Looking after Pacific learners' needs in the classroom

By 2028, it is predicted that around 17 percent of New Zealand learners will have Pacific heritage, with a huge range of cultures included in this group. It is essential, say the writers of a new book about educating Pacific students, that Aotearoa’s teachers understand Pacific values to ensure their Pacific students’ success

three women, one wearing floral crown

Pacific educators speak: valuing our values, by Dr Fuapepe Rimoni (Sāmoa), Dr Ali Glasgow (Cook Island, Tahiti) and Dr Robin Averill (Pākehā) from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Education, seeks to give teachers the tools to work with their Pacific learners more effectively.

“We don’t have high numbers of Māori and Pacific students in teacher education programmes, which means there are very few Māori and Pacific teachers. We wanted to create something that would help us to connect our non-Pacific teachers with our Pacific learners,” says principal investigator Dr Rimoni.

The Ministry of Education have provided policies on how to connect with Pacific learners, with the Action Plan for Pacific Education 2020–2030 currently in place, supported by Tapasā, which highlights the nine Pacific values that the researchers sought to explore. These values are: belonging, family, love, service, spirituality, reciprocal relationships, respect, leadership, and inclusion. These values provided the framework for the book, with each chapter tackling one of the values.

“We know our Pacific children aren’t faring as well as other children in terms of equity, which means this is research we knew we urgently needed to do,” says Dr Glasgow.

The researchers began by interviewing both Pacific and non-Pacific teachers to see how the nine values played out in their practice, asking three questions that interrogated what the values meant to them, how they demonstrate them in teaching, and how they nurture them in their students. They soon realised that the book would be most valuable if they included quotes exploring the values directly from Pacific teachers, teaching at all levels from Early Childhood Education (ECE) to tertiary.

“When we were doing the interviews, we were taken aback by the emotion from our Pacific teachers. We thought we were asking simple questions, but it took time for them to share. They were in tears, because they were reminded of the value of service—why am I here if I can’t help my Pacific communities, the Pacific children in my class,” says Dr Rimoni.

Data was gathered over five years from schools in South Auckland, the wider Wellington region, and Christchurch—from language nests (Pacific-language ECE spaces), primary schools, secondary schools, and tertiary institutions.

“This book has given us space to tell these stories that haven’t been as visible. Many of our Pacific teachers have not seen others valuing their values, and had felt like they needed to toe the mainstream line—it was necessary to tell their side of the story,” says Dr Glasgow.

One of the points that regularly arose in their research was the way in which Pacific staff—of which there were often very few—were used as the ‘Pacific spokesperson’ for the school and parents to go to. “So this book is for student teachers, but also for all existing teachers, so that they don’t have to go to that one person in the school to ask a question. They can do their own reading, and draw on the Pacific voices in the book,” says Dr Averill.

The book explores the interconnectedness of Pacific values, with a powerful image on the front cover showing this connection. “The values are part of who we are—this is what makes our communities special, the values they uphold. These values aren’t dealt with individually, but as a whole,” says Dr Rimoni.

The three academics hope to see a shift in thinking from student and existing teachers, as well as policy makers, as a result of their research.

Dr Averill notes that it is the perfect time in terms of the New Zealand Curriculum refresh, for the Curriculum writing teams to be thinking of these values, and how the Curriculum can give more space to Pacific ways of understanding.

She adds, “I would just love all New Zealand schools to be places where every Pacific child loves to be, and can be, themselves and can learn as well as anybody else that is there. And where Pacific families are happy, comfortable, and engaged, and feel they are part of the place. And we’ve seen that this is possible.”

The research, completed over five years, was funded by a Wellington Faculty of Education research grant, and a Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Strategic research grant. The book was completed thanks to a grant from NZCER Rangahau Mātauranga o Aotearoa.