Soana Pamaka is the long-serving principal of Auckland’s Tāmaki College, a decile one high school in Glen Innes with a predominantly Pacific and Māori roll.
Here she talks to E-Tangata’s Teuila Fuatai about the multiple, ongoing barriers being faced by many of her students, what schools like Tāmaki must do to help their students, and the persistent failure of the education system and other government agencies to support schools and the children in their care.
I first came to Tāmaki College 33 years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child. Back then, it was a small school with a predominantly Māori and Pacific roll. I felt at home here, so I didn’t hesitate when I was offered a full-time job. I took six weeks off when my son was born, and then I started as a history and English teacher.
I very quickly became immersed in the community — and that helped me to understand the hopes and dreams of our families, many of whom were Pacific migrants. I connected with their stories, and wanted to help them build better futures. But I could also see the learning challenges.
I remember very clearly, in my second year of teaching, when one of the girls in my English class had a black eye. I made the assumption that her dad had given her a hiding, but it was her boyfriend who’d punched her. When I talked to her about ending the relationship, she looked at me and said: “Oh, but my dad hits my mum. My uncle hits my aunty. Doesn’t your husband hit you, Miss?” It was a very poignant moment in my journey here. To her, that behaviour, the violence, was normal, and I was completely taken aback.
It really opened my eyes to the lives of our students, and the challenges they faced in their own families — and how that shaped their expectations and views of the world.
I went on to become a dean, then the deputy principal, and, in 2006, I took over as the principal.
When I first started, there were lots of issues with high unemployment, drugs and alcohol, and domestic violence in our community — and, in the 30 years I’ve been here, those issues haven’t changed. I don’t enjoy talking about it because it’s so negative, but that’s our reality.
I’m now seeing the children of children I first taught come through with the same issues their own parents had as students — truancy, alcohol, drugs. From where I sit, we’ve made very limited progress in breaking that cycle.
About 15 years ago, we were being overwhelmed by the number of high-risk students in our school. These are the kids who are on the streets. They hardly go home. They drink alcohol. They’re on marijuana. And they often haven’t showered because they sleep wherever they end up. School was the one consistent thing in their lives. But while they’d turn up, they weren’t here to learn. They’d roam around the grounds. They were rude and swore at teachers, and they caused fights — all of that anti-social behaviour.
As a school, we knew we needed help. I wanted people from youth justice, the Ministry of Education, police, and CYFs (Child, Youth and Family) all at the same table to figure out a solution that didn’t involve excluding these young people from school. I knew if we kicked them out, they’d go further down a path where their behaviour and problems got worse, and where their chances of a better quality of life would be far less.
But even with all these people from different government agencies, I learned there was no real help coming. The police said they couldn’t do anything until the kids broke the law. CYFS basically told me that the Education Act ruled on what to do, which was to exclude the students from school. I couldn’t believe it. If we could keep these kids turning up to school, I believed we had a chance at intervening in their lives. Yet here were the agencies, which were funded to do just that — to take action in our kids’ lives — saying they couldn’t help us.
It was a pretty rude awakening. There seemed to be no appetite at all to address the barriers which prevented our kids achieving at school — even though we, as a school, knew what needed to happen. Frustratingly, it’s a mindset I’ve faced again and again over the years, despite my efforts to engage bureaucrats and people outside our community on the realities of what we face.
Sadly, the challenge of high-risk students hasn’t gone away, even though we’re better at helping them than we were 15 years ago. We’re more experienced in what to do and we know where to look for support. We now have two full-time registered nurses, two counsellors and a social worker working with our director of pastoral care. But the system still hasn’t shifted for our children. We still haven’t got it right.
Can you imagine trying to sit in the classroom and focus, on an empty stomach? Do you think you’re going to learn your maths or literacy if you’re hungry? Or when you’ve just seen your dad beat up your mum? Or when you haven’t had a good sleep because the house is cold and there are too many people living there?
I’ve been to houses where I get: “I’m very sorry, Mrs Pamaka. We’d like to give you a cup of tea, but we haven’t got any teabags.” I mean, what kind of house doesn’t have teabags? It’s a sign of how stretched things are for that family. We need to think about what that means for a student once they’re inside the school gates. What can we do as a school to make sure that when the teacher’s talking, this student can actually engage in what they’re saying?
It’s why we can’t just be about teaching and learning, as the Education Act dictates. We’ll never break the cycle for our young people if we don’t go outside our little school box. I can’t say that enough.
Each week, our young people turn up to school with different challenges, at varying levels. Sometimes it’s something simple that we can address, like providing a new set of school uniforms, or a pair of shoes. Other times, it’s us going into homes where we’ve established relationships with family members — and we problem-solve together on what will support our young people to achieve.
Before we even think about how our students can do well at school, we have to deal with their underlying basic needs. That ranges from the kids considered high-risk, to students in overcrowded homes, to those who need food, and students dealing with domestic violence. Of course, not all our young people need this kind of support. But for those who do, helping in these areas makes such a huge difference to their learning.
To this day, we continue to hunt down money from wherever we can to fund support programmes for our students and families. These include our adult literacy programme, our free school lunch programme Ka Ora Ka Ako, and our Soulfoods and friends programme — that’s a practical catering and café skills programme for students interested in the hospitality industry.
And while we’re committed to creating pathways for our students in a practical way, we can’t do this on our own.
We have a partnership with Pasifika Futures, the Pacific arm of Whānau Ora, which enabled us to set up a health sciences academy, Tereora Academy. We want to increase the number of Pacific students doing science, so they can move into all the different jobs we’re so desperate to fill in the health sector. It’s a career that’s good for them, and their families and communities, but often, students see the sciences as too hard and inaccessible. There’s no extra teaching support available through the education system, so we went out on our own to find it.
Through Tereora, we literally build the plane while we’re flying it. For example, if a student says they want to do dentistry, we use all our resources in Tereora to provide access and exposure for that student.
These types of resources and support simply aren’t offered in the curriculum. Too often in the education system, we expect kids to follow a standard pathway which doesn’t cater to their specific needs and is totally inadequate in supporting them to achieve what they want to do. It’s no way to teach kids to dream big and give them hope.
We’ve also built in a whole-of-family approach, because we know any hopes of academic development must work alongside the needs of our students’ families — there simply isn’t any point in investing in a great science programme if we’re going to ignore what’s happening at home.
For instance, staff from Tereora work directly with the families to get an understanding of what their needs are. We’re then able to provide support specific to each family’s needs. This can be immediate, through things like food packages or help with paying utility bills. It can also be ongoing, through help with budgeting or navigating agencies like Kāinga Ora and WINZ. Our response depends on each family.
These are examples of what we’ve done as a school to help our students achieve academically. What continues to be incredibly frustrating and disheartening is the lack of support from within the system. We simply haven’t been able to get this kind of help from the government agencies whose job it is to work with us as a public school in New Zealand.
I’ll give you an example of how the system may be perpetuating our inefficiency at enhancing excellence.
We’re working now with the Ministry of Education to plan for new classrooms to cater for the predicted increase in our student roll. There’s lots of construction and development in our area. More apartments and housing, which means more families and more children. All the schools around here — primary, intermediate, and us — are working with the ministry on redesigning buildings for the predicted higher rolls.
I believe the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) should also be around the table for our planning, because the design of a school is not just for learning. It has to meet the health and social needs of our young people. That means including things like medical facilities and counselling spaces.
We have a student support centre which houses two registered nurses, counsellors and a social worker. We hold a doctor’s clinic there once a week, and we have visiting psychologists and social workers too. The support centre is already far too small for what we need, and there won’t be nearly enough space when our roll goes up.
Improving our students’ access to health services is a no-brainer. Without it, too many of our kids would never get to their appointments. That’s just not a priority in families where there’s so much other stuff going on. It’s why the Ministry of Health and MSD should be involved in how we’re building and expanding our school.
I’ve sounded like a broken record on this for the last decade. I and others have repeatedly asked: “Why don’t we have the Ministry of Health and MSD here so that we can all talk about how to expand the buildings to fit in the services that our young people need to be learning-ready?”
It’s always difficult to get a straight answer because the system simply isn’t set up in a way that encourages these agencies to work together. The Ministry of Education works under the Education Act, while Te Whatu Ora (Health New Zealand) and the Ministry of Health have their own policies. And then there’s the Ministry of Social Development which is separate again.
The system refuses to change to meet the needs of our children. And, to be honest, I’m not sure how much worse things need to get before we’ll see movement.
Now, more than ever, families are struggling, and more and more children are falling below their academic potential. Before Covid, a lot of our young people worked to earn extra money for their families. When the pandemic hit, we had households where one parent lost their job, or their work shut down, and students stepped up their hours in the supermarkets to supplement the family income.
Things are still tough, and so those students have carried on with the extra hours. We have kids working up to 40 or 50 hours a week now.
You hear a lot of people say: “They need to be focused on school.” I can’t even be bothered with comments like that because those people have no clue what the reality is. These children are in a place where the choice to not work isn’t there. So, they fall behind in their school work. As an educator, I’m not going to add more to their plate by ignoring that fact and pretending that just focusing more on school is an option.
I taught siblings recently, whose parents had also been students of mine. Their parents were so bright but never finished high school. They got distracted and there was stuff going on at home. The siblings are equally as bright as their parents, but like many of our children, they were working 40-hour weeks to help with costs at home. I wanted so much to give them a better chance than their parents. To give them the time and space they needed for their studies.
We ended up doing a news story highlighting how the girls struggled to balance school and work. After it aired, we received a donation of $3000. I negotiated with the student’s employer for them to have time off so they could do schoolwork, and we used the donation to pay the girls what they would’ve earned. I didn’t want them to worry about losing money while they weren’t at work.
This was the best we could do to meet the needs of both students. We’ve done the same for other students in similar situations. It’s an example of us reacting to a problem and trying to find a solution.
But these are one-off measures. The real challenge is getting on top of the problem permanently — and that’s something we need the system, with all its agencies and resources and people, to work with us on. They need to acknowledge the realities in schools like ours and actually support us to help our young people achieve excellence.
We know what works. I’ve seen it with our own students at Tāmaki. When we give them the right support, they fly. They’re able to dream big, and think about being an engineer or a doctor or an artist. They’re strong in their identity and proud of who they are. And they go on to raise their own children in a way that means they’re successful.
That’s what I want as a principal and as a parent. And it’s about time the system shifted to help us do it.
Soana Pamaka has been principal at Tāmaki College in Auckland since 2006. She began at the school as a student teacher in 1990, and officially joined its teaching staff in 1991. Soana and her husband Samiu raised their four children in Glen Innes — all are former Tāmaki College students. Soana is also the first person of Tongan descent to be a high school principal in New Zealand.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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