Dahlia Malaeulu was a full-time teacher for 12 years, and once believed that following the rules of our production line education system was all children needed to do to succeed. Her experience taught her otherwise, as she writes in this piece.
Growing up in Wainuiomata, I’d always wanted to be a teacher.
So many of my own teachers had inspired me. Mr Diamond taught me to be strong, fair, and fun. Ms Morehu taught me about organisation and commitment. Mrs Keyes taught me about heart. They all believed in me. And each one had fired me with a vision for teaching, for connecting, and for opening kids up to new horizons.
Having cleared all the academic hurdles set before me at high school and Victoria University, I’d returned home from a stint teaching English in Japan to formally complete my goal of becoming a fully-fledged teacher.
So, now here I was, a 23-year-old, at Wellington Teachers’ College, sitting in a lecture theatre surrounded by 80 other would-be teachers.
We had a guest lecturer this day. He dimmed the lights and began to speak, as the first slide of his Powerpoint presentation lit up the screen. It showed a conveyor belt, like in a packing shed where they grade apples. And the label on the side of the conveyor belt read: “The Education System.”
I was intrigued. His second slide showed Pālagi children moving along the conveyor belt — and passing under a funnel that showered them with the words “Reading”, “Writing”, and “Maths”. The third slide showed these same children passing towards the end of the production line, entering through doors marked “University”.
Our lecturer then paused. The purpose of his presentation, he said, was to illustrate “the history of our education system, from its beginnings to now”.
He clicked on more slides. Brown children now appeared on the conveyor belt, along with Pālagi children. This time, though, reject boxes had appeared off to the side of the belt, labelled “vocational studies”. These reject boxes were filled with mostly brown children — who’d been plucked from the moving belt by Pālagi in white coats labelled “Teacher”.
As before, the Pālagi children trundled down the belt till they disappeared through the doors marked “University”. But, this time, they were accompanied by one brown child.
I instantly identified with that one brown child. I looked around, feeling awkward, and saw that I was one of just three brown students in that lecture theatre.
I cast my mind back to my school days. I remembered loving school with my many brown friends at Glendale Primary. I didn’t even realise that I was Sāmoan until I reached Wainuiomata Intermediate.
But, in my later years at college, I began to notice that I was often the only “brownie” in the classroom. In fact, the older I got, the more I became aware that I was the odd one out. That I was different. That I looked different.
But I also thought I was one of the lucky ones. Because I’d made it to the end of the line.
After that training college lecture, I talked with one of my Sāmoan friends. We decided that, if we could all just take on board the prescribed ‘’reading, writing, maths’’ formula, and meet the rules of the conveyor belt, then we could help more of our people to do what we had done, and reach the end of the production line.
Simple. Or so we thought at the time.
So I qualified as a teacher, and in 2007, I scored my dream job, back at my old school, Wainuiomata Intermediate. We were a culturally diverse staff team there, which was great. But early on, it began to dawn on me that being a Pasifika production-line worker wasn’t a completely sweet gig.
As a newbie, I remember asking a senior teacher if we assessed our te reo Māori programme the same way we measured achievement in reading, writing and maths.
“Te reo’s not really a subject we worry about,” she told me. “Because the ministry doesn’t request real results. So, it’s just tick-the-box, really.”
Hmmm. My first lesson: Only value what the Ministry of Education requires or regards as important.
Another time, during a lunch break, a small group of us Māori and Pasifika teachers were told to keep our voices down. Later that day, I was pulled aside by another staff member who wanted to give me a friendly warning. She told me that when us brown teachers were laughing and talking together too loudly, we could be seen as “a bit threatening”.
Second lesson: Keep my Island-ness on a leash.
Avoid ruffling feathers, or making those who aren’t like us, or don’t understand us, feel uneasy.
Another time, during a staff meeting, a Pālagi teacher questioned the purpose and use of te reo Māori in his classroom. As a Māori colleague tried to explain that it was our job as teachers to support Treaty obligations, I heard another staff member moan to his neighbour: “Here we go again.” Then another Pālagi staff member chipped in. “I support Māori language,” she said. “But I don’t like feeling bad for not knowing it.”
Third lesson: Having a diverse staff doesn’t automatically equal a culturally responsive staff.
Not all teachers are committed to promoting Māori culture and language. For many reasons. And if you try to explain its importance, you risk being seen as an activist. Or a bully, for making Pālagi feel bad. So be quiet.
As a young Pasifika teacher, I continued to learn the rules of the conveyor belt, and I did my best to follow them.
Stick to teaching what is required or measured.
Don’t be yourself.
Don’t promote Māori things or your Islander culture, because it’s not the norm.
But the crazy thing was that the exact opposite of all this was what made me a great teacher.
My students loved my Islander mannerisms and the bits of Sāmoan language that I wove into our school days. We developed relationships that went beyond the classroom, based on valuing each other’s cultures and life stories. Our own life stories. I was able to create safe spaces, where I could be me — and they could be them.
By building my class culture on Māori and Pasifika values, all my students, Pasifika and non-Pasifika, felt confident. They felt connected and they felt that they belonged, which made learning possible.
It all worked so well, and my classroom results proved it worked well. Year after year.
I was beginning to hit my stride, both as a teacher in my own class, and as an emerging school leader. My Pasifika stride. I started our school’s first cultural Pasifika group, working with mentors and leaders in our school who were only too happy to help create programmes and events for all our tamaiti.
The rest of our staff were catching on, too. Together, we were developing a deeper level of cultural awareness, and helping to lift the cultural profile of the school in our community.
It wasn’t easy. But it was so beautiful to see our staff coming together as a whānau. I remember one year for our annual Cultural Concert, we celebrated our progress together as a staff by learning and performing a Sāmoan siva and Māori waiata. The audience — kids and parents alike — just lapped it up. They gave us a standing ovation.
We’d made good progress. But I knew there was more to be done. And as I moved up the school leadership ladder, I saw that it wasn’t just my own school community and staff who needed to become more culturally responsive.
For example, at one meeting with a group of principals and senior staff members from other schools, I was invited to share the Pasifika Education Plan I’d developed for our school. But at our group’s table, one Pālagi principal made a joke of it. He said that he’d prefer to just photocopy the plan. “All Pasifika kids are pretty much the same anyway, right?” He laughed. I cried inside.
Another year, at a community fono, I challenged a different Pālagi principal who was sounding off about Pasifika students not achieving because of their parents’ low expectations. I could feel the silent anger and frustration of the Pasifika parents seated at the table. I left that fono, just praying for our school leaders. Praying for those at the top who were fighting for us to be supported in succeeding as who we are.
Fourth lesson: Our school leaders are key. If they don’t recognise and unpack their own bias, we’ll never win the fight against the ignorance and racism that runs through our schools.
In the second half of my teaching career, I became the go-to for anything and everything Pasifika.
I remember a Pasifika colleague telling me that the persistent, underlying message she felt from her own school was: “You look like them. You are them. You should deal with them. And everything that comes with them.”
Then, at one teachers’ conference, we were earnestly told: “We need more Pasifika teachers.”
I agreed, but I said nothing. Because I knew that this plea just masked the fact that the juggernaut was still rolling. It would just translate to more of us brown teachers doing more of the “brown work”.
Fifth lesson: All teachers need to be culturally savvy and alert to the needs of our Māori and Pasifika tamaiti. Not just the Māori and Pasifika teachers.
Time and again, I saw the annual Māori and Pasifika language weeks flatline across schools — after little or no attempt to engage with it in the first place.
Many teachers didn’t even know their school pepeha, or school waiata. They didn’t take part in their school pōwhiri. So their kids either only half-pai learned their pepeha and its significance. Or they had a Māori colleague come in to do it for them. Or nothing happened at all.
Sixth lesson: We, as teachers, need to be the first learners in any classroom.
How can we have goals for our Māori and Pasifika tamaiti to achieve as themselves, if our teachers aren’t open to, or don’t prioritise, their own learning and understanding of what it means to be Māori or Pasifika?
It was a struggle. And our students could see it all happening too. My teacher friends across our region often told me about kids who came to them upset because other staff were making little effort to relate to them. Or make no effort at all.
All of this led me to my final lesson: That the reach and power of our production line system of education is too strong, because it’s reinforced by so many teachers and school leaders who play by its rules.
So, in 2019, after 12 years of teaching, I decided I wasn’t going to play along any longer.
I realised that no matter what I did, or how hard I tried to help my tamaiti, I couldn’t ensure their safe passage from my intermediate classroom to the end of their high school life. I knew my Māori and Pasifika students would have to work twice as hard to move along the conveyor belt — or they’d be pulled from it.
That’s a message that our education system continues to give to many of our tamaiti. That who you are, and what you are, is not enough.
So, I came to the conclusion that being a Pasifika production line worker wasn’t enough. Not for me, anyway. I needed to find a new approach. I needed to find a way that helped tamaiti to be seen, heard and valued as Pasifika.
And I decided that I’d make new use of one of the oldest, yet most powerful teaching tools going. A tool which I knew could build cultural understanding and connection in a way that few others do: Our stories.
That thinking is what led me to launch Mila’s Books, and to my new role as an author of children’s Pasifika books. It’s been a great journey. Lots more learning, and plenty of challenges along the way, too.
And early on, I was lucky enough to catch Lani Wendt Young’s 2019 NZ Book Council lecture. It was the best lecture I’ve ever heard, and it gave me courage and hope for our future as Pasifika.
Lani talked in a way that equipped me for my mahi now, and which has thrown a light on the struggles I saw play out during my classroom life.
In her lecture, Lani spoke about choosing to shape her own destiny. Early in her writing career, she’d found herself dumped in the reject box — as were so many of my own classmates, and so many of the kids I’d taught. The Pālagi-dominated publishing industry had rejected her work. Told her there was no audience for it, as if Pasifika don’t read books. Something I’ve been told, too.
She further added how, out of all the New Zealand fiction published in 2015, only four percent of titles were written by Māori, four percent by Asian and Indian, and one percent by Pasifika. In the past 40 years, only three Sāmoan novelists have been published in New Zealand.
But Lani wasn’t daunted. Instead of being rejected — she rejected the system.
She kept writing, and she self-published her own books, online. She found her supposedly non-existent audience. And she became an award-winning writer, editor, publisher and journalist, ultimately gaining a global following and demand for her Pasifika stories.
Lani shows us what’s possible as the exception to the rule. Which she wouldn’t be at all, if she’d kept to the set rules of the system that counted her out so early on — if she’d written books with Pālagi audiences in mind, rather than books reflecting her Pacific experiences and worldviews.
Which is more proof for me that we can’t wait on the system to validate us as who we are. More proof that we don’t need to try to shape ourselves to fit Pālagi measures of success. Because we will never win, if we just play by those rules.
And with each story I now create, I bear that truth in mind.
I haven’t stopped being a teacher. I think I’ll be one till my dying day. But now I’m not confined by the four walls of my classroom. I can share our stories, and build genuine understanding and relationships, right across the motu.
Right out into the world, in fact.
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