Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

I am Māori. I whakapapa Māori, therefore, I am Māori.

Although I am visibly white, my own upbringing follows the same as many Māori. My Nana was Māori but she hated it. She distanced herself as far as she could from te ao Māori, her iwi, her hapū, her whānau. She faced battles that she would never talk about and became disconnected. I was, therefore, disconnected from birth.

When I began my own journey at high school to attempt to reconnect, I was judged harshly for it. I faced a barrage of comments like, “You’re too intelligent to take te reo.” and “You don’t look Māori, why would you choose it as a subject?” These negative comments displayed the racism that was evident in both my community as well as in the education system but I only truly see this in hindsight; the hindsight I have as I try to walk with a foot in both worlds. I accept and acknowledge my white privilege while I fight to bring about equity in education. The deficit thinking that te reo Māori is a lesser subject and that Māori learners are lesser than Pākehā learners was evident then and still is today.

For the eFellowship I completed with CORE Education in 2021, I worked on the proposition of a Year 10 Māori whānau class. This was something quite different for the traditional co-ed school I worked in, especially when only 14% of the 1200 ākonga at the school and five of the 85 teaching staff were Māori. I developed a plan with three main aspects that I hoped would produce significant change in equitable teaching and learning. These were:

  • cross-curricular learning through authentic learning experiences,
  • embedding Te Ao Māori in the learning, and
  • Creating a whānau environment.

By creating a class of ākonga Māori, I believed a barrier to Māori success would be automatically removed as there was no opportunity for “unconscious bias” within the class. Whānau and ākonga would be invited to decide on the learning they wanted from the kaiako at the start of the year. Those decisions would be integrated across the four subject areas of English, Social Studies, Science and Mathematics and would be the basis of project-based learning. As kaiako, we would facilitate and identify the learning that was occurring naturally based on a belief that this approach should lead to a greater understanding of the learning by the students as well as its application.

The quantitative and qualitative results spoke for themselves. Ākonga improved across the board in test results with the majority making a larger leap than their Pākehā counterparts. They also grew in confidence as learners and articulated this clearly. However, that “unconscious bias” that I believed would be removed was not. It was gone between the kaiako of the class and the ākonga but the wider school was a different story.

The kaiako and ākonga of this class dealt with racism from a variety of sources and in a multitude of ways throughout the year. Relievers of the class would say inappropriate and racist things. One example of this was when a particular relief teacher asked the two “whitest” students in the class, “Why are you with this lot?” Another example was when a different reliever said to the class, “Is this why you wee Māoris can’t get along with anyone else? They keep you all together.”

This blatant racism was, as you can imagine, not taken lightly by ākonga and they fought back as they knew how. They yelled, they left the room and they hid the relief teacher’s keys. Although their responses to these acts were not behaviourally acceptable, the pastoral team did not care about the why. The assumption that, due to previous pastoral records, our ākonga Māori just behave badly meant that discipline instead of understanding was the go to. Kaiako of the class were expected to manage every aspect of their students’ school lives by the pastoral team unlike what would ever be expected of any other classroom class teacher.

Other staff members would make racist comments about the class to these kaiako and challenge why we would want to teach them as a whole. One of the kaiako even said that she felt, “like my skin colour has changed.” SLT approved the class going ahead but would not hear about the racism being faced and showed no support of the class. In fact, one student from the class had a verbal altercation with a staff member and was removed to alternative education without the normal processes being followed, those that any Pākehā student would have gone through. We, as kaiako of this class, all were able to acknowledge our white privilege from this experience with one teacher stating that she, “could not believe how blind she had been to what our ākonga Māori go through.”

What I have learnt from this experience is the importance of being actively anti racist. Our actions can not only give our ākonga confidence in us but they can bring about change. Change that is desperately needed in this country, in our education system. Below I have compiled a list of some of the things I learnt to do throughout the eFellowship and my action research project.

  1. Teach our history accurately – we must acknowledge the voices and experiences of Māori in our history and teach these. This may mean unlearning what we, ourselves, know and have learnt but it is vital in order to make change. Have students think critically about the voices that are heard and how we can include those that are often missed out. Ka mua, ka muri.
  2. Understand and explain that everyone is capable of racism, not just ‘bad’ people – if we continue to buy into the idea that only ‘bad’ people are racist, we are denying the ‘good’ people the chance to examine their own actions and thoughts and how these support and sustain the racial hierarchy in society.
  3. Acknowledge the harm that is caused by racism in all its forms – ākonga need to feel heard when it comes to the pain they experience due to both overt and covert racism. The impact of racism on a person is not lessened because someone did not intend to be racist.
  4. Do not be silent and encourage others to speak out – being silent when you observe racist behaviour is being complicit.
  5. Understand and acknowledge that every person’s experience with racism can be different.
  6. Be aware of the racial trauma of ākonga – we must support those who have been traumatised by racism, not just challenge those who instigate it. The system and the people within it largely benefit from white privilege which does not allow for the recognition of the generational trauma that has been felt by Māori in education. Be sensitive.
  7. Model the behaviour you expect in your classroom – be inclusive and demonstrate what this looks like. All ākonga should feel valued and safe in the spaces we create.
  8. Change should be the aim – blame and shame is not helpful so we must focus on how we can make and be the change we want to see.

We must be prepared to have difficult conversations. We must be prepared to learn, unlearn and relearn. We must be prepared to be uncomfortable. For our ākonga, we must be better.


Sarah Lassen's 2021 eFellow's report.

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