Relationships, relationships, relationships: the key to success in Pasifika education. Or so the mantra goes. A research stream stretching back at least 15 years, based on Pasifika students’ voices, and the experience of many successful teachers agree – strong relationships are a ground upon which the success of Pacific-origin students living in Aotearoa New Zealand can be built.

However, all mantras are by definition simplifications. They often contain an important seed of truth, but are found wanting when used for day-to-day guidance. Given the history of Pasifika students’ educational outcomes in Aotearoa, how likely are we educators to serve our Pasifika students better without deliberately re-thinking the situation and becoming learners ourselves?

It is possible for Palagi teachers to re-understand Pasifika educational success sufficiently to do something different and produce something better. This is what I found out through my PhD which posed the question, ‘What is Pasifika success as Pasifika?’  I asked a group of Year 9 boys for their ideas about success, a good education and what mattered to them, and I discovered a lot. Then, together with a group of colleagues, I put their words and ideas into action.

One thing I learned is that concepts are not universal. The English word ‘relationship’ does not neatly map onto a Pacific-origin equivalent. Instead, the construct of ‘va’ deals with the relational spaces by which people and other entities are connected in physical, social and spiritual ways. Relationships can be distant or close, but cannot be removed. Where Margaret Thatcher famously claimed ‘There is no such thing as society’, va might reply, ‘There is no such thing as a disconnected individual’. What matters in education is to care for relational spaces so that closeness and harmony are prioritised by and during interactions between students and teachers.

Secondly, I learned that my Pasifika students know what matters to them. As teachers we may think we have a monopoly on definitions of success at school, but that isn’t the case. By listening to students who had just finished primary and were starting in high school, I began to understand Pasifika success as Pasifika across sectors as a day-to-day thing. Schools might want to measure success through test results at the end of a unit or year, but the boys talked of being accepted for who they are as a key form of success.

Being accepted is a relational form of success. To the boys, this involves such things as teachers making their acceptance of students clear. This can be through simple acts such as smiling and being welcoming, and through spending time and showing interest in what students have to say. It can also be through valuing what students bring to school – relationships, such as with their families, knowledge, language and experiences. It’s hard to imagine any student not enjoying being accepted by their teacher, but the Pasifika students who talked to me expect it.

In addition, the boys made links between feeling accepted and being comfortable in classroom environments. Education is by nature a risky business: feeling comfortable encourages risk taking. The way teachers behave affects the way students feel. Sadly, some teachers’ words and actions had made students felt unvalued at times. Sometimes they felt expected to be someone else.  In these cases they described classrooms as potential hostile spaces where it is logical to be quiet and seek invisibility, inhabiting the stereotype.

Pasifika education is a relational activity. It takes place in the spaces between students and teachers. By seeing ourselves as learners, seeking to understand a little about va and listening to Pasifika students and their parents, we teachers may be able to do something different and improve our classrooms environments for the benefit of our Pasifika students.

A key idea is that relational education is a reciprocal activity. Before students are expected to discuss their experiences, teachers can offer themselves – a sense of who they are beyond their profession. The teacher’s gift of subject specialism can then be matched by student offerings of prior knowledge and understandings. This can occur where space and time have been constructed for deep student participation.  The physical classroom space can be one of positive closeness between students and teacher.  In addition, teachers can understand that positive relationships with students are a potent bridge between students and subject disciplines. These aspects of relationships are not part of a universal role description for teachers. Neither are they visible in the relationships, relationships, relationships mantra.

Changes in Pasifika education must be grounded in the realisation that everything we do in school is a matter of culture; choice, not inevitability. The education system has a particular set of cultural roots which are not inviolable. Pacific wisdom and the voices of Pasifika students and their parents and communities have great potential as resources in helping policy makers, administrators, educational leaders and teachers to shape a system more likely to work well for the diverse Pasifika group. However, there’s no quick fix or easy substitute for deep learning. A lot of us need to do a lot of learning.

Just like students, teachers need adequate time and resources to learn.  But under such circumstances, day-to-day changes in thought, word and deed are possible to take us beyond a mantra of relationships and into spaces where we meet our Pasifika students’ expectations in mind, body and spirit. If we teachers understand what we do as service and act on the relational importance of trust, our students may recognise learning as their service to their families, communities and teachers. This is a space where success requires cultivation from all sides, where caring for the va is a win-win.

Although this quick summary does little justice to Pacific wisdom, it does alert we teachers to a more nuanced contextual way of starting to understand the relationships mantra. It a place from which we can voyage further.

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