Ensuring pedagogical practice gives more than a nod to diversity and inclusive practice is inherent in twenty-first century teaching in Aotearoa/New Zealand. We’ve come a long way from the bad old days of deficit educational practices yet still our Maori and Pasifika learners languish at the bottom of achievement tables (if that’s to be the measure of success), boys are slipping behind girls, New Zealand is more multicultural than ever before and there are growing calls for teachers to be (at the very least) more aware of the needs of LGBT students.
I grew up in the 70s in New Zealand when “Girls Can Do Anything” was a common catch-phrase. So when I attended an all girls’ school in the 80s, there was a huge push for us to study maths and science. My former classmates now sit on boards of global food producers, head police stations and run their own businesses – many while doing a stunning job raising their own children.
I’m not sure if it was a direct result of the focus on girls’ academic success or the teaching and learning environment in the 80s and 90s or a combination of those factors but the result appears to have been a comparative slide in boys’ academic success with many schools now taking a long, hard look at how they can better meet the needs of young male learners. More hand wringing, more studies, more strategies.
And in New Zealand, where our bi-cultural status is enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi, a document whose articles and principles are studied, analysed and reflected on by all teacher trainees, there have been numerous policies developed aimed at raising the achievement of the tangata whenua, Maori learners. These have met with varying degrees of success probably because it is so difficult to separate the Pandora’s Box of factors outside the classroom impacting on the success of our Maori learners from teaching practice. Now the focus is shifting to our Pasifika learners. On top of that, our classrooms are increasingly diverse in terms of gaps caused by the digital divide and a growing awareness of meeting the needs of LBGT students.
In The Professional Practice of Teaching (McGee and Fraser, 2008) Barbara Whyte suggests four basic principles for working with diverse students:
- know the students you teach
- know yourself
- teach with the student’s ethnicity
- develop cross-cultural understanding
With so many factors outside a teacher’s control, knowing yourself is vital. Teachers are humans. Each one brings their own unique learning and life experiences to the classroom. If you can reflect on what has shaped your teaching and learning style, and recognise that we all need to modify the way we do things because none of our learners are the same and probably none will share the same experiences we did, then we can go a way to meeting diverse needs. Self-awareness is a great tool to bring to the classroom. As Whyte notes: “The confidence that comes with being secure in one’s own ethnic and self-identity can go a long way to create and maintain an accepting an environment.”
It can’t be taught but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that our attitudes are key to meeting learners’ needs.