The schools walking the Treaty talk

9:11 am on 29 July 2021

As part of an RNZ series on efforts to better recognise Māori language and culture in schools, RNZ profiles the work of four schools.

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Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

Māori educators are optimistic that a range of initiatives is converging to create lasting change in the school system.

They have told RNZ they believe a combination of teacher training and requirements that make te reo and tikanga compulsory for teachers and schools could have a powerful effect.

But they say a lot will depend on the willingness of teachers and principals to embrace the changes.

RNZ spoke with principals from four schools to find out how they are responding to the challenge.

A moral obligation

Lincoln High School in Canterbury has stepped up its efforts to recognise Māori tikanga and language after Māori students delivered some uncomfortable truths earlier this year.

Principal Kathy Paterson said the students were asked to talk to staff about the importance of tikanga and correct pronunciation of Māori words but the session turned into something of a wake-up call.

"Collectively, they were hurt and they were not feeling comfortable with pronouncing their names properly, their place in the school and that looking, seeing and feeling Māori around the school," she said.

"We were humbled by it, it was quite raw, some of it was confronting and it was particularly honest. So it gave us authentic student voice to help us frame the next step in our journey."

Kathy Paterson.

Kathy Paterson. Photo: Supplied

Paterson said the message came just ahead of ministry-funded training on integrating Māori culture into students' learning.

"A lot of people think it's saying your mihi, pronouncing names correctly or singing waiata, but it's a lot deeper than that," she said.

Paterson said the Treaty of Waitangi is a big driver for the changes at the school where 8 percent of the 1300 students are Māori .

"There's a legal and a moral obligation under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. I think that's been made more explicit in recent times.

"The partnership's been there for many, many years, there is an obligation, but there's also a desire, a desire to get it right.

"The evidence is clear that it's our Māori students in New Zealand and our Pasifika students who aren't doing as well, so the more we can do to help them understand and feel comfortable with their learning, the better off everyone's going to be."

Paterson said there's been no pushback from the community against the school's efforts. In fact she's noted the opposite.

"I have a teacher who's not Māori who has very much embraced te reo and tikanga Māori and she's doing amazing work in the area of science.

"She just sent me a message the other day to say that one of her Pākehā students came into her class and said, 'I love the inclusion of te reo in your class, you include more than almost every other teacher and it's so good. The class always has a positive vibe when I walk in'," she said.

Paterson said Ministry of Education-funded training has helped to change the culture in schools, and the new requirements for schools and teachers to learn and use te reo and tikanga are significant and will deliver a lot of change.

But she warned that teachers need a lot more support so they can learn, and use, te reo and tikanga, and the push needs to be sustained for years to come and not dropped with a change of government.

"There's a huge, big investment that needs to happen," she said.

A Treaty obligation

Whangārei Intermediate School principal Hayley Read said providing a bicultural environment is a treaty obligation that every school in the country should be delivering on.

"I should be able to walk into any New Zealand classroom and know that it's New Zealand," she said.

"I don't care if you have no Māori in your school, we have an absolute obligation to the Treaty of Waitangi to make sure that we are correcting the wrongs."

Hayley Read.

Hayley Read. Photo: Supplied

Read said 48 percent of the school's pupils are Māori and 48 percent are Pākehā, and those percentages were a big driver for a push for bicultural education that began 12 years ago.

"Our community have pretty much said to us they want Māori education and we've responded accordingly," she said.

At Whangārei Intermediate, that means "flipping the script" and teaching through a Māori lens. Teachers undergo "culture counts" training that helps them understand the importance of recognising students' voice and culture.

The school also expects teachers to learn te reo and tikanga Māori .

"Our teachers have been having lessons after school every day for about the last five to eight years. We've tried different ways of doing that because one of the expectations is that we teach te reo Māori [for] two 50-minute lessons every six days, but we want that language really normalised so it just becomes part of our vernacular, the way that we teach, the way that we talk."

Tikanga is also important at every level of the school day.

"Every morning we have taumata, which is basically where our students are able to use their pepeha, their mihi. We do waiata in support and it's a chance for our students to understand different roles boys and girls have on a marae," Read said.

She said the school wants Māori to be able to achieve as Māori, but the school's approach benefits all students.

"We do believe what's good for Māori is good for everyone."

She said feedback from the pupils shows they are excited by what they are learning and she is looking forward to the new Aotearoa New Zealand Histories Curriculum and the connections it will help schools to create with the local hapū.

She admitted there is occasional pushback to the school's bicultural nature - students saying they will "learn the real stuff" at high school.

Teacher Jeana Novaire said learning te reo and tikanga Māori enables her to teach them to her pupils but it has also affected the way she teaches more broadly.

"It's obviously more inclusive because our Māori students, they're getting their world view as well so I feel I can teach better to more students with that knowledge," she said.

Fellow teacher Wendy Oakwood said her use of te reo during classtime helps Māori students connect with lessons and feel comfortable in the class. It also provides an area in which Māori students can provide leadership to other students.

Jeana Novaire.

Jeana Novaire. Photo: Supplied

"There's other kids as well they're building their pronunciation, they're correcting each other and it's building a classroom climate of trust really because we're going along together," she said.

A sense of belonging

Hastings Girls' High School is up for a Prime Minister's Education Award for its efforts to tackle systemic racism over the past four years.

The school's principal, Catherine Bentley, said it is trying to create a space where students from all cultures and backgrounds can feel safe.

"In the early days, students would talk about putting on a mask when they walked through the gate. So I guess my challenge was how do we get the girls to not have to do that," she said.

Bentley said it has been a very complex process covering every aspect of the school from its uniform through to subject choices and the composition of classes.

"Every single thing that we do we look at it through a different lens now," she said.

The uniform code was changed to allow students to display ta moko and wear taonga and lavalava - things that had previously been banned.

"Those are all things for us now that are part of identity and, without identity, you can't have that place of belonging," she said.

Bentley said the school has also stopped sorting students into classes based on test results, a practice known as streaming.

"We talk about systemic racism, one of the things we've tackled is streaming. Evidence tells us that that is really dangerous and harmful particularly to our Māori and Pasifika students so we have taken away streaming, we don't sort students at all.

"But then, of course, to do that what we needed to do alongside is upskill staff to prepare them for that change - so how do you teach in a classroom where you're meeting the needs of all students," she said.

"That's been huge and really transformative, for particularly our Māori and Pasifika girls who ... look at things like university and they can see that that could be an option for them and they start working towards that."

Bentley said the school analysed its achievement data and found that many Māori and Pacific students were doing unit standards rather than achievement standards for their NCEA qualifications, which affected their long-term prospects. The school has stopped that and has higher expectations of its students.

Bentley said some of the training can be confronting for teachers.

"Absolutely confronting. You don't know what you don't know," she said.

"People talk a lot about unconscious bias and things like that, but that can only happen once and then it's a conscious decision."

She said the school has looked to local iwi and other experts for advice and training.

"We don't have all the answers. It's a big problem, it's not a Hastings Girls' issue. We all need to look in the mirror and we've got to sort this."

A journey

Manurewa High School is the largest decile 1 school in the country. Its roll of 2150 students is 27 percent Māori, 53 percent Pasifika and 18 percent Asian.

Principal Pete Jones said the school and its staff have "been on a journey" for several years toward providing students with a culturally-responsive education.

That includes things like ensuring the English department uses texts that reflect New Zealand society, including Māori and Pacific people.

Jones said he can already see students are much more engaged with their learning because of the changes.

"For any young people, if they can connect to and see the relevance of what they're studying and the context of that they're studying in, then it makes it far easier to engage them," he said.

"It's early days in seeing the impact in increased achievement, but some of that is in how you define success."

Jones said the school has signed up to Te Hurhanganui, a programme that helps schools tackle racism and build recognition of Māori culture and connections with their Māori communities, because it will help push forward its work.

He said the scheme has huge potential, but other schools might not be so ready to adopt it.

"We were always going to be in a strong position to connect because it was already part of the mahi and the journey that we're already on. I think going into a very different community around New Zealand, and there are lots of them, I think it will be far more challenging," he said.

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