Nadeen Papali’i: Leading for Impact

Voices - 11 December 2015

Nadeen Papali'i, from our 2013 cohort, addresses the Teach First NZ community at this year's Ako Mātātupu event.

2007: “Gang violence erupts again in south Auckland” radio reports and headline news, my neighbourhood, my community was on show once again reinforcing our slogan “nothing good ever comes out of south Auckland.” Grieved by the realities of my people I prayed ‘Lord, I can’t dribble a ball or play an instrument – but I can study…would you use me to help my community?’ The following week I signed myself up at the local library to tutor at their homework club. A seed was planted.

2012: Checking my emails in the morning before starting my studious day I received an email from a recruitment manager about a potential programme offering a post graduate course in teaching. My head slightly jerked back at the word ‘teaching? I want to do my p.H.D in engineering, not teaching – that’s my retirement plan.’ I was up for the free coffee and a meeting was arranged. An hour and a half strength vanilla latte later, I left the café anticipating a divine detour lay up ahead. Not only did we share the same truths about education but we shared the same hope for communities like mine. They promised leadership development. I wanted to grow. A shoot had sprouted from the seed.

2013: My roller coaster ride had begun. As some of the cohort members recall term 1 was a drowning experience. Adapting to the learning needs of my students, whilst still discovering my own, I embraced the notion of ako; the relationship between teaching and learning. Without my swim coach and mentor I would not have developed the skills to doggy-paddle my way through to the end of the year. The shoot grows.

A common saying versed at public gatherings surmises my philosophy of leading for impact; He aha te mea nui o tea ao? He tangata! He Tangata! He tangata! What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people! The notion of ako captures the interaction between teaching and learning, between teacher and student; the people within the classroom. It assumes no position of power but a mutual understanding that the transfer of knowledge is channelled through relationships. I have grown these last two years. Driven and independent, my thinking was once rooted in scientific methods where things in life worked by process, simple cause and effect. My students taught me the exception to the rule particularly when the main variables in the process are people.

It was Friday last period with my year 9 class. By the end of the period they had developed their own learning social intention achieved through regular cell-phone interaction and shadow-boxing tournaments across the room, whilst a hand full were on task working through the practical activity; 8 out of 10 for social engagement and a 2 out of 10 for learning. I said farewell to my students and welcomed frustration and disappointment - I thought I had been doing everything right. A mentor at school spared a few minutes to listen to my defeat and simply said ‘Why don’t you put the maths away, put the desks back and share with them why their learning is important to you and important for them?’ Her suggestion implied presenting a state of vulnerability before my students, although apprehensive about how they would receive this alternative approach to seeking engagement, I knew not what else to do. Stories were shared to and fro of why we both were here. We were producing our feathers of inspiration, alofa, aiga and mana weaved together by a common thread of education. Our korowai of capital was created. Learning could now begin. The following lesson students were settled and engaged in the learning.

Another mentor helped me to make sense of that moment by sighing and looking at the engineering major, ‘Teaching is not a science, Nadeen’. Realising I could not manipulate people as I could formulas in an equation; I began to build bridges between the world of school, their world and mine. This revelation transformed my whole approach to teaching. I began to engage with student voice to gauge how students felt about their learning and my teaching for their understanding. I would adjust according to their feedback keeping our korowai strands tight. It was through student voice that I discovered theirs and soon to be my biggest opponent to growth; low self-efficacy. I coined it the elephant in the room. Having established strategies that help my students learn, witnessing their ability to demonstrate key skills they would still not feel confident going into an assessment or freak out when they saw the questions in the test. Low self-efficacy seemed to trump most interventions as if that was a default position of safety. At a morning briefing our principal asked the staff ‘Why is achievement important?’ Automatically I mentally replied ‘So that students would become confident and therefore feel they can do anything.’ The act of building bridges between the two worlds had morphed my philosophy of teaching. I didn’t realise it at the time but this was the same question asked by my mentor during my year 9 dilemmas. My original response was so they would get a pat on the back; my new response was so they would smash barriers to be unleashed.

My pedagogy is influenced by the development of self-efficacy. My methodical analysis has found strength in conjuring ways to go about problem solving in maths. Aware of my capital I have realised my way is not the only way. Engaging their capital I’m constantly adapting to teach for understanding whilst maintaining our korowai strands. Commissioned to take down my opponent of low self-efficacy I have not been able to do this alone. The notion of people being at the centre of teaching and learning holds true amongst colleagues. In respect of the capital they possess I have had to embrace humility and patience to restrain my tenacious zeal. Their wisdom in collaboration has made interventions effective and processing efficient. The battle against low self-efficacy is one not fought alone. I have joined the frontline in my school against inequality; the debatable breeder of low self-efficacy.

Within the trenches unfortunately weariness, cynicism, pessimism and rigidness have crept in and dampened the forward charge in some. Since most of my students entered the classroom having developed low self-efficacy. I have had to O.A.R. away from the B.E.D. In other words, intentionally taking (O)ownership, (A)accountability and (R)responsibility for performance and dilemmas, rather than (B)blame, (E)excuses and (D)denial. The inquiry mind is what keeps teaching a profession. We are implored to explore the dynamics within the classroom to enable young people to be confident, connected and actively involved lifelong learners. That is the vision we as professionals have signed up to. I fear stagnation. I fear the day my B.E.D. becomes more comfortable than rowing my O.A.R. I fear exhausted efforts; lack of appreciation and performance will overwhelm me and steal my joy. So like every profession there is a time to work and a time to rest. I must take care of the teacher behind this philosophy.

So where does this platform of accumulated knowledge position me to act? Back in the classroom of course, on the frontline enriched and equipped to tackle low self-efficacy once again.

When I think about the difference I feel I have made over the last few years, I think about the changes in my students, self and colleagues. My development as a teacher, the improved engagement of my students is attributed to student voice. When working with colleagues to problem solve matters, before we even begin thinking of solutions, we gather voice and hear what our students feel the problem is and the potential solution. Student voice is not a new phenomenon nor has it never been used in the school since I arrived the on scene. As a tool, I feel we now know it’s use – not to pry on teacher performance or build ego but always to gauge the notion of ako, the interaction between teaching and learning.

2015: I enter new waters. Taking on the role of director of the health science academy at Tangaroa College I was apprehensive about the challenge of overseeing a small year 11,12 and 13 cohort, whilst still trying to achieve quality teaching. The health science academy established by the Counties Manukau District Health Board and funded by the Tindall foundation provides academic and pastoral support for students who desire to pursue a health science career.

Advice from a fellow colleague helped provided perspective ‘Remember in this leadership role, you are a teacher first.’ The encouragement turned on a light bulb – the same leadership principles and methods we’ve applied within the class can be applied in this role. A key point of difference was that I could utilise the leadership of the tutor teachers involved. Together we tracked student progress; together we identified problems, gathered student voice and solved these problems with our students. Collaborating with my tutor teachers made me realise leading for impact cannot be achieved alone. Impact comes with a response tailored to the many voices heard. I was grateful to be part of a team who valued this same truth and were willing to paddle in the same direction for change.

A few weeks ago we celebrated the efforts of our students at an end of year dinner. In our small school hall we managed to fit approximately 120 students and parents. We acknowledged student achievement and character that attributed to their efforts this year. But the key acknowledgement was to our parents; we asked them to support our initiatives, we asked them to have their children at school one time and we asked them to encourage their child on this journey. The dinner was to thank them – our student’s first teachers – the connecting strand in the ako relationship. They too are on the frontline in our schools against inequality.

My desire to unleash potential through education finds its origins in the aspirations of pacific grandparents migrating to New Zealand for a ‘better future’. I wonder now upon the scope of their intention; did they just mean for me to better myself or did they foresee the struggle we would face in this new land and implore me to make the future better. As they had crossed seas to better my future, so I cross bridges to better another. See I always thought they meant ‘Go get a job, make some money and be happy’, but I realise now they did not sacrifice for the gain of capital, they sacrificed because they valued people. A truth in Aotearoa, a truth in the pacific, a universal truth; He aha te mea nui o tea o? He tangata! He Tangata! He tangata! What is the most important thing in the world, and in the classroom? It is people! It is people! It is people!