Making Connections: Te Kotahitange and Engaging Maori Students in Education

There is something exciting about attending professional learning opportunities these days. I have such a strong sense of purpose in my work, both within my division and provincially, that every chance I get to listen to the perspectives of others means adding another layer of depth and understanding to the work I already share with my colleagues in my own school division. This past Friday was no exception and I am going to try to capture, summarize and synthesize some of the larger lessons that are currently making their presence felt inside my head.

It was with great interest that I attended a particular learning opportunity at the University of Saskatchewan. Two representatives from the Te Kotahitanga program in New Zealand were sharing their successes in developing a comprehensive education program that ensures equitable opportunities and success for all students, including Maori students. Prior to their work in New Zealand, Maori students were experiencing educational challenges similar to Aboriginal students in Saskatchewan. Graduation rates were lower, suspensions were higher and overall feelings of connection and acceptance were dismal for this group of students. After listening to Dr. Berryman and Ms. Barrett, I took away some valuable insights which could be applied to Saskatchewan education:

  • This work in New Zealand began with discussions between researchers and both engaged Maori students and non-engaged Maori students. Both groups were essential to speak with, in order to have a robust understanding of the issues facing these groups in the educational system. The non-engaged students and their families were asked what it would take to engage students in education. The responses from all these groups fell into three categories: 1) Changes needed to be addressed for the child, within their home and their community 2) Changes needed to be addressed in the school’s structure and systems 3) Changes needed to be addresses with regard to in-class relationships, interactions and pedagogy. It is not that the existing pedagogy wasn’t working – it just wasn’t working for Maori students (this is an important distinction). When Maori students, families and their teachers were asked which factors impacted student engagement the most, teachers chose factors relating to the child and Maori students and their families chose in-class relationships, interactions and pedagogy. This was an interesting disparity.
  • Discussion with all partners began with a rejection of Deficit Theorizing. Everyone was encouraged to focus on factors that they had the agency to change. This reminded me of Stephen Covey’s work around Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern. The main assertion is that all of us have the agency to change some things and when we focus on things we do not have control over, we reduce or stifle opportunities that await us and our students. It seems really common sense but I know that this is what often stalls schools in their desire to address change. When we throw our hands up and say, “Yeah, but do you know how bad this student’s home life is?” or “Yeah, but this student hates being here and you can’t make a kid learn,” then we are saying there is nothing we can do and this is, in fact, not true at all.
  • The presenters asserted that there were some myths that had to be clarified. Firstly, it is a myth that Aboriginal students don’t know who they are. Secondly, it is a myth that only Aboriginal teachers can teach Aboriginal students effectively.
  • An effective teaching profile was shared (so effective, that the gap between Maori students and non-Maori students has almost disappeared in the schools involved in Te-Kotahitanga): 1) Effective teachers are culturally appropriate and responsive (not just tokenism). They create a space where students can talk about what it means to be who they are. They create spaces where students are allowed time to make connections. Culture is always evolving (the past and the present) and this is discussed and shared. Everyone can talk about their understanding of their culture and how it is applied every day in their lives. 2) They reject Deficit Theorizing. 3) They are committed to change and are helped to bring about change. They have the desire and the support to make changes to their pedagogy, interactions and relationships.
  • There were six elements to education in these schools: 1) Culture was respected 2) Expectations were high 3) The learning environment was secure and well-managed 4) There were effective teaching interactions 5) Strategies were explicitly used to promote change 6) Evidence was collected, reflected on and responsive instruction occured based on this evidence. This was good news, because this is exactly what we are working toward in our division!
  • There were originally differing ways Maori viewed problems versus how the education system viewed problems. Maori first explored who was at the centre of the issue. Then why, how and what to do followed. The system tended to work the other way around – What is the problem and what can we do? Next came why and how. Who came last. This was a significant difference in worldview and clarified some things for me about how systems approach change versus how other groups may approach change.
  • The presenters stressed the importance of Aboriginal students achieving and enjoying success as Aboriginal students. We have to strive for ways to invite children to be who they are and be successful. The “engaged” Maori students stated that they felt they had to leave themselves at the door in order to be successful in school. This is not what I want for students.

The day was rounded out with many cultural demonstrations and I felt privileged to be in the crowd and to be able to experience diverse perspectives, traditions and beliefs all day. Once again, I am a better person for having experienced this day!

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