because there were so many small schools, most teachers were clustered in the poorly paid lower grades of the profession. Many of them were women. As women were not paid as much as men, they were employed by boards as cheap labour. Pupil-teachers – older pupils who were paid a pittance for teaching younger children – were predominantly female. Often teachers, particularly those in rural schools, did not have a teachers’ certificate. Rote teaching, where children chanted facts in unison until they were memorised, was common in the 19th century and well into the 20th.

Rote teaching

Rote teaching remained common after the First World War, as one primary-school student of the time recalled. ‘I can remember gathering as one of a group round a large free-standing bead frame. The teacher had a long pointer and, as she shifted the appropriate coloured beads along their rods, the whole group chanted, “One and one are two – one and two are three…” The chant was led by the teacher who also kept everybody in time by tapping her foot on the floor.’1

1900s to 1940s

In the early 20th century the standardisation of the salaries, appointment and grading of teachers, together with the establishment of a superannuation fund, made teaching a more attractive career. The profession continued to attract large numbers of women, possibly because it was one of the few careers open to them. Women teachers were in the majority in primary schools, and between 40% to 50% of the secondary teaching workforce. In 1914 the New Zealand Women Teachers’ Association was formed, pushing for equal pay, promotion of women and inclusion of women in the inspectorate (the team of school inspectors).

In 1904 teacher training was improved with increased funding to training colleges in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, and in 1926 the old pupil-teacher system was abandoned. Economic depression of the late 1920s and 1930s led to education cuts. Teachers’ salaries were slashed and teachers’ colleges closed temporarily. From the mid-1930s, however, reforms led to a spirit of optimism. With the abolition of the Proficiency exam in 1936, primary teachers could explore subjects in more depth, and allow children to do more self-directed project work. Better understanding of child psychology encouraged teaching tailored to each child’s individual abilities and needs.


Many people remember inspirational teachers. For Dorothy Butler it was Mr Watson, teacher of her Standard 5 class at Gladstone Road School in Auckland in the 1930s. She recalled, ‘In Mr Watson’s class, you worked … I am quite sure, in retrospect, that Warnock Watson’s vigour and personal style – virtuosity, really – kindled intellectual activity in an extraordinary way.’2

1950s to the 2000s

When the Government Service Equal Pay Act 1960 was introduced, the Women Teachers’ Association was the first to take advantage of it. This, and increasing numbers of married women re-entering the paid workforce, were possible reasons why numbers of women in the profession grew. By 2011 women teachers outnumbered men in both primary (82%) and secondary schools (58%).

More was spent on teacher training from the 1950s. Social changes in the post-war years created challenges for teachers, including greater diversity, particularly in secondary schools, and increasing tensions between school and families. Schools became responsible for social work such as drug and alcohol education. On the other hand, styles of teaching gradually became less authoritarian. The minister of education abolished corporal punishment in 1987, and it was legislated against in 1990.

Pupils calling teachers by their first names rather than titles was acceptable in some schools in the 2000s.

Teaching life

While conditions of work and teaching styles have changed, some elements of the job remain the same. Despite the claim that teachers enjoy shorter days and more holidays than other workers, they work long hours preparing lessons and marking. In addition, many are involved in coaching sports, conducting choirs and orchestras, and directing plays and concerts after school. As role models, they are always on duty. In the words of a former teacher: ‘Any teacher worth his salt appreciates the responsibility of influencing impressionable minds to adopt worthwhile personal and community values.’3

  1. H. R. Hooker, Bead-frames to calculators: a teaching life. Christchurch: H. R. Hooker, 1983, p. 54. Back
  2. Dorothy Butler, There was a time. Auckland: Penguin, 1999, p. 88–89. Back
  3. Bead-frames to calculators, p. 121. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Primary and secondary education - Teachers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2019)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 Jun 2012