‘The gaps exist because somebody created the gaps’
Throughout its history New Zealand’s education system has both shaped and been shaped by the legacy of colonisation in the country. Esther Rakete (Teach First NZ 2013) shares her personal experiences navigating that system as both a student, an educator and as a Māori (Māori are the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand).
1 – The conflicting pathways of success
‘It’s better to be something else.’
Reflecting on her experiences at school Esther remembers feeling like ’there was a hole inside of me’. She felt like her self-worth had been limited to the grades on her report card while her culture, her identity were not considered valuable. She couldn’t see herself reflected in her education and felt a deep sense of internal conflict. There seemed to be two different pathways of success – the one she saw reflected in her culture and the one she saw reflected in her education and ‘they just didn’t match – you had to be one or the other’. In an effort to connect with her culture Esther decided to learn Te Reo Māori (the Māori language) but experienced resistance from her own family who had come to believe that there was ‘no economic prosperity in being a Maori – It’s better to be something else’.
2 – Oppression through assimilation
‘It was the language they chose to use when talking about me, about my culture’.
Since 1847 when the Education Ordinance Act was first introduced the education of Maori students was focused on forced assimilation. Children were beaten for speaking Te Reo Maori in school and Western culture and knowledge was presented as superior to Maori. As Esther puts it ‘the policy was that we can better transition the Maori people into western culture if we just replace the culture..because we’ll get there faster’.
This history is an example of how an education system can be used as a vehicle of oppression, reflecting and perpetuating the prejudices of those dominant in the society. Esther shares how by replacing historical narratives and changing the ‘language they chose to use when talking about me and my culture’ the system presented Maori culture to students as inferior or as something to be forgotten. Multiple generations were exposed to this prejudiced education and overtime many began to internalise the oppression. The system perpetuated a sense of superiority amongst the colonising group (Pakeha – Settlers of European heritage) while creating a sense of inferiority amongst Māori. As Esther shares, people ‘started to believe it, and then repeat it and perpetuate it and then they started to become it’.
3 – Understanding today’s inequity in the context of historical oppression
‘The gaps exist because somebody created the gaps’
Without understanding the history that shaped our present reality it’s easy to make misguided assumptions about what’s causing today’s inequities. Often these assumptions take shape as deficit theorising – assuming that the inequity is the responsibility of the students, their family, culture or community. And when these assumptions are echoed in the language of educators, curriculum, media and sometimes even the families and communities of our students – it’s easy for our students to internalise that deficit thinking about themselves. This often manifests as low expectations and disengagement which we then frame as an ‘achievement gap’ without reflecting on the root causes behind it. As Esther puts it ‘of course there’s going to be underachievement because they are the product of what happens when somebody tells them that they are not good enough and they have come to believe it’. Esther challenges educators to ‘own what has happened, tell them there history, tell them how they got here.’ This means as educators we have to engage in a rigorous examination of different historical narratives and present societal factors that shape our reality. Better understand the root causes behind inequity, reframe our theorising and align our actions in a way that challenges oppression rather than perpetuates it. But it’s not enough for educators to keep this knowledge to themselves. Esther challenges us to engage our students in this process too – ‘You need to give them the time to understand where they have come from and how it’s impacted upon them’. This involves overcoming our own fears of ‘the kind of reactions our students will give if they learnt the negative parts of history’ our fear that we won’t ‘have the answer for them’ or the ‘passion to deal with their anger once their grief hits’. Esther knows from personal experience that coming to terms with history can be painful but she also knows that ‘once we’ve helped them to overcome the anger stage they will start to act’. We need to ‘help them dry their tears.. and say ‘’now what will you do?’’ and then ‘they will begin to contribute to New Zealand society in a way that’s just so powerful that New Zealand will never be the same again’.
4 – Recognising the greatness that already exists
‘Let’s go back and remember who we are’
Esther reflects on her experience in the classroom and shares how she responded when one of her students challenged her to answer the question – ‘What are you going to do that’s so different?’ Esther realised that her students felt angry and disengaged because they didn’t see themselves reflected in their education. This meant that she had to reclaim ‘the language in the classroom’ and use ’their stories to empower them and make a change’. Esther had to ‘offer themselves back to them’ and help them recognise that ‘greatness already exists, you are a descendant of that greatness’. Esther showed her students that she didn’t just value who or what they could be, she also valued who they are right now – ‘You are enough just as you are. And i’ll bring my good and you bring your good and let’s see if we can’t add to each other’. Esther challenges us to recognise that ‘if you focus on the students who are in front of you, the greatness that’s right in front of you, then that’s all you’re going to see – greatness! That’s all you’re going to expect – greatness. That’s all you’re going to demand – greatness! And guess what you’re going to get – greatness!’
5 – Play the game, change the game
‘I can be flexible, and adaptive and come back to myself’
Unfortunately, recognising our students greatness in our classrooms doesn’t necessarily mean that the wider society recognises it too. As Esther shares, our classrooms exist in a wider reality, and in order for our students to be able to be mobile in that reality they will have to navigate rigid societal spaces that may not have been designed to value their identity or culture and in some cases may be implicitly or explicitly prejudiced against them. Esther uses the metaphor of circles and triangles – If your shape is a triangle how do you navigate spaces that are designed to fit circles? How do our students navigate systems designed in a way that privileges the dominant group without compromising their authentic self? Esther shares her approach to overcoming these challenges – When you are already grounded in a strong sense of self it allows you to be ‘flexible, and adaptive’ and then ‘come back’ to yourself. And staying true to your authentic self doesn’t have to mean that you can’t grow and change as you navigate. You can ‘stretch a little, open your mind, sift through it and come back to yourself with a new knowledge, and then rearrange it until you settled and it still fits you’. Esther believes that teaching this skill to our students allows us to ensure that ‘no door is closed’ to them and this will allow them to access ‘places where we can change the stories that can be told about us’. Esther is an example of its possible to navigate, remain authentic to who you are and be transformational – She’s ‘changing the game’.
(These videos were created for Teach For All)