Maggie Flavell, Victoria University of Wellington
In busy school environments, it can be hard for teachers to find the time to engage with students’ families. Having been a teacher for much of my career, I recall teacher-parent meetings where it seemed important to impart a great deal of information to parents in just a few minutes. Sometimes, when I was in full ‘transmit’ mode, I might notice a look of bewilderment on the parent’s face. Had I not explained myself properly? Was I using too much jargon? Such concerns only encouraged me to talk even more – in a bid to rectify what I perceived was the problem. After all, I only had a few minutes before we parted company and there was so much to say.
Since then, I have completed a master’s degree and am on my way to completing a PhD where I have been exploring how home-school relationships might enhance successful learning outcomes for secondary Pacific Island students. Originally from England, I came to teach in New Zealand ten years ago and embarked on further study as a way of better understanding students and their families whose cultural backgrounds are different to mine. In the course of my research journey, I have been learning how to engage with Pacific Islands people in a meaningful way. This is an ongoing process but one thing is clear already. If I could put the clock back to those meetings when Pacific Island parents sat on the other side of the table, I would remember to do this: talk less and listen more. In this blog post, I’d like to explain why I believe this is so important.
First, though, I would like to confirm why I believe home-school relationships are so valuable. It is well documented in the research literature (e.g. see here and here) that families play an important role in supporting students’ successful learning outcomes. Many teachers have worked with tremendous commitment and energy to nurture relationships with their students’ families because they know the positive impact it can have on achievement when they work together. In both my master’s degree and my PhD, key findings emphasized the importance of teacher and family relationships for supporting students’ academic goals and learning needs.
Key lessons from my research
In my master’s research, I learnt how some Pacific Island students avoided conversations with their parents about their learning through fear of causing disappointment. This meant that if parents didn’t understand the school system or were too busy to attend school meetings, they could feel left in the dark as to how their child was progressing. Parents really appreciated the teachers who kept them informed (perhaps with phone calls). They didn’t want to wait till a parent meeting later in the year to discover how their child was performing, and that they could have been giving extra support.
I have recently completed my PhD fieldwork. Here, parents of Pacific children emphasized the collective nature of decision making, stressing how important it was for them to be involved in key decisions relating to their children’s education. They appreciated the hard work of teachers who communicated with them and who went out of their way to support the students. One problem that I identified, however, was that when schools send out information in an attempt to communicate with parents, parents may not receive, read or understand it. There is no guarantee that written information will be received (if it is passed via the student), that it will be read and understood (if sent via the mail) or that the family has the facility to access it (if sent online).
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I have learnt through my research so far is that relationships really matter to Pacific families and that, ideally, these develop face-to-face. An issue for someone like myself stepping into the Pacific world is that our efforts can cause suspicion. No matter how well-meaning my intention, I could appear patronizing. It can seem like my answers and the western way of seeing the world are superior. A particular danger relates to the Pacific-wide priority for nurturing relationships where listening is a sign of respect. I have come to realise that the space afforded to listening is an important element of establishing respectful relationships where people can hear each other’s perspectives and establish a mutual understanding. I am now learning to be more comfortable with silence and to hold back the compulsion that I must fill any silence with chatter!
Learning to talanoa
I have been learning the art of talanoa. This is a Tongan communication practice based on the belief that meaningful interaction occurs when conversations are allowed to run freely. In talanoa conversations, one party is not overly controlled by another and there is room to build positive relationships that lead to collaborative discussion and constructive solutions. Taking time to share backgrounds and make personal connections can help to establish trust, confidence and reciprocity. When time for conversation is not restricted, there is a rich opportunity to share perspectives and develop mutual respect (e.g. see here and here). In contrast to my past rushed and one-sided attempts to say as much as possible to parents in these short parent-teacher meetings, the process of talanoa helps form trusting and inclusive relationships — and it is these kinds of relationships that are key to the effective engagement of Pacific families in their children’s education.
I am still learning the art of relationship-building with Pacific people but I have come to appreciate how listening can help engender trust and commitment. This intentional listening is something that I have been practising; and I believe it has helped me to be received more warmly by Pacific parents and family members because it demonstrates that I am genuinely interested in them. I realise now that the five-minute parent-meeting slot was just a precursor to further dialogue. So, in the busy worlds of teachers and families, the challenge for all of us is to find spaces where inclusive and culturally responsive relationships can blossom. By finding ways to encourage such relationships, schools can take positive steps towards building academic success for Pacific learners.
Maggie Flavell has taught in England for many years and, more recently, in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is currently studying at Victoria University of Wellington, where she is in the final stages of her PhD.