An ambitious initiative in Sāmoan early childhood centres is improving the health and wellbeing of children, families and teachers across Auckland – with aspirations to extend nationwide.
The Seugagogo Aoga Amata Pre-School had humble beginnings. Situated close to the town centre of Auckland’s Ōtāhuhu and founded as a playgroup for the adjoining Ekalesia Fa’apotopotoga Kerisiano Sāmoa (the Congregational Christian Church of Sāmoa, often referred to as EFKS) in the early 1990s, it grew out of a desire among church ministers’ wives to have a space for their children to meet and be surrounded by their first language, Gagana Sāmoa.
Now a supervisor and faiaoga (teacher) at the centre, Pereise Penn was among those original tamaiti (children); her mother was one of the congregation members who helped to establish and run the aoga amata. “They had no qualifications at that time,” Penn says. “They did all of it passionately for the love of preserving the language.” The landscape in which Seugagogo and other aoga amata (Sāmoan-immersion early childhood education centres) operate may have shifted substantially since then, with higher demand for their services leading to significant expansion and professionalisation across the sector, but it’s that drive for cultural preservation and enrichment that still motivates its mission today.
This content was created in paid partnership with Healthy Families Waitākere. To learn more about Tāfesilafa’i and their other work, click here.
As the scope of their work has increased, so too has its complexity – and as specialist operators in a demanding sector, aoga amata often find themselves facing unique challenges. As Ella Falakoa, Pasifika systems innovator for Healthy Families Waitākere explains, between a lack of dedicated learning resources and extra regulatory challenges, full immersion and bilingual centres have long had to adapt to a system which wasn’t set up with them in mind. With an ageing workforce, a lack of resources and a limited understanding of where to seek support – and, more recently, the ongoing stressors left in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic – those challenges have only become more immediate.
It was the combination of those conditions, says Falakoa, which led to the foundation of Tāfesilafa’i. Seeking to foster more equitable ECE outcomes for Sāmoan tamaiti and aiga (families) and to nurture relationships across the sector, the initiative is built around providing aoga amata space to pursue professional learning and development for their faiaoga from a perspective grounded in Fa’a Sāmoa (the Sāmoan way). In placing an emphasis on improving the health and wellbeing of both educators and the children they serve, it’s a holistic approach – one which recognises that the physical and mental health of educators and students plays a crucial role in the overall quality of early childhood education.
It’s an ambitious and wide-scoped initiative, connecting aoga amata with strategic partners to alleviate the pressure they are facing on as many fronts as possible. Those partners are numerous, ranging from health-focused organisations like the Heart Foundation, Plunket and Auckland Regional Public Health to community-based initiatives like the Western Initiative, (which provided the centres with digital devices), the Cause Collective and Presbyterian Northern, and early childhood education experts like Talking Matters, the Ministry of Education’s Pasifika team and AUT’s Dr Rebecca Hopkins. Tāfesilafa’i has also facilitated aoga amata umbrella organisation Sosaiete Aoga Amata Sāmoa I Aotearoa (SAASIA) to, among other things, hold monthly professional learning and development for faiaoga on subjects from healthy food and drink for tamaiti through to sourcing funding using a computer.
For Falakoa, Healthy Families Waitākere serves essentially as a scaffold. “Our role is ‘backboning’ Tāfesilafa’i and making sure the external partners, who believe in the purpose, are fulfilling their duties to support the aoga amata centres,” she says. “We also check in on the teachers to make sure their voices are heard throughout this journey.” And though the multifaceted nature of the programme makes it very complex from a logistics perspective, Falakoa notes that the end result has been designed to be as warm and welcoming as possible for the educators involved. “It really is a community of care for faiaoga, when you look at the structure.”
Part of that community-building involves faiaoga visiting other aoga amata around Tāmaki Makaurau to observe and share knowledge. “Before Tāfesilafa’i, we all worked in silos,” Penn says. “What I enjoy about it is that there’s no gatekeeping of information; we’re all sharing what’s worked for us and what hasn’t.”
Penn recounts visiting another aoga amata and being inspired by the way they’d designed a display of the solar system. “They had this eye-catching display of planets attached to the ceiling, so I thought it would be interesting to do something similar, but on our walls.” That small spark of inspiration, brought back to Seugagogo Aoga Amata, led directly to new learning opportunities for the centre’s tamaiti. “When we completed our science wall, it sparked up conversations around the planet names in Sāmoan, as well as our elders sharing how Sāmoans would use the stars to navigate through their travels on sea.”
The initiative also sees SAASIA running professional learning and development (PLD) sessions specifically designed for faiaoga, where using Gagana Sāmoa is encouraged and Sāmoan educational resources are either provided or developed together. This too makes a difference, says Penn. “When we attend mainstream conferences, we can often find ourselves at the end not really taking much away from it,” she acknowledges. “Whereas in our Tāfesilafa’i workshops, all you hear is the Sāmoan language, we are in a safe space to share our experiences and listen to the oldies share their stories, which we all learn from.”
As well as that PLD support and the aforementioned digital literacy sessions, the programme has also facilitated SAASIA taking on a more holistic advocacy and support role. One of the issues identified in the development of Tāfesilafa’i was a perceived incompatibility between the Fa’a Samoa approach used by aoga amata and the assessment criteria set and used by the Education Review Office (ERO). ERO is responsible for evaluating and publicly reporting on the teaching and learning environment of a centre and whether they’re meeting licensing criteria and regulations. “There can be a lack of cultural responsiveness when ERO officers come in,” says Falakoa, “And the aoga amata teachers struggle to explain themselves [in English].”
With the Tāfesilafa’i initiative, SAASIA now offers direct and targeted assistance to aoga amata preparing for ERO visits. Irene Palea’i-Foroti, director of SAASIA, points out the anxiety often associated with those reviews. “When ERO are expected to visit an aoga amata, the teachers are afraid,” she says. “They might have sleepless nights leading up to the day, because they don’t want to get something wrong. What we try to do is help build their confidence, by sharing ways that they can voice their opinions, or explain how activities and schedules are run in their centre.”
For Penn, the programme has done wonders in that regard. “To have that support available in the Sāmoan language made a huge difference, as it gave us the confidence to go through it all with ease.” With the teacher shortage impacting so widely – and with Sāmoan-speaking teachers already in such high demand – she hopes that Tāfesilafa’i will help attract new teachers to consider aoga amata. “In our ECE, I am the only New Zealand-born Sāmoan, and the other 13 teachers are all from Sāmoa.”
“But the feedback I’m getting from our team is that Tāfesilafa’i has improved their wellbeing by building their self-esteem and teaching them how to manage their workload, and the value of networking has meant that teachers would learn efficient ways of teaching from others, meaning less stress in the classroom.”Penn’s experience echoes what Falakoa has been hearing across the wider aoga amata network. “The faiaoga love coming together over food to share their experiences, their challenges, solve problems and support each other with ways to improve their teaching,” she says. “They tell us that they’re focusing on their health and wellbeing. And they feel like better teachers for the children, so the kids and their families benefit too.” When she looks at the faiaoga, many well above above retirement age, who attend the monthly Tāfesilafa’i workshops, she thinks of her own nana.
“If she was a teacher and had no support, I would feel so sad. But I know that – like these teachers have been doing for so many years – she’d push through and continue to give her all for the children. Because if they don’t keep the language alive, then who will?”
Those stories of perseverance motivate the younger teachers too, says Penn. “The oldies would say, ‘If I can get up every day, that’s God’s blessing to me.’ So I want to spend my day educating the children on our language too. Until I can’t do it any more.”