Levelling the playing field: Maori and Pasifika students as priority learners

Imagine that are running in a hundred-meter dash. As you line up against your fellow racers, you notice that your start line is ten meters behind everyone else. It’s reasonable to feel that this situation is unfair, and to feel discouraged about your chances for success regardless of how fast a runner you are. The above situation is analogous to the feelings of many Maori and Pasifika students, who are feel that they must run just to make the same educational start line as their Pakeha peers. The disadvantages that Maori and Pasifika students often find themselves in, are manifested by an alien culture and socio-economic disadvantages representing formidable obstacles from the very outset. What can we do to give every student the confidence and assistance to make education equitable? According to educational theorist Gary Howard, there are seven principles of culturally responsive teaching and learning (Howard, 2012).

Firstly, students need to feel that their cultural connection is honored, “kids need to get that we get them”. This doesn’t mean that day after day they need to be bombarded by cultural references but when they come to class, they need to see that the cultural aspect of their identity is genuinely identified with and respected by their teachers.

In order to reflect that genuine interest in the identity of Maori and Pasifika students, Teachers need to engage with students by inviting them to build a social bond. This is crucial to change the nature of the learning environment from potentially isolating to encouraging. I’ve seen the positive outcome from this in my own classrooms, where a reticent students’ attitude has changed completely because of a genuine encounter with their teacher. As the French mathematician Blaise Pascal once said, “kind words do not cost much yet accomplish many things”

The attitude of the teacher can begin to break down the perceived stigma that is felt by many Maori and Pasifika students, but the environment of the classroom can still be foreboding. Think of how hesitant you are when thrust into an unfamiliar environment. The classroom can be as similarly far removed from some students comfort zones. According to Howard (2012), teachers need to make the physical environment mirror their social efforts to include students’ cultures. This gives students a familiarity that will ease anxiety.

Potentially, the most important aspect of culturally responsive teaching is reinforcing academic development. It is paraphrased as “catching kids being smart”. Everyone feel good when they are told they are clever (and I don’t mean in a condescending way). Students who feel smart, will act accordingly. Some students don’t come from particularly academic families and might never have had this type of praise. It is a great morale boost for them when they finally do hear it.

Building a rapport with students is important, as is building their esteem, but it is also important that we retain their attention. In order to do this, we (as teachers) need to make out teaching culturally relevant. How can we bring culturally authentic examples into the classroom experience? In one of the classes that I witnessed, the example of Fairtrade products made in the pacific islands (cocoa in Samoa) set student interest alight through a cultural connection with their home nation.

Finally, it is important to make sure that Maori, Pasifika and in fact, all students understand that we are all in this together and that the running race analogy is not really applicable. As teachers, we need to foster an attitude toward education that is representative of an ethos of “we not me”. We can all share in academic success if we work together as a community


Fasavalu, M. (2016). Tales from the above ‘the tail’: Samoan students’ experiences of teacher actions as culturally responsive pedagogy. (Unpublished master’s thesis). The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.

Howard, G. (2012, September 13). Seven Principals for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning (32:14). Retrieved May 19, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IptefRjN4DY

Education, N. Z. (2016, November 07). Supporting Māori students. Retrieved May 21, 2017, from http://inclusive.tki.org.nz/guides/supporting-maori-students/







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