Swimming with sharks: Reflections on Waitangi Day 2019

Dr Ann Milne, Ann Milne Education

Two news items have caught my attention this week as we consider our perspectives on Waitangi Day and the Treaty / Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Firstly, the call by the NZ History Teachers’ Association (NZHTA) to have our colonial history taught in schools. This reignited the 2015 petition, with 12,000 signatures, driven by students from Otorohanga College to make learning about the New Zealand Wars compulsory in the curriculum. Both petitions have been met by resistance from the Ministry of Education to making any components of the curriculum mandatory. I can see both sides of that argument, although far be it from me usually to agree with MOE! Steve Watters shows the different perspectives in this 2017 post.

We can definitely raise teachers’ and schools’ awareness of the need to make this an absolute priority though, and heavily resource it. You can sign the NZHTA petition here and read more about the background here. You’ll find those links and more great Tiriti o Waitangi resources in this relevant post from Jen Margaret at Groundwork.

The second item that had me thinking is not so obviously relevant to schools and teachers. As I watched the exposé of Australia’s banks and financial industry on TVNZ News last night I couldn’t help thinking that if we substituted schools for banks, and education system for financial industry, how apt would the Australian Royal Commission’s wide-ranging recommendations be? Just imagine if we became as agitated over education’s damage as we are now over banking behaviour:

Financial industry NZ Education system
“Greed is out, customers’ needs are in” System’s needs out, learners’ needs first
Practices that “left a devasting human toll in their wake” Policies and practice that have left a devastating toll for Māori in their wake
There have been broken businesses and the emotional stress and personal pain has broken lives The loss, emotional stress, and personal pain through schooling as a tool of colonisation has negatively impacted Māori over generations, and continues.
Breaking the trust of the Australian public who, the Commissioner found, have been ripped off for years Māori whānau have been ripped off for generations. That mistrust is definitely not misplaced.
Significant overhaul of Australia’s financial industry – rules that ensure the customers make out best Significant overhaul of the education system – to ensure learners make out best. Will the review of Tomorrow’s Schools actually realise this? I’m not so sure.
Intense pressure to “buy into policies clients didn’t want, or need” Intense pressure to adopt education policies that were never in the best interests of Māori learners – National Standards, Communities of Learning, Statutory Interventions, bureaucratic meddling.
From today the banking sector must change and change forever. Why are we waiting for more generations to suffer? Imagine “from today the schooling sector must change, and change forever”. Would we be scrambling as rapidly as the banks?

How do we raise this level of urgency and public outcry for our children? You would think there would be no comparison, and no disagreement!

Swimming with sharks: Our covert white spaces

Over the last couple of months I have introduced this image to audiences and to groups I am running workshops with. It’s my attempt to name the covert White spaces that permeate our thinking and drive our decision-making in education in Aotearoa New Zealand, the ones we passively accept as normal or traditional, instead of colonial, the ones that get in the way of that public outcry or any urgent action.


The image usually follows the slide below where I ask, what if this wasn’t a continuum? What if more generations of our Māori children didn’t have to wait while we tiptoe cautiously through these ‘stages’, becoming less racist, more culturally ‘responsive’, shedding our Eurocentric teacher training and those Pākehā-driven polices that have never worked for our Māori children, waiting for all the staff in a school to embrace change? Why can’t we dive in at the deep end? Who, and where, are the sharks and how much longer will we hide behind them, and our privilege, pretending we are ‘neutral’?


The iceberg image is always going to be a work in progress. I keep finding more sharks, or they keep finding me! We would hope that no longer would most of us accept or tolerate the overt white spaces—the racial profiling, racist slurs, hate speech, at the tip of the iceberg, although all of these definitely still occur.

Beneath the surface however lurk the covert white spaces that are even more dangerous. The spaces that emphasise white privilege, the spaces that we think are too hard to change, if we even recognise them as dangerous in the first place.

At the moment the sharks are randomly swimming under the surface. I have resisted suggestions I should classify them in different ways – for example, the more dangerous ones frozen in the submerged ice, or those we can change first closest to the surface, because I think we will all have different ideas about importance and priorities depending where we are in our own thinking. This has proven to be true in workshops with schools recently where these hidden spaces have caused a great deal of deep discussion and questions.

Wherever we are in our thinking, the truth is we need to become super alert to the sharks because our job, as educational leaders, and Treaty partners, should be to identify, then understand, then dismantle, each and every one of them. How can we call ourselves educators if we don’t understand this is urgent?

I used to say that our schools are generally oblivious to their overt, hidden, white spaces. I think that is gradually changing and perhaps we are experiencing what NZ History Teachers’ Association chairperson Graeme Ball called a “zeitgeist moment”. However I think we still steadfastly cling to our ‘tweaking’ mentality, unaware of the size of the change we need to make — hence the iceberg image!

Some schools, though, are embracing the changes, prepared to do the confronting soul searching and the deep reflection on their practice. These schools are letting themselves be confronted by the ‘sharks’ and are prepared to really think through change on multiple fronts, in their practice and pedagogy. I have great confidence that these schools, and others like them, are going to make a difference.

This post first appeared on the blog of Ann Milne Education. It is reproduced by permission.

Cover image: Laura College on Unsplash.

AnnDr Ann Milne is the director of Ann Milne Education and a well-known speaker, writer, thought leader and professional development provider in Aotearoa New Zealand. As a Pākehā educator, Ann is a strong critic of pervasive, deficit-driven explanations of “achievement gaps” and Māori and Pasifika “under-achievement.” Ann’s book, “Colouring in the White Spaces: Reclaiming Cultural Identity in Whitestream Schools”, examines the struggle against racial and cultural inequity in educational systems, presenting the case study of a New Zealand school and its community’s determination to resist alienating environments.

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