Few things affect children’s lives more than their educational experiences. Attending school is the greatest commitment children make outside of their homes.
A great teacher, a supportive and involved family, and friends.
Simple enough, right? These are the ingredients that children in Aotearoa New Zealand identified as key factors to a successful experience in the education system. At the top of that list, children highlighted the importance of a great teacher.
Those insights are found in new research detailed in the Education Matters to Me: Key Insights report published by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner earlier this year.
The Children’s Commissioner is Judge Andrew Becroft, the country’s former Principal Youth Court Justice.
The research, conducted by the Officer of the Children’s Commissioner and the New Zealand School Trustees Association, conducted face to face interviews and online surveys.
In all, they heard from more than 1600 children in the North and South Islands.
While some children reported that school was great, they particularly wanted to hear from children who were not well served by the education system. That makes sense. Without any prompting from the researchers, Maori, Pacific, Asian and African children and others who did not identity an ethnicity, raised racism as a common experience at school and with teachers.
For people of minority cultures and diverse groups in New Zealand, for generations of Maori, Pacific and Asian families, these findings were not a surprise.
Over the years, there has been an active push to recruit quality scholars, from different professional and community backgrounds from the Maori and Pacific worlds, to step into the classroom and help improve the learning experiences and achievements of Maori and Pacific children.
As community role models in the teaching profession, they can help bridge that communication gap that Maori and Pacific children experience when dealing with teachers who don’t care about them and aren’t interested in their cultural identity.
It’s also important to note that not all children of Maori and Pacific cultures have had positive or quality learning experiences with teachers and people of their own culture or community, either. So it’s not a simple case of one culture is to blame and the other isn’t.
What makes this research newsworthy – for those who have always known this often happened to Maori and Pacific children in the classroom – is that these painful childhood experiences of racism in New Zealand schools are now being taken seriously by the country’s institutions and mainstream media. At least that’s what it looks like, from the outside.
It’s important to note that exploring children’s experiences here, including racism, should be a politically neutral territory.
Legislation changes in education, as important as they may be structurally, won’t necessarily fix the quality of the teacher-student relationship; nor does it remove racist and condescending cultural attitudes from anyone’s heart in any profession. Why? Because behaviour changes, for anyone, first begin with a change of heart and a change of mind. That’s something you can’t legislate people to do.
Hence, the education sector and community leaders have a critical role to play on behalf of our children to lead educators and people of influence to take this uncomfortable journey of self awareness and personal change and development.
Why is this research and action so important?
Research is a thing of beauty when you hear the honest voices of children. They clearly identify the big problems and shed a light on the way forward for the education sector. This comment on the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Facebook page captures the answer to this question perfectly.
If you care about the plight of children and education in New Zealand, this report is a must read.
This report validates generations of complaints from Pacific and Maori parents and families whose children have experienced racism at school from teachers. It’s not something that just happened in this generation only.
The undermining experiences outlined by the children has been going on for years. But, in cases where a child has experienced this, seldom will a Pacific parent or family go public with this kind of experience. It’s too painful and no person or family of colour wishes the glare of publicly, especially when that attracts the vocal and condescending ignorance of harsh sections of society who don’t care, have never experienced racism, and don’t believe it happens, anyway. That’s like adding salt to a deep wound.
Another point: the research holds valuable data and insights direct from the mouths of babes, so to speak. They are giving clear messages to adults. In the learning and teaching environment, like the home setting, children need to be treated with genuine care, aroha and kindness. They need to feel understood and respected. They don’t want to experience racism at school; it robs them of their happiness in the classroom. They are saying that they need to be taught in ways that help them learn. Good relationships are important to their growth and learning, along with a strong sense of belonging.
On the topic of racism, it’s a mistake to assume that the teacher or student who behaves in a racist manner is necessarily from only one culture or group or community.
Pronounce A Child’s Name Correctly
When teachers don’t care about pronouncing a child’s Pacific, Maori or non-English name correctly, those memories get grouped with other racist experiences they encounter at school. And those experiences can often reinforce a child’s mistaken sense that they do not belong, that they are not worthy of the teacher’s best efforts, and that they’ll never be good enough. It is quite heartbreaking when you think about the impact.
Making the effort to say and spell a child’s name accurately and apologising sincerely when you get it wrong, those efforts, however insignificant and small these gestures may appear, they are, in fact, very powerful.
Children often remember and appreciate those kinds of sincere experiences into their adult years.
In 2012, the previous National Government Education Minister Hekia Parata tried to tackle this issue head on with the teachers union in Wellington, asking teachers to pronounce the names of Maori and Pacific students correctly. It didn’t go down well.
Knowing the importance of saying a child’s name correctly and actually doing it clearly exist in two different worlds here. In Parliament, Parata raised the issue as well . This is from the Hansard record in 2012
Hon HEKIA PARATA: …
Can I just speak to the particular issue of pronouncing children’s names correctly. Can we start with the fact that mine is Hekia Parata, and can we recognise that relationships of respect established between 5-year-olds and the teacher, between 10-year-olds and the teacher, and between 15-year-olds and the teacher actually do start with pronouncing a child’s name correctly, whether it is Mary-Anne or Mereana. I do not see why that should send anyone into a frenzy. It is a basic, common courtesy.
So we are working really hard, and the reason we are doing so is that we want—
Chris Hipkins: I thought it was Trish.
Hon HEKIA PARATA: Yes, it is, and I am not hung up about that, because I am a comfortable bicultural New Zealander. Nō te mea he ingoa tipuna tēnānōakutīpuna.
[Because that is an ancestral name from my ancestors.]
Ko Patricia iheke mai iakutīpunanōKōtimana. Ko takuingoa a Hekia he ingoa tipuna nōNgātiPorou.
[Patricia comes from my Scottish ancestors. My name Hekia is an ancestral name from NgātiPorou, the clan or tribe of Porou.]
So, yes, I am Patricia Hekia Parata. I am proud of both sides of my heritage: Pākehā and Māori. I think many New Zealand kids are.
So we want to have an education system that makes our children competitive both internationally and globally and that also embraces those things that are uniquely New Zealand. Our kids—and these things are not measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment—are good at working in teams. Our kids are good at finding creative and innovative solutions to problem solving. Our kids are good at relationships.
Our kids are good in the environment. Our kids are committed to fairness and sportsmanship. We want to have an education system that is about kids both being globally competitive and having that Kiwi, can-do attitude, which is unique to New Zealand. I am bound and determined that the New Zealand education system will deliver both of those opportunities to every one of our children.
What is the purpose of this Report?
In May 2017, Government introduced the Statement of National Education and Learning Priorities into the Education Act 1989. It was designed to create the National Education and Learning Priorities that will guide the Minister of Education to direct schools on the priorities they must concentrate on for the next five years.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner, together with the New Zealand School of Trustees Associations (NZSTA), set about gathering the voices and views of children and young people around the country. To ensure that the voices of children contribute to these national priorities. It is expected that schools will be required to report progress on meeting the national education and learning priorities to the Ministry of Education each year.
If Government and every teacher in every classroom, accepts and acts on the recommendations and priorities of this report, it means that children – who have felt marginalised, ignored and treated less than, in the New Zealand education system, and that includes Maori and Pacific children – their voices and their concerns will be heard.
That could be one of the most powerful changes in the education system. For children and young people to experience a better quality of education and teaching – without racism, without being belittled or ignored and put down by any teacher.
What better role for influential people in high places than to use their power to advocate for children’s voices ?
We wanted to hear from children and young people about their experiences; in particular what is working well and how things could be better for them. We started from an informed position regarding some of the well-documented challenges in the education system, as well as the views of children and young people from previous engagements.
Six Key Insights
- Understand me in my whole world
- People at school are racist towards me
- Relationships mean everything to me
- Teach me the way I learn best
- I need to be comfortable before I can learn
- It’s my life let me have a say
Many children and young people told us of positive learning experiences. The majority see school as an important contributor to their present wellbeing and future aspirations. But this experience is not shared equally by all students. We heard common themes about marginalisation, discrimination and unmet learning needs from children and young people in a range of settings.
Selection of news coverage from mainstream publications including the education sector.
Education Central Opinion Dr Ann Milne: Racism in Schools ? How Dare We Be Surprised !
School News Disturbing and Serious Racism in Schools
Radio New Zealand Study Reveals Complaints of Racism in Schools
Newshub Study Finds Disturbing Racism in NZ Schools
Stuff Students tell of racism in study of how they view the education system
New Zealand Herald ‘Racism exists, we feel little and bad’ – school student