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Shore teaching identity puts focus on Pasifika

Flagstaff Team

Long-time Devonport resident Helen Varney was recently honoured for her contribution to education. She tells Helen Vause about her passion for teaching and her determination to help improve outcomes for Pacific Island students.

Fresh thinking… Helen Varney says the changes she is driving will be led by principals and teachers who are open to new ways of doing things

Helen Varney is a Pasifika woman with well-established Devonport roots, a teacher with decades of experience, a mother and a grandmother. She has a very clear purpose – she wants Pasifika young people to be successful, and to enhance their chances, she wants to see better learning outcomes for more of them.

And these days, she has a leading role in working with school principals towards this shared goal.

The former principal of Target Road Primary School in Totara Vale was seconded by the Ministry of Education two years ago to head Tautai o le Moana, a body established to help improve learning outcomes for Pasifika students. Varney is now working with the principals of schools with large numbers of Pacific Island students to take a second look at their learning environment and start making changes based on cultural considerations.

“For whatever reasons, and there are many different ones, Pasifika learners have not fared well. Some have done amazingly well, but the majority haven’t. We want to change that through leadership,” she says.

Changes at schools have to happen, says Varney, for this section of our young population to get the learning outcomes they’re capable of.

“I’m a successful person,” says Varney. “And they can be too if we can make sustainable changes in their schools now and make the environment there one that they feel more connected to. This is about Pasifika connections and pathways and schools finding ways to close that gap between us and them.”

Varney was surprised and delighted to be among those in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list awarded an MNZM for her services to education, particularly Pacific education.

“When I got the letter, I thought surely it couldn’t be for me. But then I thought it was about the work we are doing. I see it as an acknowledgement of that.”

Changes need to come from the top, she says, and already many principals of schools with Pasifika students in Auckland and Wellington have come on board with Varney’s pilot project to have “uncomfortable conversations and un- comfortable recognitions” about whether or not their decisions have been addressing the needs of all their students from all cultures.

“We won’t have cultural competency unless we first unpack our current thinking and practices in schools. We need to get a shift in thinking among principals.”

“Instead of looking at a Pasifika student and thinking that they don’t understand, it’s about looking at them and seeing that they have come to school in a place that doesn’t look like where they are from.”

Varney has grown up in both worlds. Her father was Samoan and her mother’s family came from the Cook Islands. They were the Uhrle family and they settled in Clarence Street in the 1950s and had seven children. Varney went through local schools to Takapuna Grammar (TGS). As a teenager, she met her husband to be, James Varney, at school and later married into his Pakeha family deeply connected to Devonport.

The couple have lived for decades in Devonport, where their large villa holds many toys for visiting grandchildren, who Varney says have bought a welcome new dimension into her lifelong love of children.

Varney’s father was the one who persuaded her that teaching was the right path for her. From TGS, she went to North Shore Teachers College and then to Northcote Intermediate and the start of a 42-year career in education.

Today, she’s known to many local families, having taught at a number of North Shore schools, including Vauxhall School. She’s also known to countless teachers, after 14 years as a primary-school principal and taking an active role in education policy issues.

She’s a past president of the North Shore Principals’ Association and the Auckland Primary Principals’Association, and is a member of the Pasifika Principals national executive.

Her last school, Target Road, was probably the most diverse, with 33 different cultures and more than one third of children from backgrounds where English was their second language.

“Right from the start, I found I absolutely loved teaching. I had a real passion for the job. I firmly believe that teaching is a calling, and that it is an innate thing where teachers truly care that other people are successful. I’ve always felt like that about the job and I’ve seen it in so many passionate teachers who see the potential in all children.”

In 2017, she took a sabbatical from school to do a study on how to grow culturally responsive teaching practices in schools to help accelerate learning for a priority group of target learners, including large numbers of Pasifika students.

She visited schools and talked with principals, teachers, students, and with whanau and families, to see if she could learn more about culturally responsive teachers and to get the views of principals on cultural competency.

“I wanted to find out whether culturally responsive practices could make a difference to the learners’ rates of progress.”

She says that would mean doing much more than has been historically expected of school teachers. It would mean teachers and principals interacting with families to understand their reality, challenging personal beliefs and actions, and changing the way they engage with these students.

What is it that makes teachers culturally competent, she asked? Was it much more than a set of technical skills? Culture, says Varney, influences the way our brain makes sense of the world. She calls it “software” for the brain’s hardware.

“The brain uses cultural information to turn everyday happenings into meaningful events.” Varney says the report was well received by principals and that the issues she’s raising were well overdue for evaluation and action.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought up an example of a need for schools to be open to changing their thinking on cultural differences, when some schools in South Auckland were having problems with senior students not coming back to school after lockdown.

She points out that the parents of these students had lost their jobs and the children had gone out to work to support their families.

“Some schools looked at what they could do to make sure their education wasn’t suspended and changed their normal hours so the students could work school around their jobs.”

“I firmly believe that teaching is a calling, and that it is an innate thing where teachers truly care that other people are successful.”

Helen Varney

But she notes some schools refused to accommodate this group of working kids and stuck rigidly to their opening hours.

“We can’t keep working that way,” she says. “Doesn’t it make a lot more sense to see the ability of those young people to juggle so much as being a success? Shouldn’t we be working with them?”

Keeping students connected with the school made it easier for them to return when they could, says Varney.

“Family, faith and then life are the order of priorities for this group and they do better when they’re in places that reflect that.”

“Evidence shows many Pacific Island students are doing better in Catholic schools than in large state schools and we know the reason for that is because they’re in a place with greater emphasis on family and faith – those are the things that fit with their culture.

“The principals we’re working with are making a real effort to develop relationships with parents and communities way beyond just having a quick word at the school gate,” says Varney.

Family connections with people of other cultures and relationships with the schools will make a positive difference to how well their children do at school, Varney maintains.

She says making the changes she is driving through Tautai o le Moana is a work in progress and will be led by principals and teachers who are open to new ways of doing things.

“Take another look at the five-year-old child who starts at school already fluent in the Tongan language, because that’s what is spoken at home. Should that child be seen as struggling with English or should they be seen as successfully on the way to becoming bilingual? Surely being bilingual should be seen as a positive thing?”

“We need to change our unconscious bias and become more aware. It’s about changing the way we look at things.”

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