Taking teachers out of the country to bring cultural responsiveness into the classroomSeptember 2017
JUDE BARBACK talks to the University of Canterbury’s Tufulasi Taleni about how a week in a Samoan village has proven to have the most profound effect on student teachers’ understanding of the cultural and learning needs of students from different ethnic backgrounds.
Tufulasi Taleni noticed that although student teachers learned about cultural responsiveness in their initial teacher education programmes, most teachers weren’t translating what they’d learned into their classrooms.
“I saw a need,” he says. “Teachers were not actually culturally responsive – they found it hard to get programmes going and to put theory into practice.”
Taleni now works for the University of Canterbury’s College of Education, Health and Human Development as its Kaiārahi Pasifika. But in 2003 he was contracted by the Ministry of Education as a senior advisor for Pasifika education to raise achievement of Pasifika students. It was back then that he realised a different approach was needed.
“It was so easy for me to tell teachers and principals to lift their game – but how can they get that knowledge if I don’t provide it?”
It was this question that prompted Taleni to start the Pasifika Education Initiative Samoa Malanga. In 2003 he started trips for groups of teachers and principals to a village in Samoa to help them gain a better cultural understanding that would help inform their teaching practice. The trips ran every other year until the last one in 2013.
Then in 2016, when Taleni moved to his role at the University of Canterbury, he decided to continue the trips to the Samoan village for groups of teacher students to help them learn how to be truly culturally competent in their teaching practice. The first trip for the UC cohort of students was last year.
Based on its success, another trip ran this year, also attended by Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Gail Gillon and Professor Angus Macfarlane.
The students spend around seven days in the village, living with families.
“It can be challenging; the living conditions are not what they’re used to. Students got quite emotional after the experience and some were at a loss for words about how they felt,” says Taleni.
The students set goals before they go, and then reflect on what they have learned against those goals.
Two key words that spring to mind for Taleni when it comes to talking about Pasifika students are ‘engagement’ and ‘empowerment’.
“To raise the achievement of Pasifika students, a teacher really has to care. Students want to see their values reflected in the teaching and this can only be achieved when teachers seek understanding and change their hearts.”
Taleni says Pasifika students typically behave differently in the classroom from other students.
“Pasifika students can often be quite reserved; they won’t ask questions, out of respect. It is up to the teacher to realise that instead of meeting the student halfway, they might have to move three-quarters of the way.”
Taleni says the lessons learned from working with Pasifika communities can be broadened to other cultures.
“I work alongside our teacher students to help them develop cultural responsiveness to all students. I support them to have the confidence and competence to gain the knowledge of the culture behind it.”
Another challenge is extending what the students who attended the trip have learned to the wider cohort of teacher students.
Taleni says he invited students who had been on the trip to share their experiences in a lecture. The students must also share their experiences and reflections through a shared portal that can be accessed by others.
The University of Canterbury has been supportive of the initiative, recognising the impact it has on a teacher’s education and development.
However, Taleni is frustrated that the Ministry of Education hasn’t embraced strategies like this that are really working.
“It’s hard to know what the Ministry thinks about the project,” he says, “I’m not sure about some of their strategies. They often talk of identity, language and culture. This sort of initiative really contributes to a better understanding of these.”
Taleni is keen to set up a similar initiative in South Auckland or Porirua, where there are strong Pasifika communities. It could involve working with churches, the community or existing hubs like that in Mangere.
“This would really benefit our palangi students,” he says. “You can talk all you like, but unless you provide opportunities to seek knowledge, you’re not going to see any meaningful change.”