Pt. England Primary: Creating a Culture of Respect, Belonging and Learning

This is the fourth article in the series Baskets of Knowledge from Aotearoa New Zealand, which highlights insights from a totally different education system about what is possible in transforming our education system. Read the first article here.

Everything starts with the value of respect at Pt. England Primary in Auckland, including the pedagogical philosophy. Respect for your own language, culture, history, and ancestors as well as the language, culture, history, and ancestors of others. Respect to take care of one’s self and well-being. Respect for the community at large. As Principal Russell Burt and I toured the school, he stopped to put his hand on the shoulders (never the head, as it would be disrespectful in the Māori culture) of students, “Are you having a respectful day?”

Burt, at Pt. England in Auckland since 1991, has led a never-ending school improvement process aimed at discovering what will work best for the 650 students, one-third of whom are Māori and two-thirds of whom are Pasifika (i.e., from the Pacific islands). The school is considered a ‘decile one’ school that receives a higher level of funding, as it serves students with the greatest socioeconomic need. Thus the lessons from Pt. England are valuable for any school serving low-income communities in the U.S.

Culturally responsive education took on new meaning as I observed Burt engage with a young man who had been sent to the principal’s office. The young man, for that is what he was, signs of puberty already underway, stumbled through the explanation of why he was there, muttering that one teacher after another had asked him to leave their rooms. After Burt asked several times what the underlying reason might be for the teachers doing so, he said, “Let me take a guess. You were talking too much. And you were hoha (a colloquial way of saying you were openly displaying an angry attitude in an unpleasant and disrespectful way) to the teachers. And they sent you because you were being a hoha.” With the boy nodding, clearly having deep affection and respect for his principal, Burt went on, “It sounds like the problem is a problem of respect. Your father and I spoke last week, and he wants you to have respect. He told me that at one point, he had not had enough respect when he was your age. He is willing to come to school and even talk about that.” At the mention of his father, the boy’s head ducked down. Burt continued, “Remember what you were reading this morning (a graphic novel telling one of the stories of Māori ancestors). The ancestors knew how to use respect to make connections and find peace. They knew how to do it before the Pākehā (Europeans). You can be like your ancestors and find strength in respect.” And then with a hongi, forehead to forehead, nose to nose, arms grasping one another, the young man and Burt closed the conversation.

Symbols of cultural respect for Māori and Pasifika culture are throughout the school. So are reminders of the importance of the growth mindset and a strong culture of learning. Signs such as “Keep calm and make mistakes” decorated the halls. A culture of reflection, finding laughter and the joy in learning within mistakes, and a deep sense that we can all improve was present in every classroom and every hallway.

Alongside a culture of learning, respect, and a strong multicultural approach, Pt. England uses a three-step cycle of learning across the school (Learn, Create, Share) and a strategic approach to digital tools. They are on a journey to discover a strategy to accelerate learning, as so many of their students enter school with limited early childhood development and experience in the English language. And they are making progress: Even though their students start two to three years behind the national average in the English language, by Year 5 they are catching up to age-based expectations.

The next two articles will look at how Pt. England Primary builds upon the New Zealand National Curriculum and their approach to accelerate learning.

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