Teaching history, changing lives

Today we are publishing a thoughtful piece by passionate history teacher Clementine Fraser, Head of History at Avondale College, Auckland, about her experience of opening young people’s eyes to the connections between their past and their present reality.  She also demonstrates the benefits of visiting the places where events really happened, reminding us of the need to treasure these places and to facilitate opportunities for school children to visit them.

I’ve always loved history. When I was a child, books about the past were always my favourite. For much of my childhood I alternated between wanting to be an archaeologist or a librarian. The past seemed to me to be a magical place full of interesting people, astonishing customs, and cool artefacts.

I didn’t, however, think much of New Zealand history.

This is odd because I loved Maori legends and was part of the kapa haka at Intermediate School, and the Howick Colonial Village would have been on my youthful Top Ten Places to Visit list. It was as if I didn’t make a connection between the things I valued when I experienced them first hand and this amorphous thing called ‘History’, that was somehow always ‘other’. I begrudgingly studied our history in 7th Form and didn’t take any New Zealand history until I did my MA honours year, when I did nineteenth century Pakeha social history topics.

This idea that New Zealand somehow doesn’t have any history, or ‘not enough’ history, or has ‘boring’ history, is still prevalent today, despite changes in the national curriculum that require it to be taught in more depth.

I get it every year at school:
“Miss do we have to study the Treaty again?”
“But New Zealand history is so boring! Why can’t we study the French Revolution?”
“Is it going to just be all that Maori stuff?”

It can get a bit disheartening. But I’ve been on my own journey from disinterest to passionate advocate of New Zealand history, so I cut them some slack and promise them they will change their minds once they’ve studied it.

So far, I haven’t had one yet who didn’t change their position. Knowledge truly is power.

Clementine’s students stand on Meremere Pa, overlooking the landscape of conflict of the Waikato Wars .

What is also powerful is the ability to make that connection between the experienced and the academic.


I’ve always argued that to truly appreciate a history you need to visit the land. I remember exactly the thrill I got when I stood in the spot in which Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, the awe at standing in the exact place where William the Conqueror used to say his prayers. I get the same thrill every time I visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, or one of the battle sites of the New Zealand Wars. When students go on these trips it changes their whole perception. One student recently said, following a visit to Waitangi – “I understand it all so much better now”. We didn’t see anything at the grounds or in the museum that we hadn’t covered in class, but she had made a connection. It is now so much more real for her.

An ex-student of mine sent me a message recently to say:

[the trip to the Waikato] was one of the most formative experiences of my time at [school]. I will always remember how that trip shifted my understanding of what it is to be a New Zealander, and what I hope for a modern New Zealand.

This is really what I have learned from teaching New Zealand history to high school students – the connection to their current reality, and to what they value emotionally, is what hooks them in. And my own connection is deepened each year I teach it.

I learned first about the Treaty of Waitangi in depth when I was a historian at the Waitangi Tribunal business unit. That gave me a grounding and understanding of it in a way that I have carried with me ever since.

However, I would say that teaching it for the last 11 years to teenagers (who are mostly reluctant to engage with it at all) has given me an even stronger connection to its importance and relevance. When you teach something, you have to respond to questions that perhaps you hadn’t anticipated, or thought of before. You have to negotiate strongly held views. You teach critical thinking and hope that you model it.

We also strive to show them that New Zealand history spans further back than 1840, that Maori history of New Zealand goes back centuries before that. We put our history into context – at the same time as we were fighting over sovereignty and land in the Taranaki and Waikato, the United States was embroiled in their own Civil War.

New Zealand history is so much more than just the Treaty or the wars of the 1860s. But just as Gallipoli is widely (if problematically) held to be a ‘turning point’ in the formation of New Zealand’s identity, you can’t understand New Zealand without understanding the Treaty.

If you form your identity in response to challenges and the other, then mine has been refined through the crucible of student disinterest and rolled eyes. Each time I get to open a young person’s eyes to the connections between their past and their present reality I feel that much more content with my place in the world.

Teaching our history has shaped me into who I am.

Students at Ruapekepeka

It hasn’t just been students who benefit either. For the last three years I have run a lunchtime seminar on the relevance of the Treaty for those students not taking history. They have always been well attended and have led to some thoughtful discussions. But over the last two years the students have almost been outnumbered by staff. Teachers and support staff have come along to develop their own awareness and connection to our past, and this has led to several moments where a colleague has confessed that they’d never held much brief for New Zealand history but now they saw how important it was – especially as a teacher.

I leave the last words to another ex-student, who wrote in her thank you card at the end of Year 13:

Thank you for completely changing my views on the Treaty of Waitangi. Prior to this year I had always found the Treaty to be uninteresting and unimportant; now I understand the importance and the relevance of the Treaty, and how it impacts everyone. This really has changed me for the better.

What more could a teacher hope for?

Clementine Fraser

Images from Clementine Fraser.  Main image, Ruapekapeka

The author visiting Waitangi as a teenager herself.


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