What might it take to create disturbing professional learning and development for teachers involved in Pacific Education?

Dr Martyn Reynolds, Victoria University of Wellington

Trust, risk and humility

If you have been a teacher for some time, you will have been subject to a lot of professional learning and development. Some of this will have been questionable in terms of its approach to professionality and the quality of learning on offer, and therefore the development being supported. I can remember more than one ‘tips for teachers’ session that at the time may have seemed a treasure trove of good advice, but on reflection disappointed because it told of ‘how’ and not ‘why’. Despite my best attention, I was the same person I had been at the start when I got home. Of course when we start teaching, tips are exactly what we need to get through the day. But scratching at the surface is unlikely to alter complex and seemingly intractable issues that sit at core of what we do. We need transformative challenge. This involves knowledge, perspective and practice, but also risk, trust and humility. In order to capitalise on contexts where people show these qualities, we need PLD which leads with challenges to our existing patterns of thought and to the concepts we take for granted, backs this up with the voices of students, parents and communities, and then turns to practice.

Disturbing PLD in a Pacific context

So, what might challenging or disturbing but potentially powerful PLD look like in education? To take the example of Pasifika or Pacific education, the education in Aotearoa New Zealand of students who have Pacific roots, we might look for at least three significant ingredients: the challenge of (one or more) Pacific world view (s); the voices of those we seek to benefit; and our professional knowledge – the vocabulary of things we know how to do. Let’s look at these elements.

What’s a world view?

Firstly, how can we Palagi (non-Samoan) teachers experience elements of a Pacific world view? Most teachers have been socialised into European norms of behaviour and understand the world through values of European origin. Even non-European teachers have been similarly socialised through their training. Classes, the traditional geography of classrooms, the importance placed on curriculum boundaries, how teachers are expected to behave, the ubiquity of competition and efficiency in education; these seem natural or common sense but are actually the result of culture and history.

However, not everybody in Aotearoa New Zealand has the same world view. Various Pacific cultures understand fundamental aspects of life differently. ‘Tonga time’, for example, may frustrate some tourists because it challenges their idea of what matters. For some in the region, money makes one rich when it is given away. For others, relationships are not made or chosen, but exist whether acknowledged or not between all things in creation. As a matter of equity, these and other aspects of world view can be harnessed – first to reveal and then to challenge the European socialisation at the heart of what many of us understand to be appropriate in Pacific education.

The voice of students

Secondly, what do our Pasifika students say about education? In my PhD study which gave voice to male Year 9 Pasifika students, a lot was said was about relationships. How acceptance by teachers affects student engagement and progress, for example. Whilst this may not be new, understanding Pacific students’ and their parents’ experiences of education through a Pacific world view proved a challenge to teachers involved in PLD within the PhD because of the strength of habitual thinking and practice.

Re-thinking relationships

A brief, incomplete introduction to the Pacific relational concept of va or , a spatial way of understanding relationality in the interlinked physical, social and spiritual domains, provided a small group of teachers with a partial way of understanding what the Pacific community wanted them to know from a perspective new to them. The teachers tackled this challenge by constructing metaphors to grapple with new learning, reframing their movement around the classroom, re-prioritising care and interpersonal communication, and allowing their existing (and for the most part traditional) role descriptions to be contested.

If we have no fundamental challenge to our thinking, what we already know can be the problem that stops us changing. It frames how we understand and anchors inertia. However, under the challenge of trying to comprehend Pacific students’ voice through the va or vā, teachers found their expertise valuable in readdressing and re-valuing teaching as an act, and Pacific education as a context. As a result, what has been called teachers’ craft knowledge became an asset in operationalising change.

Disturbed thinking

One teacher discovered that he had been hiding behind the formality of how he understood his role and accepted the opportunity to risk de-formalisation. Another changed her language to signal the inclusivity she felt but had not been communicating. A third pondered on the place of love in the classroom and how this disturbs transactional understandings of classroom interaction. Other challenges included the way leadership is exercised, space is used and time is appreciated. What the group were generating were not decontextualized tips but a fundamental re-viewing of their place in the classroom and in their students’ worlds.

The value of humility

If we truly believe that contexts such as Pacific education are spaces of partnership or ako, perhaps there is great value in the kind of cultural humility. demonstrated by these teachers. In order to capitalise on contexts where it exists, we need PLD which leads with challenges to thought and concepts, backs this up with voice and then turns to practice. This kind of approach draws attention to the ‘professional’ in PLD and creates a ground for significant learning that can lead to continued development.

Martyn Reynolds PhotoDr Martyn Reynolds is currently Post Doctoral Pacific Research Fellow in the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington. His PhD helped him learn about ideas of success from Pacific boys and their parents. He has taught since 1984 in the UK, PNG, Tonga and Aotearoa, New Zealand. Between 2006 – 2019, Martyn was Specialist Classroom Teacher at an urban Wellington school. He facilitates professional learning and development for educators and is also open to research collaborations.


  1. Enjoyed reading this and certainly gave me lots of food for thought – unfortunately the links don’t seem to be working. Were they meant to?


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