Samoan teaching adapts to changing faces

Lafi Peters has been teaching at Auckland Girls’ Grammar School for 15 years. Like Auckland, the school’s demographics have changed significantly in that time, with increasing numbers of Pasifika and Māori students making up the roll. Peters speaks to Teuila Fuatai about how that change has shaped her career and relationships - both with staff and students.

You grew up in Wellington, and spent time teaching English to high school students in Samoa before moving to Auckland. What was it like starting at Auckland Girls Grammar School (AGGS)?

When I started, I never wanted to teach at a single-sex school. I’ve come through co-ed education, and I had this idea that a girls’ school would be too catty and high-maintenance. But, AGGS is a whole different kind of school from what I expected. It has also changed alot since I began in 2003. While there have always been a lot of Pasifika students, when I started the ethnic makeup of our roll, and the ratio of in-zone and out-of-zone students was more balanced. In the last 10 years, more in-zone students have started attending other schools, while more girls from outside of zone are coming to AGGS.

How has that affected the school?

Students zoned for AGGS began looking at other nearby schools like Mount Albert Grammar School (MAGS), and Epsom Girls Grammar, for a variety of reasons. Both schools had periods in the past 10 years when they increased roll numbers and relaxed zoning rules to enable this. Families living in the AGGS zone then had the option to send their daughters to those schools - both of which have excellent reputations. As a result, AGGS increased the number of girls it was taking from outside of its zone to ensure its roll stayed steady.

Looking back, I think that families within the AGGS zone had noticed more students from out-of-zone attending. Those students were mainly from South Auckland and West Auckland, and were mostly Pasifika and Māori. I think the gradual shift in the school roll’s ethnic makeup, to where the majority of students are now Pasifika or Māori, may have affected people’s decisions to send girls to AGGS.

White-flight, and middle-class flight, have been terms used to describe the significant divisions along ethnic lines and socio-economic status seen in Auckland schools. Do you think this happened at AGGS?

It’s difficult to know exactly why families choose other schools. While parents are entitled to send their kids wherever they want, and some have genuine reasons for picking somewhere like MAGS with its sports academy instead of AGGS, I think there was, and still is, a prejudice towards our out-of-zone students at our school. It’s also the underlying idea that people may feel embarrassed that students from our own community who live in our zone choose to go elsewhere. But that is something that affects schools all over Auckland.

How do you navigate that?

Five years ago, AGGS created my current role of Pasifika Achievement Coordinator. That was a significant step in developing and investing in achievement for our Pasifika girls. In addition to professional development days dedicated to exploring different types of learning styles, I also emphasise to our teachers how important AGGS is within the Pasifika community. Historically, the Ponsonby and Grey Lynn areas were where Pasifika migrated to in the 1960s and 1970s. It previously had a large Pasifika population, and especially with the PIC church and the Grey Lynn E.F.K.S - people were drawn to the area. Those families sent their daughters to AGGS, and saw them succeed. While many haven’t been able to sustain living in the area, they’ve stayed loyal to the school, some over several generations. That’s something that I always remind our teachers about: it may not be the school of choice for all of the people in our zone, but it is the school of choice for a lot of Pasifika parents because they see and have seen other girls come through this school and succeed. And most of the teachers understand that, and go above and beyond in helping our Pasifika students.

You now teach Samoan, but your degree was in English literature and you started out as an English teacher. How did that happen?

When I was employed, it was to teach English. After a few months, I was pulled into the principal’s office and told that one of our two Samoan teachers were leaving. At the time, there was only a handful of Pasifika and Māori teachers - we probably made up about 10 of the 80 staff, and that composition hasn’t really changed over the years. I was also told that if I didn’t step in to take Samoan, the school would pull the subject as there were too many students enrolled for just one teacher. It was a difficult conversation because I had to explain that even though I was Samoan, fluent in Samoan, and had taught in Samoa, it didn’t mean I was qualified to teach it as a subject. It’s just like English - you can speak English, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach it.

Because the alternative meant students missing out on Samoan altogether, I decided to take it on. I had to upskill myself and make sure my Samoan, and my knowledge of culture and language was excellent. Because I was raised here, and we spoke Samoan at home - we weren’t allowed to speak English - my language was okay. I was concerned about my knowledge of the Samoan culture, and how I was going to teach that to the girls. I ended up spending a lot of time with my uncles and my family, and whenever we did fa’asamoa, I had them break things down so I understood the fundamentals of our cultural practices. I also did a lot of reading. It wasn’t an easy transition, and I remember being conscious about how parents would receive me as a teacher, because teaching and passing on knowledge of our cultural practices is a significant responsibility.

What have your relationships with students been like over the years?

When I first started teaching Samoan, it was a year 12 class and the girls had already decided that it was an “easy subject”, one they could muck around in and earn credits for. The overarching mentality was that because they could already speak Samoan, I couldn’t really teach them anything. And they had a fair point, because a lot of them were fluent. What started to shift that attitude was how we looked at certain customs and protocols, and the learning processes and meanings behind various customs. It’s not an easy subject, and fa’asamoa is complex. As the girls learnt more, they realised that Samoan was as academic as any other subject. It also had special meaning to them because they were Samoan. Importantly, as they shared what they learnt in class with the wider school community, it also changed some of the perceptions about Samoan as a subject among students and teachers.

Fifteen years is a long time at one school. Do you see yourself heading somewhere else soon?

In the time I’ve been here, I’ve learnt a lot from the girls and they’ve taught me a lot about myself. Not all students are perfect, and some can really challenge you, but working with our Pasifika students is how I contribute to my community. For me, there’s more of a responsibility that I make sure these kids achieve because I understand what it means for their families to send them across town for school. I can see myself, and my own family in their decisions and struggles. It’s difficult because sometimes we have to sit down down with parents when things get too much and discuss whether it may be more beneficial for their daughter to attend a school closer to home because of the financial costs related to attending AGGS. Some parents see that,  but some parents still hold on to that migrant dream that their daughter will succeed at AGGS because others in their family, or wider community, have. It’s that perception that makes the school so important in our Pasifika families. It’s great to have that legacy, but we need to ensure that we do the best by all the girls that come through the gate - and that’s something that we’re still working on and I’d like to continue with that at AGGS.

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