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Listening to and learning from Pacific families: The art of building home–school relationships at secondary level to support achievement

Maggie Flavell
Abstract: 

There is a strong case for building inclusive relationships with families in order to support academic success for Pacific secondary students. In this article, I review literature which considers the perspectives of Pacific students, their families, and teachers. An important conclusion is that listening is a key ingredient for teachers when involved in learning conversations with Pacific families. When reflecting on my current doctoral study, I acknowledge the issue of thinking from a Westernised mind-set when working with Pacific people. I offer a suggestion on how to build relationships to overcome this.

Journal issue: 

Listening to and learning from Pacific families

The art of building home–school relationships at secondary level to support achievement

MAGGIE FLAVELL

Key points

The development of home–school relationships with Pacific families is an important focus for promoting academic achievement amongst Pacific secondary students.

Tension may exist between home and school which prevents some families from being more engaged in the learning process.

Home–school relationships are more successful when schools focus on listening and appreciate its significance for developing understanding.

Schools need to consider how to support teachers so they can build relationships with Pacific families that lead to meaningful discussion.

There is a strong case for building inclusive relationships with families in order to support academic success for Pacific secondary students. In this article, I review literature which considers the perspectives of Pacific students, their families, and teachers. An important conclusion is that listening is a key ingredient for teachers when involved in learning conversations with Pacific families. When reflecting on my current doctoral study, I acknowledge the issue of thinking from a Westernised mind-set when working with Pacific people. I offer a suggestion on how to build relationships to overcome this.

Introduction

My purpose for writing this article is twofold. Firstly, I want to share what I have learnt about building home–school relationships with secondary Pacific students and their families to support achievement. This learning has resulted from a master’s study (which I completed in 2014) and from my current doctoral journey. Secondly, I want to share what I have learnt about stepping into the Pacific world as someone of European descent. Although there is further to travel, I have already gained valuable lessons. I hope I can assist others who, like me, wish to support positive learning outcomes for Pacific students.

I start with some background context, clarifying the significance of home–school practices for helping raise the educational achievement of Pacific students. I then consider the perspectives of those involved in home–school interaction by reviewing some of the literature which takes into account the viewpoints of Pacific students, their families, and teachers. Through this discussion, I take the opportunity to share findings from my master’s degree and helpful strategies for engaging families. I conclude with a discussion about relationship-building with Pacific people.

Background

The Pacific people of New Zealand are a diverse population, encompassing those who identify with different Pacific countries such as Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, Fiji, and Tokelau (Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, 2015). This population is fast growing with over 60% now born in New Zealand, and rising three times faster than the overall population of New Zealand (Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, 2015). The collective label Pacific (or Pasifika) can lead to assumptions about homogeneity which overlook cultural diversity, and the possibility that individuals may identify with more than one culture (Tongati’o, Mitchell, & Kennedy, 2016a; Tongati’o, Mitchell, Tuimauga, & Kennedy, 2016b). Nevertheless, there is sufficient commonality for the New Zealand Ministry of Education to consider this cohort of the population a distinct group deserving special attention (Gorinski & Fraser, 2006).

The educational achievements of Pacific students have shown steady progress over the past few years (Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, 2015; NZQA, 2016); however, there still remains a negative disparity between the overall achievement of secondary students in New Zealand and those who identify as Pacific (NZQA, 2016). For example, in 2015 under 30% of Pacific students obtained University Entrance credits compared to over 57% of New Zealand European students (NZQA, 2016). Government focus on this student population, therefore, aims to address such imbalances; the Pasifika Education Plan (2013–2017) is a significant Ministry document which encapsulates the key goals and targets for raising Pacific educational outcomes (Ministry of Education, 2012).

Home–school relationships

The development of inclusive practices with Pacific students and their families is one area that has been highlighted in the Pasifika Education Plan (Ministry of Education, 2012). The idea of schools working together with families to support achievement is well supported in research literature (for example, Biddulph, Biddulph, & Biddulph, 2003; Bull, Brooking, & Campbell, 2008); and this is regardless of age, socioeconomic, or ethnic background (Jeynes, 2007). Specific to New Zealand, the Education Review Office has conducted document analysis to affirm a positive link between home–school relationships and academic success for Pacific learners (ERO, 2013).

An important aspect for developing effective home–school relationships is to encourage reciprocity and collaboration (Bull et al., 2008; Tongati’o, 2016a). When parents feel that their contributions are valued, they are more likely to be involved in, and supportive of, their children’s learning (Bull et al., 2008). When teachers and parents exchange information so there is a two-way process, students’ learning benefits from the improved understanding of not just their parents but also their teachers (Brooking, 2007). This collaboration is particularly significant because it reflects the growing aspirations of Pacific people in New Zealand (Bennett, Brunton, Bryant-Tokalau, Sopoaga, Weaver, & Witte, 2013) who wish to contribute to Pacific success (Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, 2015). For the Pacific community, consultation is key (Airini, Anae, & Mila-Schaaf, 2010). The formation of inclusive relationships with families is more than just schools responding to recommended good practice; it is about respecting the wishes of Pacific people.

My master’s study

I embarked on a master’s thesis to better understand the Pacific students and families at my college. I had moved from England to teach at a high decile college with 12% of the students identifying as Pacific, mainly Samoan but also as Tongan, Tokelauan, Niuean, Cook Islander, and Fijian. Despite a strong belief in families and teachers working together, I realised that I did not always understand the perspective of these families when I communicated with them and I was not sure how best to achieve reciprocal, two-way communication. My aim, therefore, was to try and find out how Pacific families perceived the parental role in students’ academic progress. I believed I could learn a lot by listening and that, also, there could be useful lessons for my college to support home–school interaction with Pacific families (Flavell, 2014).

It was through my study that I gained direct knowledge of the importance of inclusive relationships with Pacific families. The parents voiced a strong desire to work in partnership with teachers, saying that they wanted to play a part in helping their child be academically successful. For them, it came down to a practical consideration. When they waited to hear about their child’s progress through the reporting system and parent–teacher interviews, they felt it could be too late to help make a positive difference. They felt rather that communication needed to be flexible and timely. They praised the teachers who phoned or emailed, allowing regular discussion to take place around their child’s learning. When teachers made the effort, they appreciated and valued the opportunity to be informed and consulted (Flavell, 2014). These parents highlighted to me the value of teachers and families engaging in reciprocal discussion to support students’ learning.

When teachers and parents exchange information so there is a two-way process, students’ learning benefits from the improved understanding of not just their parents but also their teachers.

Listening to the voices of Pacific students, their families, and their teachers

Although my study was small (with seven parents and 12 students as participants), participants told me their perspectives were common to many other Pacific families. They taught me valuable lessons. As it turned out, my results did largely echo those from other studies. The surprise, therefore, was not so much in what I discovered but that it was so similar to earlier research despite a different setting and later time. Some key points from a synthesis of research literature are outlined below.

Students and their families

It has been very helpful for someone like myself to learn why many Pacific families place such a high value on education. Families have migrated in the hope that educational opportunities for their children will bring economic prosperity (Flavell, 2014; Samu, 2005; Siope, 2011); and benefits gained from moving to their new country can enable financial support to be sent back to extended members of the family who remain behind (Samu, 2005). Therefore, parents set high expectations so that their children can be academically successful (ERO, 2008; Flavell, 2014). For example, in a study which captured the voices of Tongan parents, these parents wanted their children to sit assessments and undertake demanding work ('Otunuku, 2011). Pacific students have acknowledged the sacrifices that families have made by migrating away from their home country and providing an ongoing commitment to support their children’s education (Benseman, Coxon, Anderson, & Anae, 2006; Flavell, 2014; Mila-Schaaf & Robinson, 2010; McDonald & Lipine, 2011; Siope, 2011). They have expressed gratitude for the encouragement received (Flavell, 2014; Fletcher, Parkhill, Fa’afoi, & Taleni, 2008), and affirmed that this support has been critical in helping them gain academic success (Benseman et al., 2006; Flavell, 2014; Fletcher, et al., 2008; Rimoni, 2016).

However, some of the students in my study also told me that they felt parental pressure to do well and were worried that they might not meet parents’ high expectations (Flavell, 2014). For this reason, they avoided conversations at home about their learning in case they caused disappointment. One factor which inhibited these conversations was that parents might not understand their school work (Flavell, 2014). Another dilemma for the students was that they could be committed to family duties and church which negatively impacted on their time (Benseman et al., 2006; Flavell, 2014; Madjar, McKinley, Deynzer, & Van der Merwe, 2010). Rather than engage in discussion where they could share concerns with their parents, students often chose to say nothing at all. The idea that Pacific students keep their worlds such as home, school, and church separate, as exemplified in my study, is a recurring theme in the research literature. It was first noted by Hawke and Hill (1996, 1998), was something Siope (2011) commented on in the context of her own upbringing in New Zealand, and appears to be a continuing theme.

Furthermore, Pacific parents may not learn about their children’s progress from school either. Parents do not always attend parent meetings (Flavell, 2014; Green & Kearney, 2011). This could be due to long working hours and family commitments. However, since church is regarded as important for cultural, spiritual, and community support, parents sometimes choose church-related activities over school meetings (Green & Kearney, 2011). Although language could be a barrier (Gorinski, 2005), parents can feel uncomfortable in the school environment; they may sense a cultural disconnect between the values of home and school which prevents them from asking questions and engaging in meaningful discussion (Fletcher, Parkhill, Fa’afoi, & O’Regan, 2009; Gorinksi, 2005; Spiller, 2012; Tuafuti, 2010). One important factor which contributes to academic success and access to university for students is the support of knowledgeable parents who can help set realistic goals and targets (Madjar et al., 2010). Given that Pacific (and Māori) young people have been the least likely of all ethnicities to transition to university (Madjar et al., 2010), a focus for schools to work closely with Pacific families is evidently worthwhile.

Teachers

It could also be that teachers do not understand the perspectives of Pacific families. For instance, they may not appreciate that parents listen as a sign of respect rather than ask questions (Spiller, 2012; Tuafuti, 2010), perceiving that parents are not that engaged or interested in their children’s education (Fletcher et al., 2009; Green & Kearney, 2011). Spiller (2012) noted in her research how some teachers perceived the problem with Pacific student underachievement was likely due to home values where students might not be managing the relative freedom of school compared to their home life; the issue, therefore, was perceived to be with home rather than in the classroom. Turner, Rubie-Davies, and Webber (2015) interviewed mathematics teachers from five different high schools in New Zealand. They revealed in their study how teachers held low expectations for both Māori and Pacific students, believing that factors in their home lives such as parents’ low education level and limited income affected performance.

Whilst my research did not include the perspective of teachers, these particular studies suggest that teachers can fall into deficit thinking which could potentially affect the quality of relationships with these students and their families. Professional development would certainly help avoid the pitfall of teachers making negative assumptions (Rimoni, 2016) but, as Nicholas and Fletcher (2015) highlight, there has so far been limited professional support available for teachers.

Taking time to listen

It is important to emphasise that the purpose of this article is not to berate teachers. Many schools, and the teachers within them, have worked with commitment and creativity to build positive links with students and their families. The aim of my doctoral research is to capture some of this good practice by exploring how these relationships are developing in a particular geographical setting. Through listening to the voices of teachers, Pacific families, and their communities, I hope it will be possible to discover not just what is working well but what could work even better. The inclusion of Pacific voices is crucial if successful outcomes are to be achieved—whether this be in the research process (Airini, Anae & Mila-Schaaf, 2010) or in home–school practices (Ministry of Education, 2012).

When I completed my master’s, I realised that a significant feature of successful Pacific home–school relationships lay in the sharing and mutual understanding amongst teachers, students, and their families of the students’ academic goals and learning targets. I concluded that, when parents better understand how their child is progressing at school, they are better positioned for setting expectations at home to support their child’s learning. This could help break the cycle for some students who prefer to avoid conversations at home about learning through fear of causing disappointment. With further insight, I would like to qualify this by emphasising the role of listening. Parents need to be able to initiate discussions with teachers and feel confident to ask questions so that the support they offer at home works in harmony with the teachers’ and students’ efforts.

An excellent example is the project Ngāue Fakataha ki he Ako 'a e Fānau. Although based in primary schools, it shows how teachers and Pacific families are able to work together to support achievement and illustrates the positive response from Pacific families when listening and consultation is prioritised in the reporting system (Tongati'o, Mitchell, Tuimauga, & Kennedy, 2016a; Tongati’o, Mitchell, & Kennedy, 2016b). Working in partnership with three schools and their Pacific parent communities, researchers developed the Talanoa Ako Cycle to actively engage parents and their children in discussion about progress and targets at three key meetings over the course of the year (Tongati’o et al., 2016a, 2016b). Key to this engagement, is the preparation done prior to parent meetings. For example, parents can be sent advice about what to discuss with the teachers. This advice contains questions that parents might ask about progress and next steps of learning; it also prompts parents to share what they are proud of or concerned about with regard to their child, and how they have supported learning at home. Further recommendations are that parents receive reports prior to the meeting and send in any particular questions in advance. So, by the time meetings take place, parents and teachers are well prepared to have a meaningful discussion in which the student also participates.

Further examples of good practice have also been highlighted in a series of reports undertaken in three New Zealand high schools to bring about Pacific student success (Spee, Oakden, Toumu'a, Sauni, & Tuagalu, 2014a; Spee, Toumu’a, Oakden, Sauni, & Tuagalu, 2014b; Toumu'a, Oakden, & Sauni, 2014). For instance, McAuley High School, which has predominantly Pacific students, achieved a 91% success rate at Level 2 NCEA in 2012 (Toumu'a et al., 2014). One important lesson the school learnt was to listen to what parents wanted, and this led a much-improved uptake from parents to engage in school meetings to discuss their child’s progress (Toumu'a et al., 2014). The school was fortunate to be able to fund a chaplain who could make home visits with prospective Year 9 students and so initiate relationship-building with the families; also, a number of teachers and members of the board of trustees had strong links with the local Pacific community and this strengthened the level of communication, making it easier to consult with and listen to families.

There are many examples of good practice in these reports. Some practical strategies include: personal invites to parent–teacher meetings with follow-up phone calls, opportunities for parents to attend events at school which celebrate achievement (Spee et al., 2014a), and assistance from Pacific families to help individual issues which students may have (Spee, et al., 2014b). A most useful strategy is to liaise with a group of Pacific parents who advise the principal and act as a conduit between the community and the school (Spee et al., 2014a, 2014b). Given the diversity of ethnicity and church affiliations amongst the Pacific community, successful two-way communication between Pacific families and schools can be hard to achieve. This latter example is an excellent way to help schools connect with the different communities who fall under the general umbrella of Pacific identity.

When I completed my master’s, I realised that a significant feature of successful Pacific home–school relationships lay in the sharing and mutual understanding amongst teachers, students, and their families of the students’ academic goals and learning targets. I concluded that, when parents better understand how their child is progressing at school, they are better positioned for setting expectations at home to support their child’s learning.

A solution that has personally helped me to connect with Pacific families has been to call upon the services of Pacific students themselves. I think an effective way to build two-way communication is to encourage senior Pacific students to exercise their leadership skills so they can act as the conduit between home and school. They can have excellent ideas as to how best to engage families and even run parent meetings; they can act as mentors for younger Pacific learners in the schools, liaising directly with Pacific families to provide this support; and their visible presence in co-ordinating communication between home and school can directly encourage parents to participate.

Building relationships

When Pacific learners form the majority of students in a school, it is natural that the focus of attention is drawn to their needs. However, as in the settings for my master’s and my doctoral study, these learners are often in the minority. There may not be Pacific staff within the school who have the knowledge and strong connections with the local community to support other teachers. Schools need to find ways to do their best for these Pacific learners whilst recognising the diversity within this student cohort (Toumu’a et al., 2014). I cannot supply all the answers; however, I am learning how to engage with Pacific people in a meaningful way and I think this is worth sharing. When someone with a European, westernised background steps into the Pacific world, it can cause suspicion. Intentions may be well-meaning but it can appear that Westernised solutions have a higher priority, leading Pacific people to feel their autonomy has been negated (Burnett, 2007). I cannot emphasise enough the importance of building relationships where listening is prioritised. I am realising that, for many Pacific people, it is through the space afforded to listening to one another’s perspective that mutual understanding and respectful relationships develop.

I have been learning how to talanoa with Pacific people. Tongan in origin, talanoa promotes the idea that meaningful interaction occurs in face-to-face situations where conversations run freely. When conversation is not overly controlled by one party, there is room for relationship-building; this results in collaborative discussion and constructive solutions (Vaioleti, 2006, 2014). For example, a conversation that allows time to share one’s background and make personal connections engenders notions of trust, confidence, and reciprocity; and the stronger the relationship, the greater the degree of honesty achieved ('Otunuku, 2011). When time is not a constraint, opinions can be shared which promote mutual respect and empowerment ('Otunuku, 2011). Thus, adopting talanoa is an explicit decision to form trusting relationships, and this is absolutely critical if schools are to develop inclusive relationships with Pacific families.

Concluding comment

I still have much to learn and this reminds me that humility is a common value to Pacific cultures. I have appreciated the positive responses from Pacific people when they see that I am listening and genuinely interested. I am learning the Pacific art of relationship-building which honours trust, honesty, and commitment. Busy schools, with 5-minute slots for parent meetings, challenge teachers to build relationships with Pacific families which lead to meaningful discussions. When schools provide the space and support to let inclusive relationships develop, they are making a positive contribution towards building academic success for their Pacific learners.

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Maggie Flavell has completed one year of a 3-year doctoral scholarship at Victoria University. Originally from England, Maggie came to New Zealand in 2008 to take up a secondary teaching post. She completed her master’s degree at Victoria whilst teaching before becoming a full-time student.

Contact email: maggieflavell@hotmail.com