Maori and Pacific

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How to get the best our of Maori and Pasifika students? That is the central and most pressing question for secondary mathematics teachers in New Zealand. Glenda Lewis reports.



Robin Averill chose this complex phenomenon for her PhD study, part funded by an NZIMA scholarship. This was where her interests impelled her and she felt she could make the most useful contribution. Averill teaches education students how to teach mathematics at Victoria University’s College of Education, based in Karori, Wellington.

Russell Bishop’s 2003 investigation into the experience of Year 9 and 10 Maori students in phase 1 of Te Kotahitanga project concluded that teacher-student relationships have the biggest influence on Maori achievement. Averill wanted to know exactly what about those relationships was important, and whether it was the same for Pasifika and New Zealand European students? Her research was largely qualitative. She observed six teachers in three decile 3 to 5 schools over two years. She chose Year 10 classes to avoid muddying the waters with NCEA and the settling-in problems of Year 9 classes.

She also focused on students who were likely to go further in mathematics study. She began her observations at the very beginning of the year so she could see how teachers established themselves with students and how relationships developed during the year. She recorded teacher and student interactions and their individual perspectives under three areas: care for students as individuals, as culturally located beings, and care for students’ mathematical learning.


Her conclusions about the most important aspects of relationships applied across all three areas and can be simply summarised:

  • Respect for the student
  • One to one interaction, about mathematics or anything else
  • Humour
  • Teachers being themselves, and allowing students to be themselves. The quality of the relationship, however, can be undermined by low teacher expectations. Students’ priority is still to learn mathematics, not just have a good time in the classroom.


Averill found that students responded well to very structured classes, especially where there was variety, where they could contribute ideas, and where the activities gave the teacher opportunity to give them individual attention. Not all teachers are natural humorists, but showing a sense of humour is important to fun-loving teenagers. Even teachers who smile a lot are appreciated. This is at odds with the oft given informal advice to new teachers not to smile before Easter, or to let down their guard. Many teachers keep their personal lives very private. Students like to know about the whole person, not just the teacher, and vice versa. Importantly, teachers do not have to be Maori or Pasifika for students to feel a good rapport with them.
Averill says that teachers need to be aware of students’ overall wellbeing, as Mason Durie outlined in 1994 in the Maori health model Te Whare Tapa Wha - the four-sided house. So often what gets in the way of learning are simple things like being cold, uncomfortable, hungry and tired. That applies to all students, of course.


Averill received high praise from her assessors for her study. Her teacher care whare model draws from and integrates modified versions of previous frameworks, including Te Whare Tapa Wha, the effective teaching profile from Te Kotahitanga, and one from Averill’s team at Victoria University of Wellington.


Averill says that what surprised her about the PhD process was the huge number of people involved – the teachers, students, cultural advisers, supervisors, and colleagues. It takes a village to raise a child, they say, and in this case an entire academic community to produce a doctoral thesis of substance.

See also:

  • R. Bishop, M. Berryman, S.Tiakiwai and C. Richardson, 2003. Te Kōtahitanga Phase 1:The Experiences of Year 9 & 10 Maori Students in Mainstream Classrooms. Ministry of Education.
  • Mason Durie, 1994. Whaiora: Māori Health Development. Oxford University Press,Auckland.