“I’m proud to be a Kiwi we don’t wait for others to act”
2023 Kea World Class New Zealand Award winner Joanne McEachan (Ngāi Tahu Ngāti Māmoe, Waitaha)
Joanne started her career as a teacher and principal before joining the Ministry of Education in 2008. With the MoE she managed multiple whole-system initiatives and began down the path of systemic reform centred on equitable outcomes and authentic assessment. After moving to the United States in 2012, Joanne founded ‘The Learner First’ to take a systemic approach to the integration of academic, social and emotional learning and then co-founded the global initiative New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL). More recently she has helped design the Contributive Learning framework to help school communities design purposeful learning experiences and measure the outcomes that matter. She’s a celebrated author, and speaker and her work in the education space has created global change.
As a child Joanne had no interest in becoming a teacher, in fact with two parents in the education sector she was determined not to go down that path. But then when she was 16 she went on an exchange to the US and all of that changed.
“While I was on exchange I had to do a lot of speeches to different groups of people, including children. And I just loved it. I loved it when I was talking to the kids and I would ask them questions and just watching them get excited was incredible. I remember when I got back to New Zealand, Dad said to me ‘What are you going to do with your life Jojo?’ And I went, “I’m going to be a teacher” and he teased me and said, “Sorry, say that again?” It was just in my blood. I’ve tried to leave several times, but every time I end up coming back. I can’t help myself. I just love the work.
Jo worked as a teacher for several years before becoming assistant principal and then principal and it was in this role that she became very interested in early work which was being done to create long term strategic plans for schools – something which was at the time very new.
“To me strategic planning just made sense, I thought schools should have a bigger vision about what they were doing and understand that when you do something and you plan for it, what happens? I was interested in what was the next step. Why would we do something to make a difference here? The Ministry of Education sort of was watching what I was doing and they asked if I would help other schools and that was the start of my career with the Ministry.
Jo’s work in this sector took her around the world and it was at a conference in the US where she met her husband Andrew. After relocating to Seattle, Andrew, a four time start up entrepreneur, convinced her to start her own business based on the teachings of contributive learning and the idea that if you teach children who they are and where they belong you will have much better long term outcomes. And so The Learner First was born.
“I was petrified quite frankly because having been a public servant all my life entrepreneurship was not in my way of thinking, so it was a real challenge for me. I thought I was pretty hopeless at it for a long time. I set up my company the New Zealand way in America, so I put people and planet first and then profits last, which at the time was a bt foreign so it took a long time but I built my company with a really good reputation. And that made a really big difference.”
The Learner First is built on four main principles which Jo says are all found fairly in the New Zealand School system but which are quite new to education systems overseas.
“The Learner First helps teach kids who they are first, where they come from and where they belong? Then we focus on connection, how we connect to one another and to the planet. Thirdly we look at knowledge and what individual knowledge each child needs to succeed, and finally, we focus on competencies, which activates the learning.”
Jo says getting her company took a long time, and convincing people that these ‘radical’ ideas would make a difference was hard work. Two years after setting up her company she had a breakthrough.
“This one Superintendent took a chance on me and we implemented the programme across two school districts he worked in, with stunning results. We had kids coming back to school, we had teachers coming back on Mondays and Fridays. We had 10,000 more school days paid for in one year because in that particular state, schools were funded based on the number of days kids attended. We saved the district $600,000 USD in one year for teacher turnover and kids’ results went up 20% in their standardised testing, which we didn’t even focus on, so it was really phenomenal. From there things just kept growing.”
Today The Learner First has offices in the US, Canada and Australia and Jo says she credits part of her success to her Kiwi upbringing.
“I think as Kiwi we go out into the world just thinking we can do anything. That’s our belief in who we are. We’re strong people. We’re adventurers. We’re global people. We don’t sit still and wait for stuff to happen, we make it happen.”
Vishal Talreja of Dream a Dream in India says he firmly believes Jo is shaping the education of the future.
“Her ideas connect the purpose of education to the kind of societies we want to create. She connects the purpose of education to the idea of identity, to the idea of knowing where we come from.”
Dr Karen Edge from UCL Centre for Educational Leadership agrees and sees Jo as courageous.
“It’s very clear to see that she brings her humanity and the legacy of her family and her community with her in the journey for her work, she shares a little bit of New Zealand with all of us. The work that she has developed around contributive learning, around helping individuals in education understand who they are and where they fit in the world, is groundbreaking. Her ability to hold up and celebrate and shine a light on Maori communities, on communities in New Zealand, and to use that to shape her work is absolutely extraordinary.”
Alongside her work with The Learner First Jo has also published several books on teaching, learning, and system change. She has also worked to bring about purposeful opportunities for Māori including founding the Kia Kotahi Ako Charitable Trust, an indigenous knowledge transforming education and environmental solutions from Aotearoa. The charitable trust works to tackle both issues relating to the world’s climate crisis and an inequitable education system.
Jo says she wants all children to know that the Kiwi superpower is the belief that we can do anything and nothing is going to stand in our way.
“I’m a little girl from Gore and I’m on the global stage. I just got back from a trip and I was the keynote at the American Principals Conference, Education Conference. Then I went and spent time speaking to all of the superintendents. I work on great big global boards. We’re not shy. We’re out there doing it. I’m proud to be a Kiwi. I never hold back, whenever I say I’m from Aotearoa New Zealand, I’m proud to say that. I want to say to every child you can.”