The only Pasifika woman on a school board talks about the dangers of a lack of diversity – and makes a plea for other parents to support their schools.
I’m a trustee on a lower decile school board attended at various times by all three of my children. I became involved with the school for a number of reasons and has time has gone by, I’ve learned a lot about how important this kind of service by parents and members of the community really is.
The simple fact is that schools across the country can do better, especially for our Māori and Pasifika students. It’s well-known that Māori and Pasifika educational attainment remains considerably lower than that of other ethnic groups, and it naturally follows that poorer educational outcomes limit students’ opportunities for success later on in life. The reasons are complex and it’s wrong to lay sole responsibility at the feet of schools. Yet schools do have a powerful role in improving student achievement – particularly in providing equity of access to education.
I believe that one of the most powerful agents for change can be school boards, which work with the principal to set the culture, norms and expectations for the school. That’s what motivated me to join.
The board’s purpose is to “ensure every student at the school is able to attain his or her highest possible standard in education achievement”. This is achieved by setting good policies for the school, monitoring student achievement, and ensuring the school complies with legal and policy objectives. The principal’s is the board’s ‘CEO’, responsible for delivering on the strategic vision and policies set by the board, who are intended to be a representative stakeholder group.
Why we need diversity on school boards
One of the big things I would like to change is the benign prejudice that stops our Māori and Pasifika students achieving their full potential. But that’s hard going without fair representation.
At my school, the board of ten is predominantly Pākehā, including the chair and deputy chair. Our school is less than 50% Pākehā, but and the school staff are entirely Pākehā. According to Statistics New Zealand, less than 50% of schools have fair representation along ethnic lines. I’m not suggesting quotas are the silver bullet, but it is really lonely to be the only one in the group who looks at the ‘below’ and ‘well-below’ stats for numeracy and literacy and asks how we can do better for those overwhelmingly Māori and Pasifika students. It’s hugely demoralising when my questions are greeted with uncomfortable silence from my fellow trustees or defensive insistence by our principal that everything possible is being done already.
I wonder how differently the conversation would unfold were there any other Pasifika or Māori parents alongside me.
Without those voices, a mainly-Pākehā group is setting and managing expectations for our Māori and Pasifika students, while telling me that I need to lower mine. To be clear, I’m not a teacher and I don’t presume to tell professional teachers how to do their jobs. But as a trustee I am entitled to ask about effectiveness of teaching and about what extra resources staff need.
Our Pākehā school staff strive to be culturally sensitive and our board rightly celebrates this. But this means it can be even more difficult to suggest minor improvements without sounding critical. My suggestion that we include a statement in our charter about correct pronunciation of Māori and Pasifika names prompted one of my fellow trustees to declare that such a statement was unnecessary as our staff already do a great job (they don’t, but they are trying).
It’s not his fault he’s got a blind spot here – he’s a recent immigrant from the UK and has a different view on race relations. He wants to ensure the staff feel supported, not criticised, which is also important. The right balance is probably somewhere between his view and mine. While I disagree with him, I’m grateful that he engaged in the issue.
But the silence from my fellow trustees, including our chair, means the status quo stands. And the importance of pronouncing all students’ names correctly is left to individual teachers who may or may not care.
If you haven’t grown up having had your sense of ‘other’ compounded by constantly having your name mispronounced, you won’t understand how diminishing this can feel. But with only one Pasifika voice on a board, speaking to a largely indifferent group, nothing is likely to change.
Teachers, parents and principals need to be in partnership
As a non-teacher, I often experience condescension from our principal and staff, defensiveness from teachers who feel criticised, and indifference from fellow trustees who just want to get through the meeting and go home.
Were I not passionate and highly educated, I would have lost confidence and become discouraged a long time ago. I would love for teachers and staff to view me (and the rest of the board) as partners and stakeholders. After all, we all want the same thing for our students.
Expectations are powerful. Our principal’s insistence that teachers are doing everything possible is almost always followed by: “You have to accept that some of these students will never attain that standard.” I know those students and I refuse to accept that, and I believe no teacher or trustee should either. Sure, it may not be 100% who attain all we hope for them – but it should not be because we gave up on them early. None of us have the right to cap a student’s potential by lowering our expectations for them. I attended a decile 1 primary school and I have seen firsthand the power of teachers’ high expectations on the most underprivileged students imaginable. At each board meeting I feel like I’m fighting to raise expectations of our students surrounded by a group of people who’ve already written them off. The question I ask on behalf of my silent board members is “what else can we do? What other support can the board provide?” But, because further support is seen as futile , none is requested, and my solo mission goes nowhere.
We need parents who will do the mahi
Anecdotes abound of dominant principals enabled by board members who are too intimidated or indifferent to rock the boat. They’re content to leave all their duties to the principal and senior staff, rather than pulling their weight. As someone who believes robust debate makes for better group decisions, it frustrates the fuck out of me when people just want to go through the motions. If you are sitting there wondering “why bother turning up?”, well, something has to change.
It really makes stakeholder-led change impossible if everyone isn’t prepared to do the mahi.
Question your language, check your privilege
“These students have other strengths – such as kapa haka and our Polyfest group”
“You have to accept that some of these students will never attain that standard”
“We can’t expect our students to have better results until we start getting better quality people”
These statements were said by good people with good intentions, but I still found them confronting. They were responses to my questions about underachievement in numeracy and literacy for Māori and Pasifika students at my child’s school. These questions need answers – not just at my child’s school, but across all New Zealand schools.
The one who made the comment about kapa haka and Polyfest is partly right: those things should be of course be celebrated (but we Pasifika and Māori parents don’t need to be told; anyone who has attended Polyfest knows how talented these kids are). But here’s the harsh reality which is probably not recognised by a Pākehā parent who doesn’t have to see it (because it’s not their child): those strengths alone will not get you into engineering, medical or law school.
All our students deserve the best shot at both academic and cultural achievement.
My fellow trustee is a lovely and caring person who I respect and like very much. Her intentions are 100% pure and she cares deeply for all our students and staff – no question. She also happens to be a teacher, Pākehā, liberal-minded and highly educated, which means her lived experience is quite different to that of a Māori or Pasifika learner (such as mine). My response to her was this: As a board, if we are happy to accept cultural festival performance as equivalent to academic achievement, then we are allowing our teachers to lower expectations for those students – and that will drastically and unfairly narrow their career options. My mum would not have accepted sports leadership in exchange for academic achievement – in true first-gen Islander style, she prizes academic education as the key to opportunity that it is, and would celebrate other strengths alongside.
So I ask, why can’t we celebrate both?
Is it asking too much of our staff to expect more of these students? I don’t think so. It’s not either-or. It’s both.
As a Pasifika parent, it’s hard to hear to comments like those above, when you and your children continue to struggle against benign prejudice. To me, such statements feel deeply insensitive and insulting, and it takes a lot of emotional work to respond constructively, not defensively. I do a fair bit of micro-meditating at school board meetings.
These meetings are draining; they’re work. So I can understand why we have fewer Pasifika and Māori parents on our school boards. But we need them. We really need them.
We need more board members who are engaged and willing to challenge and debate the achievement of our Māori and Pasifika children. Robust discussion leads to better decisions. Zero discussion leaves me feeling like no-one cares, and my opinion is irrelevant. Because if only one out of ten people think there’s an issue, then there’s clearly not an issue, right?
And with that, the status quo prevails.
So I’m constantly encouraging those Pasifika and Māori parents I know to consider joining the school board. And I hope you will encourage them too.
It can be so rewarding, an opportunity to learn, but also it’s an opportunity to contribute – not just for your own child, but for every child.
By becoming more involved in our children’s schools, we show them that we value their education and believe in their school. In turn they will feel a sense of belonging and recognition. It’s no accident that so often board members’ students excel at school – and I want that for more Māori and Pasifika children. If we – their parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles and community – add our voices and experiences to the policies and directions that govern our schools, we can improve outcomes for all students.
There’s nothing to lose here, and our children’s future to gain. Please, please, please consider standing in the next election.