How bi-cultural is your school?

childs painting of a big orange sun with a face
Painting by Aonghas Robertson aged 8

I am currently learning. What’s new? I am currently deepening my understanding about culturally responsive practice and what it looks like. This blogpost is my response to Janelle’s Blogpost – “I don’t see colour, I treat everyone the same”.

When we first arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand we needed to find schools for our boys aged 8 & 12. Before we left the UK we searched online for prospective secondary schools and did a bit of research about the education system. We learned that schools were zoned which meant that we needed to live in the right area to get into a school. My husband had secured a job at the University of Waikato so we looked at which schools were in the immediate area thinking that that was where we would live.  There were three schools; one was a Catholic Boys school, one was an all boys school and the other was a mixed school. We talked to our son who was already at a mixed comprehensive school in the UK to see what he would prefer.  He said he would prefer the mixed school so we called them to see to find out more.  The lady who answered the phone had a very familiar accent. She was warm, friendly, very informative and it turned out that she came from West Yorkshire just down the road from my home town of Leeds.  We immediately felt a connection. 

When we arrived in New Zealand, we went to enrol him at the school and met the lovely lady from West Yorkshire (we have since become friends!) Having someone there with whom we connected made all the difference in making us feel confident and comfortable that this was the right choice for us and our son.  Well, to be honest, by the time we’d arrived it was the only choice as we weren’t in zone for any other school except the Catholic one and since we aren’t Catholic that wasn’t an option.  So it was heartening to have some sense of familiarity.

So, to our wee son. There were several primary schools in the rohe. We looked at their websites which, to be honest, didn’t tell us much 11 years ago. We measured how far they were away and whether we (our son) could easily walk or cycle there from our rental home. Then we arranged to visit. The closest to home seemed like the favourite on the face of it.  Five minutes walk, round the corner from our other son’s secondary school so they could walk together, relatively small so he wouldn’t get lost as he got to know the place and the people.  

No connection. The office lady met us and made no effort to talk to our son. She talked over the top of him at us.  We didn’t get to meet any teachers and she suggested that our son would have to go back a half year so that they could work out where he really fitted in terms of his academic level.  Being a teacher I had done my homework so I knew which year he should be starting in although I would have been happy to discuss with a teacher to ensure that he was best placed.

On we went to the next school.  We walked in.  The first person the receptionist spoke to was our son. She asked him his name, how old he was, when his birthday was, what he liked doing, where he came from. Shyly he gave his answers. As soon as he said when his birthday was she said what class he would be in and talked about other children in the class who would help him settle in.  Then she turned to us and invited us to meet the DP. 

It was a no brainer. We never even went to the 3rd school. 

In retrospect, we didn’t see any evidence that we were arriving in a bi-cultural country in those schools. There may have been a few Māori words around and some artwork but nothing that shouted out to us “Aotearoa, NewZealand – Bi-cultural country with 3 official languages and a Māori history and tikanga.”

I guess what I’m saying is that as a newcomer to the country having a welcome and friendly face who connected with us and our child made a huge difference at the start.  (What happened next is another story!) So, when I think of any child and their whānau making that step into a new school, the relationships and the connections you make right at the start make all the difference.  In Janelle’s post she asks “What would I hear, feel and see in your school that would send a message about how my child’s history, language and tikanga are going to be celebrated?”

As immigrants, we knew that we were coming into a ‘foreign’ country where we would see a different culture and history, though of course, it would be our language (or would it? That’s also another story!)  But looking back now it didn’t feel different enough. Yes, my youngest came home telling us about songs he learned, and his first piece of artwork told the story of Māui and the Sun,  and he talked about learning about the Treaty of Waitangi and having to make a class treaty.  For my eldest at secondary school, there was no obvious evidence that we were living in a bi-cultural country.   

And there should have been. 

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