Sacked for teaching King Lear

Brethren school also discourages university study, Joseph Barratt reports.

Suzette Martin. Photo / Kerri Vernon
Suzette Martin. Photo / Kerri Vernon

Shakespearean tragedy has become high farce, after a Christian high school sacked a teacher for using a "morally defiling" King Lear text in class.

Suzette Martin, 40, was sacked from the private Westmount School in Kerikeri for teaching her Year 13 students from a modern version of the play.

Fighting the dismissal at the Employment Relations Authority, she has revealed that her contract at the Exclusive Brethren school barred her from encouraging children to go on to university.

The 15 Westmount schools receive $2.59 million in government funding, to teach 1619 enrolled students.

Martin says she just wanted to do her best for her pupils, but the school argued she over-stepped the line when she used the modern version of Shakespeare's play to fulfil NCEA requirements. She failed to clear it with the school committee and was dismissed.

"I apologised and told them I had just been too busy but they said it wasn't a good enough reason."

The school committee found that the modern text was "embarrassing, corrupting and morally defiling".

Martin argued that Shakespeare's original, approved King Lear text also contained offensive words but the committee decided she "had breached the ethos of the school".

The Employment Relations Authority expressed sympathy for Martin, but said it was forced to uphold the dismissal. She intends to appeal the decision.

"I am a results-oriented teacher," said Martin. "I just wanted what was best for the students and they needed more then just the approved text to pass their exam."

The single mum from Whangarei said her dismissal from the school, where she had worked since 2006, came as a "shock".

"I had a clean slate. I've never had a warning or been pulled about any issues," she said.

Martin, who moved from India to New Zealand five years ago, has been unable to find a new job since her dismissal.

ERA member Rosemary Monaghan said it was a "very unfortunate dismissal".

She said despite not condoning the restrictions in place at the school she accepted the school's right to impose them.

Secondary Principals' Association of New Zealand president Patrick Walsh said the dismissal was unfortunate but Martin "chose to take the job at that sort of school".

He said the big question was over a clause in Martin's employment agreement clause barring teachers from encouraging further education.

"They receive Government funding. Shouldn't they have to promote government priorities?"

Because of the clash between the legal requirement for qualified teachers, and the church's views on tertiary education, all teachers at the schools are non-Brethren. However only practising Brethren children can attend the schools.

Daryl Maden, chief executive of the Northern Education Trust, which runs the 15 Westmount Schools around the country, refused to comment on the case.

But associate education minister Heather Roy said: "Independent schools are free to set their own curricula and to have their own distinct ethos. Parents choose to send their children to these schools."

Climax of acting career

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies and is often regarded as the climax of a classical actor's career.

Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Michael Gambon and Sir Ian McKellen are among the greats to have played Lear.

Sir Anthony Hopkins was to have played the role in a film version this year, with Keira Knightley playing the king's daughter, Cordelia. However, the recession forced the cancellation of $52.5 million film.

Auckland University Shakespeare expert Professor Tom Bishop analysed the original and contemporary King Lear texts. He said the modern version was, if anything, less explicit than the original.

"I suspect that year 13 students even at a Christian school, are busy defiling themselves in various ways, just like the rest of us sinners, and don't need Shakespeare's help to do it, either in a modern or the older version.

"As far as the script goes, I think the original is more vivid. Without being a substitute, the other version is a helpful way into thinking about what's being said and what's going on in the play."

- Herald on Sunday

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