A child bursts in to the front office of the school. He is very angry! So angry that he finds it hard to find words. He punches the wall, obviously hurting himself, but the anger dominates his feelings. Another child, withdrawn and introverted, sits and watches him – her day marred by an incident before school with her dad. I, as principal, am called to the office, the receptionist letting me know that an angry father is wanting ‘my blood’ because I allowed two officials from Oranga Tamariki to question his kids about what happens at home. An argument outside the office window between two parents dominates the environment while we deal with the traumas of the day – and the day has just started! A red card arrives; it is a note that a child has eaten some glue and will need attention.
A Very Special Place
Everyone wants to be here! There is something precious about the fabric of the school – a commitment; a hope; a history – generations of families are loyal to this place. There is something in the very fabric of the wairua that keeps us smiling – a hope that things will get better.
A community laced with poverty starts on the back foot. Many are forced to budget, forced to deal with crisis on a regular basis, challenged to feed the family who are always hungry, and to find money for entertainment. They can still smile, but the many tensions never go away. Many smoke, and drugs are sprinkled throughout the streets. Pets are abundant – an added expenditure that no one can afford.
The spirit of generosity that permeates our place is special and is to be treasured. The ‘system’, with all the governmental interventions, is to be applauded. The Ministry of Education makes this place a priority for their attention; so do the social services. The school is fortunate to host a social worker three days a week and a health worker two days a week. The school values the breakfast in schools programme, the very popular milk in schools, fruit in schools – it all helps to alleviate the harsh realities for some of these children and their families. Gifts and donations flow to the school regularly throughout the year. But – we still remain a community in constant crisis.
Reaching For Utopia
So what are we doing? How do we cope? What more can we do?
Trust underlies the relational aspect of our day-to-day lives. Trust from the staff, the children, the community, the police, the social services. Trust is the most important ingredient if we are to retain our hope. The challenges lie in the fact that it takes time to gain anyone’s trust, and so when people start at this place their experience is characterised by disrespect and rudeness. Sometimes this is unintentional – testing of the waters, of the person’s ‘soul’ – does this person really understand? It is no wonder that the children, especially in this community, take a while to give you their trust as many families experience grief: one parent or both are incarcerated; one parent or both have fled the house, or even been excluded from the family home as they have been violent; one parent or both have ‘shacked up’ with a new more exciting partner; or some children are completely removed from their true family home and are living with foster parents.
Naturally, these children are living in hope – hope that they can return to their parents whom they miss, hoping that things will become what they were (even though it was difficult for many). Of course, they more often than not are dysfunctional as a result of their family situation’s predicament.
So, I ask again, how do we best cope and make a difference in this situation?
To understand, and show that understanding, which in turn is an ingredient in the building of trust. To understand, but not excuse behaviours that are offensive and inappropriate. If hope is to be actualised then consequences for behaviours that get in the way of that happening need to be dealt with. People respond to being given time and choices to change their behaviour. Direct confronting authoritarian leadership is ineffective – when I see you in five minutes you will need to ……. always works best. The hope is that the child will make the right choice or at least a good choice rather than think about how they can be defiant and seek some adult attention.
A Busy Person is a Productive Person
We need to make possible, as much as we are able, to find what children can do rather than focus on what we can not do. Abolish rules and introduce understandings and expectations so that the child is a part of the voice and decision making. Where there is ownership of an understanding there is a commitment to understand!
To that end the Kaitapaki Trust, under the superb leadership of Jill Nerheny, is helping the school to establish a range of innovative games and activities so that our children are busy in a positive manner at break times. The tendency for violent behaviour to happen when break time is too long has resulted in us appointing student leaders in every area of school life including overall leaders, sports leaders, and ICT leaders giving our children a chance to make happen a number of things such as hip hop, drumming and Zumba.
While it is too much responsibility for a child to intervene and manage their peers in this environment they can encourage and include their class mates in ways in which we, as adults, cannot. The hope is that these leaders can influence their friends to care for their school and help make it a safe, exciting place. The hope is also that one day they (a child) may become a school leader too.
Managing People Positively
Treating the people within our care with dignity and respect are inherent attributes that presuppose any programme to help develop skills and behaviours that permeate a supportive culture of love and learning. We need to take care with what we say; how we say it (including our intonation), and what we do with the influence that we, as adults, have at our disposal. This does not exclude times where our stern reprimand needs to be shared – it is the checking afterwards with the recipient that is the most valuable aspect of any denigrating hard conversation. The hope is that through the building of understanding ownership of personal behaviour becomes an innate skill rather than an imposed imposition.
Learning needs to be exciting and engaging. So many of our children find learning challenging and are slow to make progress. The introduction of digital tools makes this more possible. Programmes need to be personalised and have structured choice so that a child chooses to engage in an activity rather than be told to complete or participate in something. The mantra that we allow children time in an action of learning rather than to move through activities quickly seems to me to not take cognisance of our children’s lack of focus – more time on an activity does not, in this context, translate into deeper learning in my view. Here, hope transfers to the possibilities the child sees as possible for their interest and learning – success is also within their reach.
Teaching Programmes Are a Key
What we teach is critical for our ongoing development. The community does not have an unemployment problem; we have an unemployable problem. If this cycle of generational dysfunctionality is to change we need to embrace a future-focused programme for our learners. This involves a skill-based inquiry model that would permeate our curriculum. The skills of communicating, collaborating and innovating need to have priority in the classroom – raising a hope that success in their individual world is more able to grasp and attain than the traditional classroom model of didactic rigid teacher-focused activities. The challenge for us is to be at a point in our teaching where this can happen, a minimal disruption of behaviours that take time to work through, driving us to provide less adventurous learning activities that are easier to manage.
The most pressing need for our people is to raise and maintain their self-efficacy – if you love and believe in yourself you will use skills that help us to survive in an ever-changing, violent and challenging society. The wonderful Tongan custom where family meet family when an incident occurs needs to be valued and used more often by the school, respecting the process of a positive meeting to help families work through their challenges with their families; responsibility for their children goes beyond the nuclear family. This is a taonga we could all learn from. The hope is that by everyone being involved we build a village rather than a just a person. The community wants, but often are too whakama, to engage more regularly with our school.
A new app is being used by our deputy principal to share, using the internet, children’s learning and progress. While not everyone has signed up yet, the numbers are growing as word gets around. Many parents and families are excited by this initiative.
Hope is the Essence
Hope is characterised by belief – a belief that things can only get better. Hope is the essence for us to be committed for a better way of living. Hope is for each generation to be more successful than the last. Many people from this community have been successful – many more need to move to be more successful; earn a better wage; live a less stressful life; experience success in its rawness. My hope is that we intentionally move forward with progress, in whatever form it may take.
And progress is certainly needed, given that this community is entering a growth phase, with around 1200 new houses set to be built within the next five years as part of a government social housing initiative and a new school catering for over 500 kids planned for the near future.
Generations have been in the same cycle of poverty and depression undermined by a hopelessness that does nothing to build self-efficacy.
Let’s hope that this can change!