Teach First NZ hosted an Education Focus Group at Mission Heights High School as part of the 2016 Aotearoa Youth Declaration in April. Members of our Alumni community, Esther Rakete and Rebecca McGrath facilitated a workshop that sought to challenge the UN Youth on their perceptions of and aspirations for education in Aotearoa. Esther Rakete reflects on her experience of the workshop.
It was never my intention to be deliberately confrontational, but when I hear that our youth have the chance to raise their voices for change, I often wonder to myself, “What is it that they will be demanding? Why is it that they will be demanding it? How can I get them to think of what they are saying now and the consequences of that?
I am strongly reminded of my older son who served as Student Representative on the Board last year and of his strong desire to see sustainable change. He was Year 13. I realised that the group of students that I would be working with were the same age as he was. There was no doubt in my mind that they would have questions, aspirations, ideals and strategies that they believed would work or at least contribute to somehow solving big questions: What is the purpose of education? How do we teach that learning is important for progression and integration into the world?
It took a while for me to take that idea in. Because truly, what is education? Does it only happen in schools and universities and why (for the life of me) do we purport sometimes that it is the only education - by inference or even by example - that matters and if we do well, then we have truly succeeded? I shared an example of going to my Nana’s and making takakau - flat bread. (She taught me that the water had to be warm or else the water would take too long to heat up to turn to steam and the bread would be flat and mata - doughy. She also taught me that the bread had to be kneaded from the middle outward so that the shape would be round like a wheel - even spread of heat across the bread so that all parts would cook evenly.) A measure of my success was when my whānau wanted more of my bread!
So it was pretty exciting when from the group far across from me made comments such as, “Well we know they need us to succeed so that we can get higher pay and pay higher taxes to fund the economy.” Woh! “Success is subjective.” Amen.
Teaching in Metaphor!
For my part of the discussion, I used a story and an object lesson. I had toted along my son’s toy and used it as a metaphor for pathways into the world. The blocks (students) matching the holes (entry pathways into the world) allowed the block to enter in easily (success).
Long story short, my question was: What happens when we place more importance over one entryway (education type) than another? What becomes of the other shapes (students)?
The reflective question was: Do we change the hole to fit the shape or do we change the shape to fit the hole?
One of the responses was an enthusiastic “We change the hole to fit the shape!” which is good and well but if we reflect back on how that has worked for ‘underachievers’ up to this day, there has not been much flexibility in the education system as much as we’d like. Later on after some reflection, that same student commented something or rather like, “Well we haven’t done anything different. We’ve thrown money at it with the hope that something will change. We need to get more PLD for teachers to be more culturally responsive.” to which I replied something along the lines of, “Throwing some more money for PLD and hope that works too?”
The story was Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Stork. My point was in an ideal world perhaps, others might be more flexible if they understood the disconnect that could happen by foreigners to my values and beliefs stepping into my world - where time is not as important as relationships, where people are above things, where age does not determine who is the teacher and who is the learner, where life experience is a respected education, where teaching is done by ‘chatting’ and sometimes silence - just showing instead.
The reflective question was: How do you hope to make change for people you serve if you do not know them or understand them?
For me, it is quite easy to throw money at people and hope that somehow that will change them (shape changes to fit the hole) or to change the environments by improving them, resourcing them but ultimately - equitable accessible education happens when definitions are not rigid and determined by people - who sit on high - who deem it more important to throw cake to the people instead of learning about them, listening to them.
Finally I asked, “What will you do that is so different from your forefathers and your forefathers' forefathers?” because truly that’s how long education has had these issues with those who have done well by it and others who have not.
For me, it feels sometimes like we spend so much time trying to recreate the wheel without admitting it’s time to change it - and the driver too! But that’s a whole different journey and one that I’ll get into when I have time.
A Maori saying says: Hohonu kakī, pāpaka uaua - deep throat, shallow muscles.
For now, after reading the proclamation, I’m chuffed that they listened. No, really listened. I will not be making too many assumptions about teenagers paying attention next time!
I would say the future is not made tomorrow but is manifested through what we do today. A statement such as the proclamation is a promising sign for things changing again sooner than later in education.