Training educators to better support Pacific learners

01 June 2022
The Tapasā cultural competencies framework, co-provided by Tui Tuia, helps schools better support Pacific learners.

An important part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s future is Pacific. A youthful and fast-growing group, people of Pacific heritage are set to make up an increasing share of the working-age population. However, statistics show an achievement gap between Pacific students and the general population.

“Because education is connected to health, housing, employment and so on, improving educational outcomes for Pacific people is about social justice, equity and fairness, yes, but it would be an economic driver too,” says , a senior lecturer in education at Waipapa Taumata Rau | The University of Auckland.

To help schools better support Pacific learners, the Ministry of Education has introduced the , the product of two decades of research. 

Siliva Gaugatao, far left; Jacoba Matapo, second from left; and Tanya Samu, second from right, meet with Pacific advisors at the Ministry of Education's Hawke's Bay office

 UniServices-managed , which provides evidence-based professional learning and development (PLD) programmes for the education sector, recently landed the contract to co-provide PLD on Tapasā to early childhood centres (ECEs) and schools with high numbers of Pacific learners. The training, which was developed by Tui Tuia’s Pacific team along with Waipapa Taumata Rau Pacific researchers, is co-delivered with .

 “Though Pacific people have been a so-called priority group for the Ministry of Education since the late 1990s, we haven’t closed the gaps overall.” 

Tofilau Niulēvāea Siliva Gaugatao

“Though Pacific people have been a so-called priority group for the Ministry of Education since the late 1990s, we haven’t closed the gaps overall,” says , an experienced teacher educator and doctoral candidate who is Tui Tuia’s lead Tapasā facilitator. “In the last ten years, only twice has the percentage of Pacific learners meeting the standards for university entrance exceeded 30 percent. Even if people don’t choose to go to university, UE gives them more options. We need to do better.”

What is Tapasā?

“Tapasā” is a Samoan word for a compass or a guide. In this context, it’s a guide for a teacher’s journey. 

The framework was introduced in 2018 but the early stages of the rollout in 2019 were introductory in nature. Wider dissemination was disrupted in 2020 due to Covid-19, so it’s still relatively new to teachers, says Jacoba Matapo, who is Associate Dean Pasifika at the Faculty of Education and Social Work and one of the developers of the training programme.

“Tapasā is quite unique in that it goes right across from early childhood into secondary school and also from student teacher to school leader. It’s a very comprehensive framework.”

Jacoba Matapo

Tapasā is built in large part on three turu. In Cook Islands Māori, turu is a term for a support or brace, says Samu, whose research is cited in the framework. In the context of Tapasā, turu are key competencies. In short, they are:

  • Awareness of the diverse identities, languages and cultures of Pacific learners.
  • Building strong and collaborative relationships between educators, families and communities.
  • Pedagogies that are effective for Pacific learners.

Tapasā sits alongside the Ministry of Education’s. 

Bespoke training

Tui Tuia’s Tapasā training is always tailored to the needs of the schools receiving it.

“If you’re in Oamaru, which has in recent years seen a significant increase in the Tongan population, you might need to learn more about Tongan culture,” says Samu. “If you’re a teacher in Pukekohe, which has a large Kiribati community, you’d need to learn about that non-Polynesian culture so you can engage with your specific Pacific learners.”

Things would be different again at a school where Pacific students from a variety of backgrounds make up the majority, or at a school where many students are recent arrivals compared to one where Pacific communities are long-established. The needs and goals of ECEs also differ from those of primary or secondary schools, says Matapo, an early learning expert.

Crucially, the needs, backgrounds and goals of individual school teams and educators shape the training they receive. 

“Our solution is about co-designing the whole process with our participants,” says Matapo. “When our participants reach the goals they’ve set for themselves, that’s when we’ll know we’ve succeeded.”

Of course, the other piece of success will be positive changes in Pacific learners’ outcomes.

“Some of our schools’ and centres’ goals are tied to tangible outcomes in terms of their learners’ success as well as the engagement of learners and families,” says Gaugatao. “We’ve only just started offering this PLD and change does take time – but if you can change teacher expectation and practice, we can expect measurable impacts on learners and families.”

What educators learn

Though the Tapasā training is bespoke, there are commonalities. One of the starting points is for educators to take a look at themselves.

“That means knowing their ‘why’ and also confronting their own assumptions and biases,” says Matapo. “This involves looking at their understandings of culture, identity, language and the value of these things in the lives of the students they’re teaching.”

Teachers also examine their relationships with their students.

“Teachers ask themselves: ‘Do my Pacific learners feel valued in the way I interact and engage?’ You can have a whole suite of pedagogical strategies, but without that relational connection, they won’t stick,” says Matapo.

The training emphasises that relationships extend beyond the classroom. 

“The past 20-plus years of research have really underlined the importance of families,” says Samu. “That may not sound like rocket science but there has been a tendency in the past for schools to set the terms of that relationship. It’s been about how parents can support schools rather than the other way around. Relationships need to flow both ways.”

Educators must also examine whether Pacific learners feel their cultures, languages and identities are valued at school.

“It’s not just about whether students feel their cultures are respected, but also about harnessing aspects of those cultures for learning across different subjects.”

Tanya Samu

“It’s not just about whether students feel their cultures are respected, but also about harnessing aspects of those cultures for learning across different subjects,” says Samu. 

The framework document gives the example of a secondary school science teacher who invited some of his Pacific students’ parents to co-teach a class by talking about how to make umu, the Samoan term for earth ovens. He explained the scientific concepts involved, such as thermodynamics and convection.

A follow-up activity involved actually preparing an umu and cooking food, which helped the teacher understand more about the cultural aspects of umu-making and deepened his relationships with the parents. Students, meanwhile, gained a better understanding of the science behind umu and of the value of traditional knowledge and culture.

Beyond Tapasā

While Matapo, Gaugatao and Samu do expect their work to have impact in lifting Pacific student success, there are more changes they’d like to see.

One would be a greater focus on Pacific knowledge and traditions in the national curriculum. Samu is currently contributing her ideas and research to a curriculum review.

Another would be to ensure initiatives focused on Pacific learners are designed and led by Pacific people, as Tui Tuia’s development of the Tapasā PLD was.

More broadly, they say more could be done to examine and address structural racism within education. Tapasā makes an important start by focusing in part on school leadership, says Matapo.

“For most Pacific families, the chance to give their children a better education was a major reason they came to New Zealand, but for many years our education system was not well structured to support Pacific peoples’ aspirations,” says Gaugatao.

“Things are starting to change, though. This project is a chance to work with teachers and leaders to ensure that they’re not only supportive of the dreams and aspirations of our people, but also that they’re challenged to lift their game.”