Karl Vasau is the principal of Rowandale School in Manurewa, and one of 75 Pacific principals in the country. He talked to Teuila about his work and the realities of running a decile 1A school in South Auckland.


My first job was in Manurewa at Randwick Park School. I just fell in love with it. I saw little bits of myself in the children. I saw my own experiences in their lives and their families, and it felt right to be there.

I think that’s a big part of life as a teacher. You tend to be attracted to where you know you can make the most difference. And a big part of that is where you feel most connected to the students, their families and the school community.

For example, when I was a student teacher, I did a practicum at St Cuthbert’s College. It’s a private girls school with a very wealthy community around it and I was teaching in its junior school. The kids were studying Tudor houses, which have their origins in Ireland. As part of that, we were making little Tudor house models.

One of the girls said to me: “Hey, Mr Vasau, my dad said you’re from the same place that the Tudor houses are from. He said you’re from the Ire-lands.” And I just cracked up inside because here I was in this private girls’ school, and it was clear they saw me as an Islander — even if their kids didn’t quite understand what that meant.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the placement and I learned heaps. But it wasn’t quite the right fit.

‘I’d like to be like you’

My full name is Karl Anthony James Vasau. Karl is my father’s name. Anthony is a name my mum liked. James is my confirmation name (I’m a good Catholic boy).

And Vasau is the name of a spirit that links back to my grandfather Ukutufi who came to New Zealand from Niue in the 1960s. Back then, a lot of Niueans took their dad’s name for their surname when they needed a passport to come to New Zealand.

But my grandfather didn’t like that idea. So his mother said: “Why don’t you take the name of the spirit that visits your father every night?” My great-grandfather was a witch doctor, and he used to sit in the middle of the lounge rocking back and forth, saying: “Vasau, Vasau, Vasau.”

So that’s what he did, and it’s been our family name since then.

I was raised by my Sāmoan grandparents, the late Jimmy and Lui O’Dwyer. We lived most of our early days in Grey Lynn and Morningside, back when those areas were full of Pacific families.

I went to Mt Albert Primary, Grey Lynn Primary, Pasadena Intermediate, and then to St Paul’s College. There were no decile ratings then, but we were kids from working class families, some of whom were struggling on benefits.

I probably wasn’t the most diligent student, but I loved school. I got my six subjects in School C, and then University Entrance in the first go. While I was never in line to be dux, I was definitely the top student when it came to school spirit, participation and socialising.

Karl (left, front) with his mother April O’Dwyer, sister Louise Vasau-Sola, and brother and dad Daniel and Kas Vasau. (Photo supplied)

I was lucky that I had some teachers who showed me what it meant to be a good teacher. They treated me with love, respect, warmth, and humour. And I kind of thought: “Oh, I’d like to be like you.”

At Grey Lynn primary, there was Mr Chuck Thomson. He was Fijian-Indian and well over six feet. He was a crack-up, and he had an amazing way of connecting to us and making us laugh. I don’t think he was very good at paperwork but he made us really enjoy school. When he became the principal, he was one of the first Pacific Island principals in New Zealand.

Then there was Ms Whiskers at Mt Albert primary. I remember her being quite hard on us at times, but also very fair. And Ms King, who was my economics teacher at St Paul’s. She was only around 5 feet tall, but every boy in the class feared and respected her. She was strict but fair, and really cool.

But the teacher who had the most profound influence on me was Brother Marcel Hall who taught me at St Paul’s. He passed away at the beginning of this month, and I really regretted not letting him know how important he was to me.

I wanted to emulate him, and I even trained to become a Marist Brother like him. I was sent to Fiji as part of my training and it was like something out of The Sound of Music.

In the end, it wasn’t for me. But that’s where I found my calling in teaching. I was inspired by their philosophy and by their founder St Marcellin Champagnat and what he said: “In order for you to teach children, you must first love them, but love them equally.”

And that’s the challenge. We all love certain people more than others, but when we’re teaching, we need to love all children equally — even on their worst days. It’s really what drives me.

Karl Vasau with some of his Rowandale School students, showing their poems. (Photo supplied)

Rowandale School, Manurewa

I’ve been a teacher for 25 years and a principal for 16 years. I’ve taught in Manurewa, Auckland Central, Porirua and Lower Hutt. The schools have always been majority Māori or Pacific, predominantly low socioeconomic or decile one and two.

I started at Rowandale in 2014. It’s a decile 1A, which means most of our students are from low socio-economic families.

Most of our kids come from loving, beautiful, amazing homes. But there are some families who struggle to make ends meet — and where we can, we’ll support them. We’ll send extra food home. We’ll pay for certain things for the children. Teachers wear a lot of those things.

We’re also getting children who are turning up to school with pre-diagnosed and sometimes undiagnosed conditions or issues related to their learning or behaviour.

We’re looking at violent children. We’re looking at children who don’t have basic social skills. Sometimes, we have parents who aren’t engaging. These types of things have been there forever, and they’re found in all schools. But numbers have increased and it does take an extra toll on teachers and other staff.

I often say to our staff: “You need to be emotionally attached to your children. You need to treat all these children like they’re yours. The education you offer the children in front of you needs to be good enough for your own child.”

That’s why I made the decision with my partner Geneva to bring our son Karl Tote to Rowandale School. There are so many options for his education, and we’re forever grateful for this. But we both agree and believe that my school needs to be good enough for my own son to attend.

As I tell my teachers, it’s not about the deficit stuff — the stuff that you can’t control. If a kid comes to school and they’re hungry, then feed them. If they’re cold, give them a jacket. These are the things that we can control. We’re not here to judge parents. That’s not going to help our kids. Once they walk in that gate, we’re in loco parentis, in place of the parent.

I’ll give you an example. When I was in Porirua, we had a student who had Prader-Willi syndrome. He wasn’t able to regulate how much he ate and needed help with a lot of things, including cleaning up after going to the toilet. That became my job and I was happy to do it.

But if I saw a situation like that on the TV, I’d find it hard to understand. Somehow that emotional attachment to our children kicks in when they’re at school. I’ll die for them. I’ll protect them. I’ll do all of those things.

And I want all my teachers to feel that. Some do it really well, while others struggle with it. But teachers who have that kind of mentality or ability — they’re next level.

A born-again Islander

When I started teaching, I believed that, to prove myself, I needed to leave a whole lot of stuff at the school gate. It meant being a certain type of person at school, and changing my worldview so that I wasn’t judged or not taken seriously.

There’s a lot of unconscious bias out there. People have preconceived ideas about what principals should look like and how they should act, and so I worked hard in my early days of teaching and being a principal to try to fit the Pālagi mould.

But that changed when I got involved with the New Zealand Pasifika Principals’ Association in 2007. I was a founding member, and there weren’t too many Pacific principals at that time.

For the first time in my life, I was sitting in a room surrounded by people just like me. We thought in similar ways, and I didn’t feel like a troublemaker. I wasn’t shy about laughing like a hyena because everybody else did it too.

From then on, I walked in this world very differently. Overnight, I was like a born-again Islander.

I came to see that, for effective change to be made for Pacific children and Pacific staff, we need quality Pacific leadership. We need leadership that can connect with Pacific at the policy level and advocate for the things we need. It means not being afraid to fight the good fight and being able to stand up to the unconscious bias or stereotypes.

I started to see more Pacific principals and we celebrated them. We started to do our own thing. Most of the principals’ meetings I’d been to were very impersonal and business-like. There’s the minutes, the apologies, and then you run through the general business. Maybe there’s light refreshments after that. Often, I’d go once and think: “Hell no. I’m not going back there again.”

But with our Pasifika meetings, it’s a different story. Our meetings can be anywhere in the country, and principals come from all over to get there. We make sure that the host school has a budget to put on a good feed — because when we first get there, we don’t want to talk shop. We just want to talanoa and catch up while enjoying some soul food.

Then we go around the circle and say what’s happening. Everyone shares — and it goes from school dramas to structural issues, right through to new grandchildren and personal celebrations. It usually takes two hours and we leave feeling 100 percent recharged. We feel good about who we are, and the amazing strengths we have as a village.

Some people might question whether the time and resources put into our meetings each term is justified, but it’s the best professional development some of our principals have because they’re able to be with like-minded people and not be judged.

Being able to stand in this world and be proud of who we are — to know where we come from and how that makes us unique — means we can better connect with all our students, staff and communities. It makes us better teachers, and better able to provide opportunities for our Pacific students.

Karl with Rowandale staff during Kuki Airani week. (Photo supplied)

How important is it for Pacific students to be taught by Pacific teachers?

I’ll always believe every teacher makes a difference in every school. Regardless of how schools are resourced or the experiences of the children. Students are always hungry to learn and teachers have a huge influence on that.

But Pacific children also need to come to school and be able to hear and see themselves reflected in the people around them. They need to be able to be themselves and bring all their knowledge with them.

The people who work in schools should reflect the students. That’s about getting those positive, quality role models that our Pacific kids can see themselves in — and nurturing them to do the best for their students. 

For me, there are also big questions around how we’re teaching and what that means for Pacific learners. In the 25 years I’ve been a teacher, the world has shifted, but we’re still throwing old solutions at our learners. For example, technology plays a huge part in the lives and education of students today, and we need to integrate it better into how students learn.

We still believe that reading, writing and maths are important. They are, but it’s also about finding a balance between that and what else really matters. I think the key is understanding our children — and that means actively seeking and embracing their voice and that of their parents. And we still have a long way to go on that.

Helping other principals do better for Pacific students and families

The other big part of my work is helping principals who want to better connect with their Pacific students and families. That’s through a mentoring programme called Tautai o le Moana, which is funded by the Ministry of Education. I’ve taken a year’s leave from Rowandale to be a facilitator for it.

It’s about supporting principals to become culturally responsive leaders for Pacific students. We have professional development workshops and mentoring programmes. We also work with teachers and teacher aides, as well as principals and leaders within the schools. And we embrace Pacific values and open and honest talanoa (conversations).

We believe outcomes for Pacific children could be better — and we focus on that. Not on stuff like “the tail of underachievement is full of Pacific Islanders” or “teachers have been failing to connect” or “racism is rife in our school system”.

In this year’s group, we’re working with 10 schools in Auckland, 10 in Wellington and 10 in Christchurch and Dunedin. We’ve never had schools from the South Island before.

We’re finding a real need and desire for this kind of development. The majority of principals who come to us say they need to do better. All of the schools and principals I work with have what it takes to make a difference, and we’re working to ensure they’re supported to do that. 

Karl Vasau and the Rowandale School Cook Islands performance group. (Photo supplied)

What are the challenges for teachers in low decile schools?

I think the fundamentals of teaching are basically the same regardless of the school you work in.

You need to build strong connections with students. Understand who they are, and know what makes them tick. What their limit is, and what their triggers are. Trust is important.

Resources do make a difference, because it affects classroom and school environments. For instance, smaller class sizes allow you to connect better with students.

In lower decile schools, we have many children from homes where English is a second language. They haven’t had the same opportunity or exposure to experiences outside of that and so we have to adjust how we approach things. I think of it as opening up the world a bit.

The internet is one tool and it’s made a huge difference. Lots of kids have been able to see beyond their local context, and that wasn’t always possible before the internet.

I’m also blown away by the number of agencies and charities which actively support and provide assistance to schools. They help our schools and parents with necessities like food and clothing. Some schools have even found ways of re-prioritising funding so they can buy devices and share their internet on a network around the school.

The current government has worked extremely hard to help schools and communities bridge this gap through targeted funding, and I hope it continues.

Teachers are doing it hard, too

The inequity we see is massive, but it’s not just among students. It’s even among teachers and other school staff.

One year, I had three teachers at Rowandale who all lived in Albany, way at the back in the bush. They travelled every day to work for me — a few hours each way. Often, I’d ask: “Hey, have you found a job closer to home?”

One of them said to me: “Don’t you want me to work here?” I said: “Look, I’d love for you to work with me, but you’re losing four hours of your life every day. How is that good for you? I don’t want you to go but the distance is crazy.” Eventually, they all left and found good jobs at other schools. One of them went overseas.

As leaders, we need to be aware of the struggles that people have to live with. For me, it’s not just about how someone teaches reading, writing and maths. I need to also care and be concerned about their wellbeing. And the rising cost of living is a big part of that.

Not long ago, we had a wellbeing programme for our teachers and staff run by Le Toloa (psychiatrist Leota Dr Lisi Petaia and psychiatric nurse Fuimaono Dr Karl Pulotu-Endemann).

It helped our staff and parents sit alongside each other and share. And it put a lot of stuff out there which would otherwise stay bottled up.

When staff were told they needed to focus on themselves, some just broke down. They couldn’t come to terms with putting themselves first because teachers tend to look after everyone else but themselves.

Some of them were worried about having parents there. I said to them: “They already know all the drama about you, and if they don’t, they’ll find out or they’ll make it up. So, what are you afraid of?” I also wanted them to think about the kind of connection and trust they’d build with parents.

And when it came to sharing their own personal experiences, staff and parents were very emotional. What was really beautiful was that parents would say things like: “Sometimes I worry about having enough bread for the sandwiches.” And they were able to hear teachers say: “Same.”

Karl Vasau with his partner Geneva and their son Karl Jr. (Photo supplied)

What about your own wellbeing?

There are huge expectations and pressures on principals. We have to be there for everyone. Our children, our parents, our teachers and our communities. I think people sometimes expect principals to be superhuman — and we come to believe that too; that we’re the pillars that hold communities together. I definitely believed that.

But I came to a point where I had to be brave enough to say that I needed help for my mental health. It wasn’t easy to do, but I was exhausted and struggling mentally and it was having a huge effect on my family and my work.

I had to take about five weeks off school. And while I was on leave, people visited me at home, and colleagues, friends and family reached out to me through social media. All these things helped me to heal. My staff and board of trustees were amazing and I’ll be forever grateful for the love and support they showed me.

Taking this time helped me realise that, for me to do my job, I needed to make time to look after myself.

I’ve also started to talk about what happened. I spoke at the New Zealand School Trustees’ Association’s annual meeting, in front of a thousand principals and board members. I challenged them on what they were doing about the wellbeing of their principals.

I think wellbeing is something Pacific people need to be more mindful of. As you know, many of us can’t work nine to five. Whether we like it or not, we have this thing that makes us want to live like a village, and go above and beyond for each other.

So when many Pacific teachers finish school, it’s not the end of the day for them. They go on to other things like sport, church, recreational activities. It’s not part of their official workload, but they do it because it’s important to their community.

After the first lockdown, I thought the best thing to do was to give teachers a couple of days off to focus on their wellbeing. Many of them had put everything into staying connected with their students during lockdown. Sometimes, that meant their own families missed out.

We had a teacher-only day on the first day, and we spent it cleaning the school. And on the second day, they were free to do whatever they wanted. They just had to text me a photo of what they were doing.

Some stayed in bed, others were walking the dog, others went to see their grandmother and took a photo at the rest home. Others went shopping. It was a whole range of things. A few even came into school, and I thought: “Okay, that’s their choice. It’s how they’ve decided to look after their wellbeing.”

What do you do to take your mind off school?

I have a few hobbies. The one that I’m hooked on is breeding budgies. I have 105, and I breed them for shows. A lot of people probably wouldn’t know they were budgies because they’re special show breeds and pretty fancy. Some have won competitions, ribbons and trophies, and that’s made all the work worthwhile.

People pay good money for my birds, and I use that to add to my hobby.

Apart from budgies, I also love to referee sport, watch movies and spend time with Geneva and Karl Jr.

As told to Teuila Fuata’i. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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