Dr Maggie Flavell,
Victoria University of Wellington PhD Scholar
For some of us, the COVID19 lockdown has been an opportunity to get on with writing. I completed my PhD last year, graduating in December 2019. So, this has been an ideal time to time to get those articles ready for publication. I want to convert my weighty doctoral thesis into palatable and readable pieces that people might actually read. There is just one problem. Is what I wrote prior to the COVID19 pandemic relevant to the world in which we now inhabit? We don’t know how long the need to live with cautious physical contact will last, and we are yet to discover all the ramifications that result from this kind of existence.
Valuable lessons learnt from my study
I’d like to explain why our current context is relevant to the topic of my doctoral dissertation. I explored how home-school relationships can enhance successful learning outcomes for secondary Pacific students in New Zealand. As I explained in an earlier blog, my interest sprang from a desire to better understand these students when I arrived from England (over 10 years ago) to be a secondary teacher. One reason for undertaking the PhD was to help teachers, like myself, who do not belong to a Pacific culture. A most valuable lesson that I took away from the study was to appreciate how the nurturing of relationships is highly valued in Pacific cultures. Building relationships with families so that parents can support teachers with students’ learning outcomes is widely supported in literature. The key to building effective relationships with Pacific families is for teachers to understand how these can develop in a way that accord with Pacific values. An issue that I see with the school system is that, in the pursuit of achieving outcomes, space to appreciate and enact upon Pacific relational values may be overlooked. The risk is that, without such attention, student success is harder to achieve. Appreciating how to be inclusive of Pacific values within the school system is one thing. Appreciating how to achieve this in a climate of physical distancing is another.
Let me explain further. First, I need to present some key learnings from my study. Findings clearly showed that teachers are committed to building relationships with Pacific learners and their families, and there was evidence of many positive strategies in place which aim to build these connections. Such good practice in New Zealand schools is well documented (see, for example, TKI and Aranui High). Moreover, findings clearly demonstrated there is a high level of expertise amongst members of the Pacific community who are both confident and willing to interact with teachers in order to support Pacific learners and their families. Whilst barriers to Pacific families’ engagement with teachers (due to lack of confidence, knowledge or time) are recorded in literature, it is important to acknowledge the existence of knowledge brokers within the Pacific community. Such people play an invaluable role in transferring information between home and school, connecting these two worlds (see p.27). Given the commitment and expertise that exists amongst both teachers and Pacific families, one might expect to see thriving home-school relationships. However, those same barriers to families’ engagement still showed up in the findings from my study despite evidence of excellent practice. Thus, through this study, I learnt how much work went into supporting Pacific learners – but hard work, alone, is not enough.
A call for change
This is why I call for changes to be made at a systems level. If we want to see teachers and families working together to support student achievement, we need a school system that helps rather than hinders such opportunities. One framework I used to guide my study was Talanoa Research Methodology (TRM). Talanoa is a valuable way of talking to one another, often face-to-face, where conversations run freely so as to help build mutual trust and respect. Talanoa encourages open and honest dialogue, and TRM encourages the use of such dialogue at every given opportunity in the research process. It is a reminder that, with careful attention to how we communicate, we can develop strong relationships and a powerful exchange of ideas that lead to positive outcomes.
I also called upon another framework to support my study. This was Appreciative Inquiry (AI). AI encourages individuals to reflect on successes and to think creatively how to build on these successes. I asked participants to reflect on what they felt were successes in home-school relations, and to consider what might work better in the future. AI is a very useful tool which schools could use to review how their home-school practices are doing. If the voices of parents are included, this would encourage collaborative and inclusive relationships – the hallmark of good practice in home-school partnerships. The combination of talanoa and AI is, I believe, is a most effective way of drawing out the best ideas on offer.
But in a hands-off world, how is this going to happen? With the spread of COVID19, is all the learning from my research redundant? I hope not! Physical isolation does not mean social isolation. More than ever, we need to find ways to be part of a community and support one another. Right now, teachers face a huge challenge as they work out how to do their best in most unusual circumstances. When I was engaging in fieldwork for my study, Pacific participants offered solutions and ideas for forging effective partnerships between home and school that would help Pacific learners thrive. I am sure they have answers now. After all, Pacific communities have been practising the art of physically-distant but socially-close ties for many years in the maintenance of strong bonds to their respective home islands. I conclude, therefore, this is a good time to be seeking ways to nurture the relationship space with Pacific families, allowing their perspectives to shed light on how best to support the learning of Pacific students.
Dr Maggie Flavell has taught in England for many years and, more recently, in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her work in England encompasses the field of adult literacy and secondary English teaching. In Aotearoa New Zealand, she taught English until moving, full time, into her doctoral study on home-school relationships for Pacific learners at Victoria University of Wellington. She graduated in 2019.