Identity, Culture, and Environment: Indian early childhood teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand

Devika Rathore, University of Waikato

“It’s the universe…it’s a cycle – we can call it karma or by any other name. What goes around comes around. If you do good to others it will come around to you. That’s what we want to teach children, it’s in our [Indian] culture. If you believe in that philosophy, you can practice it. That’s what you want to teach the children, how to be kind, nurturing, good human beings.”

This quote from a participant in my doctoral study shows one of the numerous ways in which a teacher’s cultural orientation and identity are likely to influence her or his teaching philosophy, approach and practice, in this case, in early childhood education.

I am a teacher/educator from India, doing my PhD in Aotearoa New Zealand. I have an ECE qualification from New Zealand and have 3 years’ experience in relief teaching in ECE centres in Auckland and Hamilton. I have a child who attends an early learning centre in Hamilton. While working in ECE and having a child attend an early learning centre, I have often found myself exploring my own environmental identity, which is rife with strengths as well as challenges. I wondered if other migrant Indian teachers had similar or different experiences to mine. Hence, my doctoral journey began.

Environmental Identity

What do I mean by an environmental identity? Environmental identity (also termed ecological identity) is the way individuals view themselves or develop a sense of self in relation to the natural environment. It can also be considered as one’s beliefs about his or her association with the natural world and how this association is mediated by his or her personal history. Teachers’ own environmental understandings, ethical values, and educational philosophies have a vital bearing on their teaching. Therefore, a teacher’s environmental identity is likely to shape his or her teaching philosophy and practice.

Early childhood education and kaitiakitanga

The natural environment holds a special place in Aotearoa New Zealand’s cultural systems and is considered an integral part of the national identity or psyche. Respect for the natural world and kaitiakitanga are also integral to the ECE bicultural curriculum, Te Whāriki. Given this context, environmental identity would seem to be a core component of early learning, for teachers and children alike.

In Te Whāriki, developing an identity (which could include an environmental identity) is recognised as an important aspect of ECE. There is also acknowledgement in the curriculum of the role of teachers in facilitating children’s identity development in accordance with their cultural orientation, along with a sense of belonging or environmental identity in the Aotearoa New Zealand context.

Culture, the environment, and pedagogy

Teachers play a significant role in children’s early learning and their environmental beliefs and practices are likely to influence children’s associations with the natural environment. Teachers appear to be influential role models in determining children’s interest and concern for the natural environment. Therefore, a teacher’s environmental identity may be crucial to children’s natural environmental experiences and resulting worldviews, as well as the success of an early childhood environmental programme (see here and here).

In accordance, my doctoral research explores the potential role of environmental identity in Aotearoa New Zealand for teachers who come from different cultural orientations. More specifically, how do migrant Indian ECE teachers navigate between the Indian and New Zealand cultures, wherein the environment may hold different meanings and places in these two cultural systems?

As part of the study, the teachers shared their perceptions of how they believe their cultural orientation influences their environmental philosophies and practices as ECE teachers in this country. My study is ongoing and hence the analysis is still in progress. However, the preliminary findings provide an initial insight into migrant Indian teachers’ interpretations of their environmentally focussed teaching experiences in Aotearoa New Zealand ECE settings. The following reflections highlight some environmental and cultural themes to date.

Reflections from my study

The environmental identity of a migrant teacher from a different cultural orientation teaching within the context of Aotearoa New Zealand ECE is a dynamic and evolving concept. Early reflections include:

  • The teachers explore the notion of their environmental identities through reflections upon their (Indian) home culture, their adoptive (New Zealand) culture, as well as the transitions between the two.
  • They believe they bring their cultural beliefs and values into their environmental teaching practices, and these are seen to enrich their ongoing cultural and environmental transitions from one cultural context to another.
  • The teachers consciously base their environmental teaching philosophies and practices on the bicultural underpinnings of Te Whāriki and are conscious of the significance of Māori philosophies and practices in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand ECE.
  • From the teachers’ perspectives, a sense or awareness of place facilitates a sense or awareness of self for themselves and for children, thus highlighting the intricate connections between individual identity and environmental identity.
  • There appears to be an increasing need to examine connections between the role of the environment in ECE, teachers’ environmental identities and the role of culture.
  • The analysis so far reiterates the critical need for teachers to understand how they view the links between the environment and education, and then translate this understanding into their teaching practices.
  • More specifically, the Aotearoa New Zealand ECE sector is facing a simultaneous increase in the numbers of Asian teachers as well as a growing need for environmentally-conscious practices and philosophies. What does this mean for migrant Indian teachers in the New Zealand early childhood education context? My study explores this question.

As the preliminary findings indicate, an awareness of how migrant Indian teachers transition from one socio-cultural context to another, with reference to their environmental identity, provides critical insight into the teaching practices of culturally diverse teachers implementing a bicultural curriculum in a multicultural ECE context.

Devika Rathore is a doctoral candidate with the Division of Education at The University of Waikato, New Zealand, where she is also involved in tutoring and research projects. Her research interests include environmental/nature-based/sustainability education, cultural identity, teacher education, ECE and picturebooks.


  1. A very interesting blog…gives an insight into how different cultures and diverse backgrounds , if amalgamated in a positive way can help provide a wider horizon of learning. Well done Devika !


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