Telling stories: recording the school experiences of Māori learners

Issue: Volume 93, Number 8

Posted: 19 May 2014
Reference #: 1H9ctN

Principal Peggy Burrows is part-way through PhD research that asks what it means to be a bicultural leader in a South Island context.

You might not think that arriving in the lift of Rangiora High School’s administration block to meet principal Peggy Burrows would provide her with a story for talking about Māori student achievement at the school, but it does. In fact, stories abound when Peggy starts talking; stories about her life, stories about students and teachers, and an extensive mihi that establishes the school’s whakapapa and the mana of the nine previous principals who led this now large North Canterbury school.

Peggy describes herself as an ‘anecdotal’ teacher. She uses stories about her life as a way to connect with students and staff. So it’s not too much of a surprise to learn that Peggy’s PhD study focuses on story as a method for research.

“The PhD question I’m asking myself is: what does it mean to lead biculturally in a South Island context? It’s an auto-ethnographic study, which means that I’m looking at and challenging myself as a leader as I do the research. This is my third year of study and already I can see that through the work I’m doing I’m now a very different kind of leader to the one who started out on this learning journey.”

The focus for Peggy’s research emerged from a long process of debate with her PhD supervisors at the University of Canterbury. Her broad idea was to look at leadership and what it means to lead, but she was pushed instead to look at where the ‘gaps’ were so that she could create new knowledge. She describes how she told her supervisors about a conversation she’d had with her board about Māori student achievement at the school:

“I told them I was struck by how the board and I were talking past each other on a particular issue. As a school, we were moving towards the ethos of Ka Hikitia – that if it works for Māori, it works for everyone. We had assembled data that showed our Māori students were not performing as well as our non-Māori, and I explained what this meant to the board and how we might address it strategically. Board members were interested, but I could see that I needed to bring them up to speed with what this actually meant so that I could get them on side.

“My supervisors identified that the board and I ‘talking past each other’ in this way was an area ripe for research, but I was very reluctant! Not because I didn’t think it was an important area for study, but because as a Pākehā, I didn’t feel as though I was the right person to take it on. It took another three months of conversations with my supervisors before I felt brave enough to do so! Ultimately, I agreed because we want all students in this school to succeed.

“Our school data had identified a group of Māori students who were not doing well. So, when someone says, if you do this for Māori, it will work for everyone, my thought was – why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we appropriate pedagogies that will work for a group that is disadvantaged and that will have a positive impact on everybody? I needed to understand the effect that not taking account of cultural difference might be having on our Māori students, and this has become the broader focus for my study.”

Peggy’s research runs alongside the work the strategic and pedagogical work her school is doing around Māori student achievement, with members of the local rūnanga’s Tuahuriri Education Committee providing guidance and support.

“The vision for Ka Hikitia is that Māori will enjoy and achieve education success as Māori. Te Kotahitanga and the work of the He Kākano project tell us that engaging Māori students begins with the self, with who the students are, with who we as teachers are. Students really want you to know them as a person, and they want to know you as a person”. Her auto-ethnographic approach means that she listens for narratives that highlight the school experiences of Māori students and others in the wider school community. She writes them up, analyses, interprets the analysis and says that “new learning” follows from this that throw light on how not considering culturally responsive ways of working can impact on the experience of learning for Māori.

“I’m currently working on a couple of stories from this school that reveal an important point about the names of our Māori students and how critical it is for us to learn how to pronounce them properly. Mispronunciation can have a profound effect on Māori students’ self-esteem. A student told me recently that she would rather change her Māori first name to a European one for use at school than have others ‘disrespect’ it by making fun of it. Her name is considered a taonga in her family.”

Peggy’s research is informing and challenging her to be a more consciously bicultural leader.

“If someone had said to me as a young principal in 2003 that I’d need to make sure all of my teachers could speak some te reo and that their Māori pronunciation needed to be really good because this would have a huge impact on Māori student achievement, it would have been complete news to me.”

But she and her senior leadership team have embraced the knowledge and understanding they are developing through the research and through engaging with the work of others in this field, for example Russell Bishop and Mere Berryman.

Her story about the lift in the school’s administration building serves as an analogy to underscore the strength of this conviction.

“If a teacher says to me, I’m only here to teach my class and I treat all children the same – I say to them – my office is on the second floor, and despite the fact that there is a lift, I decide that all staff have to climb the stairs if they want access to me. If you couldn’t climb the stairs, how would you feel if I said – well tough, I treat all staff the same and you’ll just have to climb the stairs like everyone else.

“If you have that kind of attitude in your classroom, then you’ve taken out the lift for our Māori students.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:44 AM, 19 May 2014

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