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Engaging and empowering urbanised Māori


Gaylene Hill.

Gaylene Hill is the principal of Linden School. In this blog Gaylene shares highlights of her recent sabbatical where she investigated ways to engage and empower Māori students and their whānau.

Gaylene goes on to describe some of the practical steps that staff at Linden School are taking in response to her research findings.

Download Gaylene’s full sabbatical report from the Educational Leaders website.

Rationale for research

Over many years our Māori students have achieved lower academic results than our non Māori students. A significant number of Māori students, and their whānau, are dissociated from their whakapapa, iwi, hapu, and this has an impact on students in terms of confidence, cultural locatedness, engagement, and achievement. To empower our Māori whānau, many of whom are urbanised and disconnected, was the impetus for my research project during my sabbatical.

Linden School Rocks student art


To gain a wide perspective on this topic, five different approaches were utilised. Face to face interviews were conducted with Māori leaders highly regarded both in educational and in community standings. These discussions were supported with a variety of research readings, as well as through online discussions with educationalists.

Findings from these discussions and readings promoted reflection on both a schoolwide and personal level. Both levels of reflection were important to ascertain current levels of cultural responsiveness, and areas for improvement. These reflections promote inquiry into teacher practice, school practice, and school policy and systems, providing both challenges to overcome and guiding principles to consider to enable Māori students to achieve within a school setting both academically and culturally as Māori.

Summary of findings

For many years Māori have been over represented in the tail of achievement results in New Zealand. This has been especially evident in National Standards data collected. As a result of these statistics the New Zealand Government has issued a challenge to raise this achievement. To enable Māori to be successful and culturally located learners, Māori Achieving Success As Māori (MASAM) has become an aim for schools in New Zealand. MASAM was defined by Professor Mason Durie (2003):

"As Māori [means] being able to have access to te ao Māori, the Māori world – access to language, culture, marae… tikanga... and resources... If after twelve or so years of formal education, a Māori youth were totally unprepared to interact within te ao Māori, then, no matter what else had been learned, education would have been incomplete."

(Ngā Kahui Pou: Launching Māori Futures, p. 199)

Urbanisation of Māori has impacted greatly on whānau who are living great distances apart, some by choice and some by necessity. This has had a flow on effect of dissociation and dislocation of many Māori whānau, from their land, their extended whānau, their ancestors, their language, and their tikanga.

This loss weighs heavily on self-esteem and confidence of Māori, both young and old. To be uprooted for any person is difficult but added to this the marginalisation of Māori within education and society, the toll is even greater.

“Disconnection from one’s origins in culture and physical location leads to a fragmentation of identity.”

(Hoskins, 2007)

This needs to be reversed so the mana of our Māori students and their whānau is restored and strengthened. Being proud to be Māori, maintaining links with whakapapa, creating new links with urban areas, and to be confident in Te Reo and tikanga are goals to be achieved by all schools in our country.

The major component of a culturally safe classroom and school where students are safe to be who they are is Whānaungatanga/relationships. (MacFarlane, Glynn, Cavanagh, Bateman, 2007). These relationships must be based on trust, mutual respect, open, honest, and timely communication, and a willingness to teach and learn from each other (Pearson, 2015). Positive classroom climates rely on students having a voice in their learning, utilisation of appropriate teaching and learning strategies, and a collective sense of belonging.

Success breeds success. When students are successful and motivated at school, and their achievement is recognised both academically and culturally, they are empowered to share this with their whānau, who in turn derive immense pride in these achievements (Whitmore, 2016, Worboys, 2012). Successful students are the best advocates for schools through developing and strengthening a more effective partnership between schools, themselves, and their whānau. When this partnership is open, positive, respectful and balanced between partners, engagement of the extended whānau occurs (Pearson, 2015).

To maximise the potential of our urban Māori students, acknowledging the added value their ethnicity brings to the school setting, challenges schools to make changes to their systems, pedagogy, and school and classroom curriculum. This challenge requires an in-depth analysis of all aspects relating to teaching and learning within each school setting. Facing the difficult questions regarding achievement of Māori students should be the starting point.

  • Have we made a difference?
  • How do we know?
  • Why/why not?

Leadership, stewardship, teachers, and support staff all need to be united to make changes within the school setting, and with whānau to enhance engagement with, and success in, the school.

Considerations for Linden School

All areas of the school have roles to play in effecting change to enable our Māori students to be successful holistically – knowing and being proud of who they are, what they are, where they are, how they operate and behave, in all areas of achievement (spiritually, physically, academically, and emotionally).

Areas to consider for leadership

  • Gather more information about whānau and their aspirations for their tamariki through the enrolment process.
  • Use experts within the community to support the school.
  • Establish stronger ties with local iwi and with respected community members within the wider school community.
  • Utilise different organisations with expertise in areas supporting Māori whānau.
  • Review and apply for relevant professional learning development (PLD) for staff to become more effective in teaching Māori students.
  • Grow stronger ties with Māori whānau.
  • Develop a whānau advisory group from our school whānau.

Areas to consider for teachers

  • Undertake PLD (both as a staff and to meet individual needs) in Te Reo and culturally responsive pedagogy.
  • Know students better – who they are, life experiences they bring into the room, etc.
  • Increase knowledge and implementation of effective pedagogy for Māori students.
  • Increase engagement with students and their whānau, sharing the learning.

Areas to consider for support staff

  • Increase engagement with students’ whānau.
  • Increase knowledge and use of Te Reo.

Areas to consider for the BOT

  • Develop a strategic plan to strengthen ties with local community and implement this plan.
  • Budget for identified needs (within classrooms, outside environment, local experts, hui, more interaction with local marae etc).
  • Second BOT members who identify as Māori and/or have expertise in Māori.

So what? Now what?

Last year I shared my sabbatical findings with staff at Linden School and we held a teacher only day to decide on actions that we could take to make a difference.

We are looking at ways to boost achievement so that our students go home excited about their learning. Findings from my sabbatical research indicate that this will engage our whānau and help us build stronger connections with them. We want our whānau to come to school empowered from the good stories that are taken home. Last year we began professional development around Universal Design for Learning (UDL) with the intent of identifying hidden barriers to learning and ensuring that all students can access learning in ways that work best for them. This year we have narrowed our focus in UDL to literacy. We are investigating the use of Seesaw as a reporting tool, to allow whānau to see and share in their children’s successes.

I run the student council and this year I made a conscious decision to include more student leaders. I currently have 14 leaders who have already risen to the challenge. I recently met up with the mother of one student councillor at a goal setting evening at school. She asked me what the student council was all about and was really proud to learn that her daughter was part of it. This mother’s whole demeanour changed, she was buzzing and she walked out of school buzzing. This is the change we are looking for. When our students experience success and pride in who they are, this pride extends to the whole whānau and creates positive attitudes towards learning and school.

Staff are committed to continuing their professional development around cultural competence and pedagogical practices. Next term we are all undertaking an online te reo Māori course to improve our classroom reo. All teachers recently reviewed themselves against the MASAM framework and selected an area that they need to develop more to enable better student outcomes. This has helped to shape our teacher inquiries and will be a key part of our appraisal conversations this year.

Our teachers recognise that every student walks into the classroom as a culturally located individual. In an effort to know their students better, some teachers have cultural sharing every Friday, where students bring something from home about their culture or whānau. This is a favourite part of the week for many.

We currently have a vacancy on our Board of Trustees and we are looking to second a parent who identifies as Māori or who has connections with local iwi and whānau. We want to increase the voice of Māori in the running of our school and this is one way of achieving this.  

We still have much work to do to better engage and empower our Māori students and whānau but I am positive that the small steps that we are taking are in the right direction.

Whāia e koe te iti kahurangi; ki te tuohu koe, me maunga teitei.

Seek the treasure you value most dearly; if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.

Ngā patai

Read Gaylene’s considerations for Linden School listed under leadership, teachers, support staff, and the BOT.

  • How would you rank your school in each of these areas?  
  • What other considerations could you add to the lists to suit your school context?
  • Can you find one or two considerations that you and/or school could set goals around?

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