Better never stops – culturally responsive teaching at Rotorua Girls’ High School

Issue: Volume 97, Number 16

Posted: 10 September 2018
Reference #: 1H9k_V

Te Arawa tupuna Te Aokapurangi is inspiring not only a shift in teacher practice at Rotorua Girls’ High School but also a student-led journey towards higher achievement.

Next to the Rotorua Girls’ High School office there’s a mural celebrating Te Arawa tupuna Te Aokapurangi. For years, little attention has been paid to it. But now she’s become the inspiration for a holistic approach to raising Māori achievement at the school.

Principal Ally Gibbons, a former student, is driving changes to raise Māori achievement at the school, where 78 percent of the roll is Māori.

This has involved recognising what students’ language and culture brings to the classroom, empowering students to drive their own learning, school governance, talking to parents and the community, and exploring how the backdrop of Rotorua could be used to engage students in their learning.

Ally says that Māori succeeding in a mainstream setting relies on schools providing learning contexts that celebrate who students are, helping them grow their cultural identity and encouraging an acceptance of that with their teachers and peers.

“We also needed to contextualise the journey we were on, and after talking to our local community I saw how Te Aokapurangi could inspire our young women” says Deputy Principal Aramoana Mohi-Maxwell.

Strong leadership

After talking to parents and students, the school leadership team worked closely with their board of trustees to set a new strategic direction for the school and develop goals for both students and teachers to aspire to. Board participation has been critical and has enabled large culture shifts, says Ally.

“You need the support of your board, a strong improvement plan with clear outcomes and you need to drive it relentlessly.”

Clear leadership portfolios were developed to focus senior leaders on prioritising strategic growth in achievement, and changes to the faculty review process now provide a stronger correlation between PLD opportunities and strategic goals. There are structured opportunities to reflect on practice and a teacher observation tool developed with Māori educational research experts Poutama Pounamu informs discussions on refining practice.

Driven by strong governance, embedding the new direction involved introducing a culturally responsive curriculum, changing leadership and teaching practice, and connecting whānau and students to their learning. The expertise of a range of external partners was pivotal in the development of the new direction.
 The Ministry of Education also provided key senior advisors to support the development of the new direction and provide further cultural expertise.

Recognising what students’ identity, language, and culture bring to the classroom

Through deliberate actions developed with Kia Eke Panuku and then Poutama Pounamu, the school embedded a culturally responsive and relational pedagogical strategy. Ally notes that the shift in teacher practice has been at the core of changes at the school.

“We focused on raising Māori achievement, but if you get it right, we have demonstrated that we can raise the achievement of all students,” she says.

Connecting students and whānau to learning

The dynamic of classroom relationships has changed and students now have a greater voice in planning their learning.

“That has caused amazing shifts,” says Aramoana. “Students understand what the expected outcomes are, but they are determining the journey they take”.

Teachers have become facilitators rather than instructors and ask questions that make students think critically. The collaborative atmosphere in the classrooms allows teachers to explore what students’ experiences, culture and identity bring to the classroom and Te Arawa linguists weave te reo into classroom learning.

Showing students that they matter and are supported is important to Ally and her team.

“What makes culturally responsive and relational pedagogy work is the relationships,” she says.

Teachers know who their students are, how they learn, what they are interested in and what their strengths, weaknesses and talents are.

Aramoana says, “Students teach us what they want us to know about them as well.” Recently students taught teachers Pacific languages and decided how the school would celebrate Pacific Language Week, and each year prefects decide what legacy they want to leave behind and staff work with them to create it. Student leaders are also building relationships and exploring their cultural identity through the weekly te reo classes they take with staff.

Students are given lots of opportunities to experiment and find what they are good at and what their passions are, and are given the chance to pursue them, says Head Girl Te Ririu Williams.

Deputy Head Girl Te Ao Leach has enjoyed learning in the welcoming family environment. Now in Year 13, she is taking some scholarship and university courses. “The teachers have been flexible and personalised a programme for me so I can continue to grow”.

Staff, students and whānau now all work together to set goals and academic plans. “It was critical that we built relational trust and involved teachers, students and their whānau in the conversation about their learning,” says Ally. “If our whānau understand what they need to do to support their daughters, then our girls are going to succeed.”

Community involvement

Local Māori voice has been key to contextualising learning and the journey that Rotorua Girls’ has embarked on. A strong connection to the local community is giving students opportunities to work with organisations like the Te Arawa River Trust to investigate problems that impact their local area.

Partnerships with iwi are also allowing staff and students to learn about the stories of the Rotorua area and investigate their role and place in the community.

“These stories are important to our girls and help us focus learning,” says Ally. “When students work from a base they are familiar with, you’ll get instant engagement.”

Local kaumātua were involved in changing the names of the school houses, which now reflect stories that are familiar to Māori students and that many whakapapa to.

 “Your community has to be part of the journey” says Aramoana “You have to listen to your students; you have to drive it through school values and celebrate local cultural icons. The inclusivity and achievement will follow.”

The school is also giving life to the Ka Hikitia Māori Education strategy and taking deliberate steps to identify, refine and embed the actions that support Māori achievement. “It’s a powerful document and shows that culturally responsive teaching is about equity, not equality,” says Aramona.

“You need to be adaptable and responsive,” says Ally, “and if things aren’t working, change them”.

Changing leadership structures

Building skills across all levels of leadership has driven the transformation. Senior teachers at each year level have been made Leaders of Learning and make sure students are on track, as well as leading discussions to customise programmes for priority students and build individual learning plans.

“This journey has shown us that if you want things to change, you have to go beyond surface level to governance. There has to be parent voice; we have to hear what kids are saying in class,” says Aramoana.

There is a strong link between wellbeing and achievement and teachers are empowering young women beyond the classroom. “They aren’t just teachers, they give us lots of other support, such as our wellness centre and breakfast club and make us feel comfortable to be ourselves,” says Danielle Selwyn, leader of Raukura, the school’s kapa haka group.

Head Girl Te Ririu Williams is grateful for this support. “They’ve boosted my confidence, helped me find who I am as a person and guided me to develop into a leader.”

Te Aokapurangi continues to inspire students through the school’s TE AO values. These set goals for students and there is fierce competition for the TE AO awards handed out to school assemblies. “Our students understand what we want them to aspire to,” says Ally, “and these awards are a key part of making Te Aokapurangi’s story real.”

Since 2014 achievement gaps have steadily reduced and are now within five percent, but better never stops, says Ally. “These changes are about more than the outputs of a curriculum, it’s the total package.” 

Winning the Prime Minister’s Education Excellence award in Governing has validated the approach. “We now know that this way of teaching works for all of our akonga and we have a narrative that grounds us,” says Ally.

The story of Te Aokapurangi

This illustrious Te Arawa tipuna was captured in Rotorua in the early 1800s and taken back to the Bay of Islands, where she married Te Wera, a Ngā Puhi leader. Further conflicts between Ngā Puhi and Te Arawa brought her back to Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua several years later and Te Aokapurangi asked that her people be spared. 

Hongi Hika presented her with a single option and Te Aokapurangi took up the challenge. She stood astride her wharenui calling for her people to save themselves. They filled the whare and many were saved that day. Even now, this act is acknowledged across Te Arawa in the whakataukī – ‘ano nei te whare whawhao o Te Aokapurangi’ (‘this is like the crowded house of Te Aokapurangi’).

To Principal Ally Gibbons, Te Aokapurangi epitomises the potential of women. “We can be change agents and we can think outside the box to make things better, not just for ourselves but for others. That’s what we want to encourage our girls to be.”

 “This journey has shown us that if you want things to change, you have to go beyond surface level to governance. There has to be parent voice; we have to hear what kids are saying in class.” 

Ngā Pou Mana

The introduction of strategic leadership changes at Rotorua Girls’ was based on the leadership framework provided in the Tū Rangatira Māori medium leadership framework. This has contextualised the leadership journey for staff and students alike and has evolved to match student needs and reflect the community.  This framework also provides an evaluative lens, which is culturally responsive and relational in its design.  This enables Learning Leaders to grow the way they work with their Learning Area teams.  Student success can also be nurtured through this holistic leadership framework that recognises who they are and what they bring to the learning environment.

Through these seven areas of focus, students have experienced a range of learning experiences:

  • Learners design learning programmes both in groups and individually (Mana Mokopuna).
  • Connections with community groups such as the Te Arawa River Iwi Trust where students are applying their learning to local problems (Mana Tangata).
  • At the start of each school year, teachers explore what students culture can bring to learning and regular PLD reinforces that being Māori and thinking in Māori is an advantage (Mana Mātauranga).
  • The school’s TE AO values that encourage and celebrate students serving their community alongside hapū and iwi and in both formal and informal learning experiences (Mana Tikanga).
  • Te Arawa linguists help teachers weave te reo into classroom activities and senior students and staff take weekly te reo classes together (Mana Reo).
  • Students who are encouraged to develop work out of their cultural contexts and are achieving excellence (Mana Wairua).
  • Students have a voice in planning work, so they are engaged with what they are learning (Mana-ā-kura).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:00 am, 10 September 2018

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