From Japan to Cannon’s Creek: Learning to teach with cultural respect

Naoko Funatsu grew up in a small monocultural village in Japan and came to Aotearoa New Zealand many years ago to work. After completing her Graduate Diploma of Teaching (Primary) in 2019, she is very happy to be teaching year 3 and 4 at a low-decile school in Porirua East.

Women stands in front of colourful wall mural made from tiles
“I have always been interested in education. In Japan and then in Christchurch, I helped international students to travel and study overseas,” says Naoko. When she moved to Aotearoa in 2000, she did a homestay with a Māori family in Taumarunui, where she attended their marae and they welcomed her to their whenua. This began a passion for tikanga Māori, which she pursued while studying towards a Bachelor of Arts and Postgraduate Diploma in Education at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

She was convinced by her university lecturers to become a primary teacher, despite her doubts around her English, because they saw her passion for teaching shine through in her assignment work. “The university was great, very supportive and responsive. It was thanks to that, I had confidence to do my primary teaching diploma.

“Learning from educational psychology lecturer Dr Chris Bowden about child and adolescent mental health, and from Dr Adreanne Ormond about tikanga Māori and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, I was able to bring better understanding into the classroom. While I cannot see things the same way as my Māori students in particular might, it is important for me to do my best to understand their perspectives,” says Naoko.

When teaching about Parihaka last year, she found students she hadn’t been able to reach with other lessons, engaging deeply. “This girl, she had not been engaged all year, but she showed such a lot of passion when learning this particular history. This showed her strong identity and pride in her culture. This proves history is so valuable throughout the curriculum.”

Her favourite thing about her job is connection, and the difference she can make in the lives of her students. “One girl had a violent background, she was hiding in the toilet during classes, but then she began to grow her confidence and sense of belonging. She also started to engage further with the classes.  She began to shine in kapa haka and started to take on leadership roles within the class—she started to teach us her culture.”

Coming from a traditionally homogeneous culture, where everyone was taught in the same way, it was a big change for Naoko to learn to teach in Aotearoa. “I came here, and everyone is so different—culturally diverse, different languages, different English levels, cultural understanding levels, all of this. I love this so much, I respect this diversity of experience.

“It is hard to try and meet everybody’s needs. It is difficult, but I like trying different things for different children, and I enjoy the freedom to design how to support and teach the students in our class. It isn’t easy. But I get a lot of support from other teachers.”

Naoko loves living in Wellington, and finds people are very open, and receive her with aroha. “I love teaching, especially in Cannon’s Creek because there is such great cultural identity. Everyone is whānau, and older kids help younger kids so much. I can see similarities with Hapanihi (Japanese) culture—the three-generation household is common in Japan—and whakapapa and connections are strong here.”

Her simple message for first-year teachers is: be patient. It is hard, but it is worthwhile—and you will see the growth at the end of the year. “And play with the kids—don’t just observe.”