Swimming with Sharks

Two news items have caught my attention this week as we consider our perspectives on Waitangi Day and the Treaty.

Firstly, the call by the NZ History Teachers' Association (NZHTA) to have our colonial history taught in schools. This reignited the 2015 petition, with 12,000 signatures, driven by students from Otorohanga College to make learning about the New Zealand Wars compulsory in the curriculum. Both petitions have been met by resistance from the Ministry of Education to making any components of the curriculum mandatory.  I can see both sides of that argument although far be it from me usually to agree with MOE! Steve Watters shows the different perspectives in this 2017 post.

We can definitely raise teachers’ and schools’ awareness of the need to make this an absolute priority though, and heavily resource it. You can sign the NZHTA petition here and read more about the background here. You’ll find those links and more great Tiriti o Waitangi resources in this relevant post from Jen Margaret at Groundwork.

The second item that had me thinking is not so obviously relevant to schools and teachers. As I watched the exposé of Australia’s banks and financial industry on TVNZ News last night I couldn’t help thinking that if we substituted schools for banks, and education system for financial industry, how apt would the Australian Royal Commission’s wide-ranging recommendations be? Just imagine if we became as agitated over education’s damage as we are now over banking behaviour:

Financial industry

NZ Education system

‘greed is out, customers’ needs are in’

System’s needs out, learners’ needs first

Practices that ‘left a devasting human toll in their wake’

Policies and practice that have left a devastating toll for Māori in their wake

There have been broken businesses and the emotional stress and personal pain has broken lives

The loss, emotional stress, and personal pain through schooling as a tool of colonisation has negatively impacted Māori over generations, and continues.

Breaking the trust of the Australian public who, the Commissioner found, have been ripped off for years

Māori whānau have been ripped off for generations. That mistrust is definitely not misplaced.

Significant overhaul of Australia’s financial industry – rules that ensure the customers make out best

Significant overhaul of the education system – to ensure learners make out best. Will the review of Tomorrow’s Schools actually realise this? I’m not so sure.

Intense pressure to ‘buy into policies clients didn’t want, or need’

Intense pressure to adopt education policies that were never in the best interests of Māori learners – National Standards, Communities of Learning, Statutory Interventions, bureaucratic meddling.

From today the banking sector must change and change forever.

Why are we waiting for more generations to suffer? Imagine “from today the schooling sector must change, and change forever”. Would we be scrambling as rapidly as the banks?

 How do we raise this level of urgency and public outcry for our children? You would think there would be no comparison, and no disagreement!

Swimming with Sharks - Our Covert White Spaces

Over the last couple of months I have introduced this image to audiences and to groups I am running workshops with. It’s my attempt to name the covert White spaces that permeate our thinking and drive our decision-making in education in Aotearoa New Zealand, the ones we passively accept as normal or traditional, instead of colonial, the ones that get in the way of that public outcry or any urgent action.

Iceberg update 19.jpg

The image usually follows the slide below where I ask, what if this wasn’t a continuum? What if more generations of our Māori children didn’t have to wait while we tiptoe cautiously through these ‘stages’, becoming less racist, more culturally ‘responsive’, shedding our Eurocentric teacher training and those Pākehā-driven polices that have never worked for our Māori children, waiting for all the staff in a school to embrace change? Why can’t we dive in at the deep end? Who, and where, are the sharks and how much longer will we hide behind them, and our privilege, pretending we are ‘neutral’?


The iceberg image is always going to be a work in progress. I keep finding more sharks, or they keep finding me! We would hope that no longer would most of us accept or tolerate the overt white spaces—the racial profiling, racist slurs, hate speech, at the tip of the iceberg, although all of these definitely still occur.

Beneath the surface however lurk the covert white spaces that are even more dangerous. The spaces that emphasise white privilege, the spaces that we think are too hard to change, if we even recognise them as dangerous in the first place.

At the moment the sharks are randomly swimming under the surface. I have resisted suggestions I should classify them in different ways – for example, the more dangerous ones frozen in the submerged ice, or those we can change first closest to the surface, because I think we will all have different ideas about importance and priorities depending where we are in our own thinking. This has proven to be true in workshops with schools recently where these hidden spaces have caused a great deal of deep discussion and questions.

Wherever we are in our thinking, the truth is we need to become super alert to the sharks because our job, as educational leaders, and Treaty partners, should be to identify, then understand, then dismantle, each and every one of them. How can we call ourselves educators if we don’t understand this is urgent?

I used to say that our schools are generally oblivious to their overt, hidden, white spaces. I think that is gradually changing and perhaps we are experiencing what NZ History Teachers’ Association chairperson Graeme Ball called a “zeitgeist moment”. However I think we still steadfastly cling to our ‘tweaking’ mentality, unaware of the size of the change we need to make — hence the iceberg image!

Some schools though are embracing the changes, prepared to do the confronting soul searching and the deep reflection on their practice. I am grateful to Kawaha Point School in Rotorua and Te Aro School in Wellington for allowing me to publish below their feedback on their teacher only days last week.

They were confronted by the ‘sharks’ but prepared to really think through change on multiple fronts, in their practice and pedagogy. I have great confidence that these schools, and others like them, are going to make a difference.


Ann presented to our teachers a keynote and ran several workshops as part of our teacher only days to start 2019. Spectacular is the best description. She used local data and information to challenge our thinking, but did so in a way that was palatable for our teachers and therefore led to deep self-reflection and commitment to change. There wasn’t a teacher or leader who wasn’t challenged and everyone is looking forward to implementing change that makes a difference to all our learners, but particularly Maori. Ann was a breath of fresh air, engaging, knowledgeable and credible. One of the best PLD days we have ever had by far. (Andrew Sinclair, Principal)


Our recent teacher only day with Ann was a challenging and confronting start to our school year. In her presentations Ann

  • Used research from Kia Aroha College’s Warrior Scholars,

  • Shared her own children, grandchildren and great grandchildren’s educational experiences, and

  • Placed her discussions in the context of local central Wellington educational data

 In doing so Ann presented a compelling case for why school leaders and teachers should be exploring the need for systemic change in our education system. Ann’s keynote and her workshops were designed as provocations and not as a multi -step programme to be applied by school leaders and staff teams. The day together has set the scene for continued reflection and action as we strive to really make a difference for our Maori and Pasifika students.

 Our immediate next steps include:

  • revisiting our graduate student profile as a vision for educational excellence and embedding our profile across the curriculum

  • reflecting further and defining wider definitions of success and achievement (academic, cultural knowledge and attributes) so that we are measuring what really counts

  • an ongoing and continued focus on fostering sustaining and influencing relationships with our Maori and Pasifika students and their families in order to learn more about our students - their strengths and interests

  • Finally, after we are clearer about our graduate profile, what might be our guiding questions that we use to ask ourselves when making decisions about our curriculum and our school foci?  

We ended our day together energised and in no doubt that we need to be intentional in ensuring our young people can bring their identities into the classroom and ensuring their cultural norms are validated throughout their school day.

Ann's day was engaging and well-paced. Ann herself is inspirational! (Sue Clement, Principal)

Working with Ann Milne was inspiring - she challenged my guilty liberal thinking about Aotearoa. It made me realise we have a very long way to go in order to meet our obligations to Te Tiriti, but she gave us very practical suggestions and examples about what can be done. Ann's illustrations and analogies created powerful moments of realisation and understanding about the position of Maori, Pakeha and educationalists in Aotearoa. (Kristin Holmes, Teacher)