An Order of Understandings, for Takeaway

I’m in the wrapping things up and reflecting stage of my experiences, consolidating ideas, re-connecting to thank the people who have helped me so much along the way, having final adventures, and thinking about possibilities for the future. Part of my time here has been about bringing relevant information and understandings back home to my teaching, and hopefully to teaching in general, through various means of dissemination. No better time to start on that than here in this blog post. I’ve sprinkled in a few pictures from my final adventures, too. It hasn’t been all reading and research these last few weeks.

So, what stands out in the midst of all that I have found? A few takeaways to ponder, while munching around the edges of a final serving of kiwi fish and chips:

Māori pou greeting you at the DOC campsite in Anchorage, Abel Tasman Park on the South Island
  • First, schools are societal constructs, by which I mean a school reflects the culture from which it has arisen, in our case, historically an English model. I’m still no expert on the history of educational models, but the ways we continue to educate children work toward standardization, which leaves little room for many ways of knowing, including indigenous perspectives. Even beyond this lack of room, there has been the undeniable use of schools in our pasts to remove all traces of indigenous culture, from the boarding schools endured by Native American youth to the beatings received by
    Māori when they used their own language in the classroom, among other examples. There is a lot to overcome here. One way to continue the process of moving forward with the weight of this history is to use historical knowledge as a base for thinking through stories of survival and resistance within the safe spaces of our classrooms, and in the process of discovering our history, learning how to  disagree and discuss our differences with empathy and respect.
Variable Oystercatchers, also in disagreement.
  • Next, revisiting and taking a deep dive into difficult history allows students to connect with others in deep and meaningful ways, establishing a solid basis for kindness in relationships, moving us beyond kindness simply because we are supposed to be nice to each other. In conversations, one insightful 11-year-old told me that he wasn’t sure what to do when he just didn’t like someone of another ethnicity. I asked him if knowing about that person’s past might help, to which several students chimed in with group agreement that understanding where we have come from definitely helps, especially when trying to get past initial reactions to others. Without a grounding in history, realizations about differences and inequalities can’t be part of these larger, important conversations.
From the Interislander Ferry, Wellington to Picton, traveling across the Cook Strait and into a very narrow opening in the fiords at the top of the South Island.
  • Finally, students here are eager to learn more about their country’s past. One of my research tangents has been around whether or not mythologizing and repeating a sanitized version of the past makes students more resistant to unpacking harder truths when they are more developmentally ready for stories of survival and resistance. It would be as if they had heard the happy story so many times they didn’t want to know anything more about a particular event. This did not prove to be true in my discussion with students, nor in my questionnaire results. Students of all ethnicities were eager to hear more, but especially Māori students who felt more strongly that their stories should be told with greater accuracy and depth.
Abel Tasman National Park, Pitt Head track, Golden Bay area accessible by water taxi, which just dumps you on the beach with a promise to return.

So, if understanding the past is an important part of decolonizing, and if we see the value of this understanding as a thinking process as well as a tool for building empathy, and students are eager for it, why are teachers resistant to teaching about colonization? Good questions. I asked the teachers and the preservice teachers to comment on this.

The primary reason most teachers identified as to why it is difficult to teach about colonization is that the teacher’s ethnicity makes it hard to tell both sides of the story. Teachers were reluctant to be seen as the source of knowledge for students whose ethnicity differed from their own. This was particularly challenging for teachers who were neither Māori nor Pākehā (settler), those who had immigrated recently themselves. One teacher from England told me that her students shut down when she tried to teach the history of the local area, which she ascribed to her very British accent and recent immigration status. So, ownership of story from both sides definitely plays a role. Other factors that rated high for teachers were that stories of survival and resistance divide people today and teachers do not feel they have a solid knowledge base themselves from which to teach.

Abel Tasman toward Cleopatra’s Pool, Split Apple Rock, and a poisonous mushroom.

In some ways, New Zealand is leaps and bounds ahead of the United States in that it is openly working toward becoming a truly bicultural society. While New Zealand historians and history teachers have yet to realize the goal of deep and accurate history teaching in the nation’s schools, more attention is being paid to how teaching history can contribute to a more balanced bicultural future. Without this stated goal in the US, it is incumbent on us to discern the most powerful ways to demand balance in our representations of Native Americans in our nation’s past, including in our foundational stories. We have important work to do here, especially in our classrooms, where this history continues to be taught. Our story is heavily weighted in what we might consider traditional ways, both in the content we use and the methods we use to deliver it, toward a colonial point of view.

My time here has shown me other options. When a country embraces a multi-layered and often difficult past, members of that society will grow from the experience. History is one element of this understanding, albeit an often underused and misrepresented one. Lessons is the classroom create a safe space to practice the tools of understanding, and students are eager for historical knowledge. While it is impossible to rewrite the past, to erase injustices and atrocities, when we bring difficult history forward and into the classroom, we are acknowledging where we have all come from, but also working toward who we would like to be, as individuals, as descendents, and as nations. We are, in the words of one Māori teacher, honoring the choices of our ancestors, regardless of whether, with our current understanding, we judge these choices right or wrong. One way or another, we are all in this waka together, paddling toward the future. From my singular waka experience I learned that you make significantly more progress when everyone paddles in sync, listening to and relying on the people in front, behind, and beside you in your journey.

A few of the wonderful people who have been with me on my journey.

My waka home leaves tomorrow from the tarmac of Wellington Airport. I’m sad to go, but quite happy to be heading home to loved ones, and super excited for my daughter’s college graduation in just a few short days. I’m planning to sit with my thoughts for awhile after that, then hope to write more about my experiences in the spirit of sharing, pedagogically and otherwise. Until then, thanks for paddling along with me. I’ve so appreciated your company along the way.


  1. So many insights, Susy, and so beautifully written. I especially appreciated your message of reconciliation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s