A conversation with Dr Ann Milne (principal of Kia Aroha College, Ōtara, Auckland)
On a hot summer’s day in mid-January 2016, I sat down and interviewed Dr Ann Milne. We discussed her inspirations, who influences her thinking and practice, and what she’s working on presently.
E te Aumangea, tēnā koe. Thank you so much for making the time to talk with us about your educational work.
To begin, could you share a little bit about your background and your family?
Well I have four kids, twelve grandchildren, and three great grandchildren!
I grew up in Pataua, a small all-Māori community outside of Whangarei. I went to a tiny school where there was only one other Pākehā family. My parents both left school at age eleven and twelve. They didn’t rate teachers – my dad would call them “educated idiots.” In the end, they both developed successful businesses. Dad taught himself how to build houses, and mum was a hairdresser. All self-taught. A lot of my work-ethic came from them.
My paternal grandmother didn’t go to school; her parents were Scottish immigrants. She lived with us for many years and was selfless. In fact, she was famous for her manaakitanga! She always invited people to come and eat at our place, even when there was little food in the house to actually share. My grandmother always put others first. Her sense of manaakitanga has really stayed with me.
Who has inspired and challenged your thinking?
I believe the biggest inspirations come from people closest to you. My biggest inspiration is my kids. When they went into mainstream secondary school, it opened my eyes to the injustices of our education system.
They have a Māori/Samoan father. They identified as Māori, and they came up against racism. My kids were teased and called ‘no milk’, simply because they were not white. Teachers would ask them to read out the absences list because the teachers couldn’t pronounce the Māori names. They lumped Māori kids together with low expectations, or put my kids in the accelerant class as the only Māori. It outraged me. I was aware of unfair treatment, but I hadn’t personalised it at that point. The different treatment of my children in a white system made me question my own teacher training and practice.
I realised my own teaching was influenced by my own privileges, and I hadn’t thought about how it impacted on others. My teacher training was mono-cultural, which inevitably replicates the status quo. This status quo is maintained through how we educate kids.
Other influences have come from the academy and in kura, which don’t always make it out in the whitestream system. I enjoy the work of people like Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Joe Kincheloe, Shirley Steinberg, Graham Smith, Linda Smith, Leonie Pihama and Moana Jackson.
I also can’t go past our community: kaumātua Sam Chapman for his wisdom and graciousness, and his massive support for what we do; and our BOT Chairperson Julie Stewart. Julie has supported our kura and me, personally, for over 20 years, through all our battles. She epitomises the words, ‘service’, and, ‘support’, to me. Sometimes, revolutionaries are right under our noses and just get on with the job!
So did this sense of outrage motivate you to help establish Kia Aroha College?
Yes, it fuelled my determination to not just complain, but to do something about it! At the time, I was teaching middle school, years 7-8, at what was Clover Park Intermediate, in Ōtara. I was really interested in the development of middle schoolers. I was making the argument that teaching and learning needed to change for middle schoolers, because of the developmental side of things.
At this time, we found that our Māori kids and their whānau wanted to stay longer than just two years. There was a desire to keep everyone together, because choices at that time were limited. Our first struggle, when I became the principal in 1994, was to extend our year levels from years 7 and 8 to years 7 to 10. Later, driven by our parents and our former students, we realised that we needed to extend into secondary/senior-secondary. For a while, we had two schools —the original middle school and Te Whānau o Tupuranga — on the same site. Then we merged to become Kia Aroha College in 2011. Early on we realised that changing the language of instruction wasn’t enough. We needed to think about how to practise an integrated curriculum that included critical pedagogy.
You’ve spoken and written a lot about how the English-medium schooling system is actually the ‘Whitestream’, which continues to fail Māori and Pasifika kids and communities. What do you mean?
Apart from academic success, the white spaces (where the majority of Māori and Pacific kids are), have no way of knowing whether Māori and Pasifika kids are succeeding in an holistic sense. We haven’t changed the landscape at all. The gap hasn’t narrowed. Presently, academic success is our primary measure. We aren’t going to change anything if we don’t change how we define success and achievement. Whitestream schools need to understand that one-size-fits all is a myth. Until we address this we will continue to marginalise Māori and Pacific kids and families.
Our work at Kia Aroha has been about changing the colour of our space. For us, it’s about cultural identity, and understanding how this evolves. It’s also about knowing who our kids and communities are. We’re really clear about kids developing their own cultural identity. What’s interesting is, when you look through our enrolments, although there’s a raft of ethnic groups to choose from, most parents choose one, usually the one they identify with most.
We have one student who is Māori and Tongan. When he started, he chose to learn in Te Whānau o Tupuranga (the Māori immersion unit). As he got older, he wanted to move across to Tongan classes. This type of transition shows that cultural identity is continually evolving, and we need to have fluid processes for our kids to support them. It’s about creating a respect for cultures in our school.
The system itself is damaged. People tell me that it’s damaging for Pākehā too, and I’m sure it is. But, that thinking negates the importance of supporting Māori and Pacific kids specifically. We need to be intentional about addressing Māori and Pacific needs. If we’re not intentional about addressing this first, it becomes watered down, and we are just tinkering around the edges. We need major change.
That’s a good point. People often talk about educational change, but are less explicit about the type of change they mean. Also, change is usually really hard.
I’ve been interested in how you’ve written about ‘critical hope and radical healing’ as ways to generate positive change. What do you mean by this, and what are some examples in action?
Three goals underpin all our work:
- empowered cultural identity
- academic achievement; and
- action for social change.
These goals are about transforming white spaces into “right” or ethical spaces that understand education as a matter of life and death. These notions are not new to Aotearoa. For me, they resemble whanaungatanga and kaupapa Māori practices. Such notions provide a foundation for practice in schools. They are about providing our young people with the tools they need to challenge the status quo, and to change their worlds. In my research, these changes are sustained through critical pedagogy, whanaungatanga, and aroha. This thinking helps to put the money where the mouth is!
I’m often told by principals, “My parents don’t want that cultural stuff”. Too often we ask the wrong questions. At Kia Aroha we don’t say to parents that it’s either or; we let them know that they have a right to know about their whakapapa, reo, and tikanga, and everything else they need to know. For too long we’ve cultivated the idea that cultural identity and academic success are mutually exclusive. But they’re not. For our kids and families to succeed in the world, we need to offer it all.
I hope the example is what we’re doing at Kia Aroha. It has to be embedded in everything. It’s about aligning kaupapa Māori with indigenous and marginalised communities, so there are critical and healing aspects to our work. If you have this mindset, you don’t think about discipline and punishment; it’s about solving problems from a position of compassion, understanding, and solidarity.
So how do your staff actually do this?
It’s hard for people, because the way we work is really different. New teachers have to throw out much of what they’ve learnt during teacher training, because it doesn’t prepare them well enough for our reality. At Kia Aroha you’re working with multiple ages, abilities, cultures, and you’re starting from a cultural perspective. You have to work hard to develop your own critical and culturally-based resources. It’s something you grow into and learn as you go. You also have to be secure in your own identity. You can’t help young people develop their own identity if you don’t know who you are yourself.
Teachers can’t come up with a generic plan for the whole term. For example, at the moment staff are preparing resources on ‘rangatiratanga’. Each ethnic group has developed resources about rangatiratanga, and they’re all different. If you’re critical, you can’t keep using a teaching plan for next year or term. Things always change, and our plans need to reflect this.
For us, an integrated curriculum means you’re a teacher of kids, not subjects. Our curriculum is integrated, not only across subjects, but also with our young people’s realities. It has to be real, and authentic. Luckily, we have a stable staff. There’s a lot of collegial support. Some people take to the way we work like ducks to water; others struggle. When people struggle, it’s often to do with the strength and confidence in their own cultural identity. It’s hard to move out of our comfort zones!
The buzzword now is culturally responsive pedagogy. But all too often, critical pedagogy gets screened out. I believe it’s not culturally responsive if it’s not critical. You need to integrate cultural, academic and social justice. These three themes have to be embedded in the school; from budgets, school and classroom planning, to curriculum. You can’t ‘do’ critical, culturally responsive learning in a timetable, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example. You have to keep attuned to this as well. You have to ask all the time: Where’s the critical aspect in this teaching plan? We have a planning framework that prompts our teachers to ask about all three. It must be embedded in everything. In most schools, critical pedagogy is still in its infancy. Often it’s not there. We teach critical thinking, but critical pedagogy is a movement; you have to be in the struggle, in solidarity with your community. It’s not just something you do in your classroom, then, drive away from on your way home. We have some great critical work happening at tertiary levels, but, apart from small pockets in the secondary and primary sectors, there isn’t much happening.
Putting it into practice is really difficult, that’s why people come to Kia Aroha to see what we’re doing. In fact, we’ve worked with educators from Oakland, USA, to help establish a school with similar values and practices. It’s called Roses in Concrete Community School. Their name is inspired by lyrics from the late rap legend Tupac Shakur. The idea is that schools are the cracks in the concrete, and roses grow in these cracks. Too often the roses are plucked and sent away to university, never to return. The school’s purpose is to create rose gardens, so people come back and contribute positively to the community and the world.
Roses in Concrete and Kia Aroha College describe ourselves as “Ukukura” – a term we preferred to “sister school”. Uku means, ally; the term describes schools working in solidarity. The educationalists responsible for Roses in Concrete are also co-founders of the ”Institute for Sustainable Economic, Educational and Environmental Design (I-SEEED) in Oakland, California. I-SEEED’s vision is to create sustainable cities and schools so that people can live, learn, work, and thrive in their own communities. I am a Research Affiliate of I-SEEED.
We both share an interest in why and how non-Māori can make our learning systems less monocultural/monological. What’s a key message you would pass on to others interested in progressing this type of work?
I’m always aware of my place, and there’s a line I shouldn’t cross. The line is about telling Māori and Pasifika families what they should do. I work as part of a whānau — I’m surrounded by Māori, Tongan, Samoan, Cook Island and Pākehā staff, as well as staff from Zimbabwe, and South Africa. It’s about figuring out my place in this mix. I always have to be conscious about power and authority. As a school principal, it’s inherent in my position, and if I don’t continue to question my position, it’s all too easy to go off the path. I juggle it all the time.
I have people around me that I check in with, like my own family. As an ally, you have to be aware of that line. I never presume, I want to be sure that I’m there by invitation.
You’re currently on sabbatical. What are some of the new and critical questions you are exploring right now?
The purpose of my sabbatical is to write a book on White spaces in education. I’m also working on two other things: an evaluation of our Studio 247, and a journal essay I was invited to write. The intent of the evaluation is to look at how effective the Studio is since 2009. To begin, we were part of an international computer clubhouse network supported by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University. A few years ago we separated out from this network to brand ourselves as the High Tech Youth Network, a network of studios that align cultural knowledge with technology.
That’s interesting, because in the past you’ve talked about digital technology is the new ‘colonial frontier’. What do you mean?
For me, it’s about the critical questions: How is digital technology shaping indigenous knowledge? How do we resist colonising ideas in technology? It’s about technology as a white space, how is it played out in the lives of our kids, and what are creative ways to counter this. New technology can be a Trojan Horse, and it can do damage if it’s not critically engaged with.
This leads to the third part of my sabbatical, my journal article, which is based on middle schoolers (years 7-10). It’s structured around the ‘Big I’ as opposed to the ‘small i’, like iPads, iPods, and iPhones. Because we often leave out identity in schools, I suggest that new technologies, with their capacity to make us all connected and the same, can do this too. All too often, identity formation is something we leave to chance. Yet, we know that identity formation for this age group (11-14 year-olds) is critical for young people and their sense of self, and how they are in the world. When schools leave cultural identity to chance, it can jeopardise their ideas about, who they are, where they are from, and what their purpose is.
What do you say to critics who argue that a focus on cultural identity risks ‘social engineering’, and that, cultural programmes tend to create a ‘cultural bubble’?
Again, our experience is that you need to have an integrated approach: empowered cultural identity; academic achievement; and, action for social change. I don’t like the way the word ‘diversity’ is used, as it’s posed as problematic, different from white, and as a challenge we have to address. Yet the opposite of diversity is uniformity. Is this what we want?
We don’t say to “Pākehā kids that they exist in a cultural bubble”, we only say it about Māori kids! In the past we’ve said, “You can have your Māori identity here, but the real world is not Māori”. This is damaging and wrong. I reject the idea that you have to be funnelled through school, that by the time you get to university, you have to be Pākehā and leave who are at the door. We need to stop preparing kids for a white future — the future won’t be predominantly white. The changing demography tells us our world is not going to be white.
Our bubbles give our kids strength. As long as we’re aware of the bubble, and as long as our kids understand what society is like, there’s nothing wrong with the bubble. For indigenous people, there’s nothing wrong with being who you are. Bubbles are transparent. Critical understanding of how society works allows our kids to see straight through the bubble.
What do you think the purpose of education is now, and into the future?
For our kids, education is about life and death. If it isn’t given that importance, then why are we doing what we’re doing? Our goal is to create warrior scholars: young people who know who they are, with academic and cultural knowledge, that they can change the world. They should have everything they need in order to change the world.
Jeff Duncan-Andrade says, “The point of education is not to escape poverty, the point of education is to end it”. It’s the same with our research: it should change things, not perpetuate inequity. If we don’t stand up and change the status quo, we are complicit in reproducing racism. The point isn’t to tweak education, but to stop the stuff we’re doing now and make it fit our kids. It’s life and death for them. Changing the world — what’s wrong with that!
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