Story-telling is a powerful way to make sense of the past, manage the present and convince ourselves we’re preparing for the future. Stories have characters—villains and heroes perform acts that we admire or detest. Stories capture our imaginations, inspire us to imitate or provoke us to start afresh.

In the short history of formal education in New Zealand narratives such as colonialism, egalitarianism, secular humanism, equity, and globalisation have undergirded efforts to educate our young, and shape our families and nation. These big ideas have not always been fully embraced by everyone. To help find our own way, we’ve often maintained our own stories.

So when we hear of generations at war, and a great disconnect of the generational transmission of thought, should we be alarmed?

No. As a teacher of some 45 years, a doctoral student of educational leadership, a granddaughter, daughter, mother, and grandmother I’m hopeful. Despite grand accounts that we may take issue with, the strongest stories of all are those that are established and maintained by families.

Families have great power to create change for their own young. This is especially so when they can establish connection to a sense of heritage, maybe enhanced by a grounding in place. It’s true for both Pākehā and Māori. I have lived, taught, researched, and brought up my family in the far North of New Zealand. I’ve witnessed firsthand the effects of narratives within the New Zealand education system, along with the power of families to find their own way. Let me show you how powerfully this has been done in my own past.

The land for the primary school in my local district was donated by my great-grandfather. Schooling for the so called ‘Silent Generation’ here was closely integrated into community life. The values of the settler homes were strongly upheld by the teachers. Teachers were recognized community leaders. School, church, and home were of one accord. Perhaps education brought a civilizing effect to the harshness of the Kauri gum fields, a refinement valued by those who had left the motherland to find their fortunes here. Certainly, education helped provide pathways out of poverty. This great-grandfather’s family were successful businessmen; one became a world president of Rotary.

Meanwhile, the civilizing narrative employed in the native schools established in Māori communities to the North of us led to a scarcity of academic progress for Māori. Despite this, Māori parents worked with aspirational Pākehā teachers who helped identify particularly promising students in these remote communities and helped secure places in boarding schools far away.

Dame Mere Penfold and Dame Mira Szazy are notable examples: women who travelled by boat from the furthest northern communities to become national leaders. Further afield, at Te Aute College, Māori parents worked with a Pākehā principal—John Thornton—to ensure boys were prepared for university. The leadership of Buck, Pomare, and Ngata was borne of the determination to break through the commonly accepted myths of the time. Looking back at these past achievements gives me hope for changing the myths of our time.


As a post-war Baby Boomer I attended the same tiny one-roomed school that my grandparents and father had attended. In those days egalitarianism ruled the education system: a belief that no matter what race we identified with, or where we were in the nation, we would receive the same quality education. Proudly, I began my teaching career in multicultural South Auckland believing that all it would take for my students to succeed would be competent instruction, the same for all regardless of race and creed, as I had experienced.

This was not the case. I found myself confronted with the realization that a great deal of care and support was needed to help students negotiate what was (to them) an alien place. Pouring much effort into this, I didn’t understand that far more than care was required.

The generation I taught then—Gen X of the seventies—was blessed with parents (both Māori and Pākehā) who began to agitate for change. Mainstream schools were centrally governed and had become increasingly influenced by secular humanism. This did not sit well with many parents. Māori realized that the combination of urban migration and a long held English-only policy in schools had created a cultural and spiritual void. Those who achieved the highest accolades did so at the expense of knowing their own language
and culture. Many succeeded neither in learning as Māori nor as citizens of the wider world. As a result, many experienced poor holistic wellbeing.

Parents challenged the loss of intergenerational accounts through inappropriate schooling. Kohanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa were started by whanau groups. Catholic schools were integrated into the state school funding arrangements, and many small Christian schools were founded. I experienced this firsthand. As the seventies turned to the eighties, and my Gen X children were born, we helped found a Christian school in my Northland hometown. This was the time when our national education system was turned on its head so that every community had the opportunity, and the responsibility, to create the kind of school needed for them.

This became difficult to maintain. As Gen X gave way to Gen Y, and we added a secondary department to our school, it became evident that even state-integrated schools are heavily influenced by central government. We teach the national curriculum and are as- sessed by national frameworks. We do not live in a confined, isolated social bubble, and in the real world, issues of cultural identity and holistic well-being had become more clearly spoken of in our town.

While at first it seemed that the ethics of care evident in the founding documents of Catholic, Kura Kaupapa, and Christian schools were sufficient to meet the expectations and aspirations of our students and their parents, I realized once again that care is not enough. Through my masters and doctoral studies, I learnt that to teach and lead in a Māori context (as I do) I needed to become more of a teina, a learner in things Māori, than I already was.

It was as if my efforts (and those of countless other well-meaning educators) were trying to support Māori students to stand on one foot, a Pākehā-centered foot, and expecting them to succeed. I needed, instead, to allow for the setting down of a second foot, a Māori-centered foot, that would give our Māori students a secure place to stand.

Thus the strengths of ideas found in Māori-centred education systems are being transferred to mainstream and other integrated schools such as ours. Teachers find themselves challenged. History is being rewritten; indigenous knowledges of the sciences are given equal status with that which has been accepted as the academic canon for generations. And, whereas expressions of Judeo-Christian faith are banned, Māori spirituality is embraced.

This is very confronting, particularly when it can seem that any questioning of such developments is met with cries of racism or bigotry. It can seem as if in the Gen Z era, society is in the process of undoing all that the previous generations have built, finding fault and discarding many of the blocks in the process.

Potentially, it’s a serious break in the chain of transferral of inter-generational values, knowledge and understanding on a large scale. Again, I’m not fearful. Yes, I have found some of my Māori colleagues’ interpretations of my faith confronting, particularly when they seem at odds with other Māori men and women of faith we would count as our shared tupuna. I’ve found the suspicion of my university, that I as a Pākehā researcher would be likely to cause harm to my Māori community, daunting. I have found some of my students’ assumptions that I would be racist towards them saddening.

Through these encounters during the time of my doctoral study I questioned, was it possible for me to learn to teach and lead well in this context after all? To answer my own yearnings, I reached back into the previous generations of Pākehā educators in my locality.

Happily, I discovered highly-committed Pākehā teachers praised by Māori leaders for their determination to ensure that Māori students did achieve high levels of competency in Te Reo me ana tikanga Māori, and in the European-centred curriculum. Reassured, I found the strength to believe I could do the same. Drawing on generations of educational practice, I find my identity as an effective Pākehā teacher.


I’ve also learned to ask new questions of the generations of authors before me. Could it be that we are being asked not to destroy what we have believed in for so many years, but to acknowledge other ways of thinking and believing? The goal for us all, Māori and Pākehā, is to learn to feel the weight of ourselves on two feet; to learn that there are aspects of who we are as New Zealanders that will best be understood, developed and established through Māori perspectives, and aspects best understood through the eyes of the European-centred world.

So I ask: What evidence can you find in your past that can provide courage and strength to your own family; your present and future generations? Make the commitment to be a learner and to embrace changes that will enrich you. You can be the start of something wonderful in yourself and in the generations that will follow. Take the long view.

Remember, this isn’t new. The generations who went before us lived and died together in the days of first encounters, two World Wars, and the Great Depression. My forebears who first arrived in this place that I call home would not have survived had it not been for the hospitality of Māori who welcomed and cared for them.

Sir Apirana Ngata? His work leading the Māori concert parties that helped create the Māori battalion in the Second World War was deeply appreciated by my Pākehā father and uncles.

And that great uncle who was the World Rotary chairman? His middle name is Māori. He was born in a tent on the shores of our harbour, his mother assisted by Māori women.

Sue Dow

Sue Dow is a teacher, community leader, and educational consultant based in the Far North of New Zealand —a predominantly Māori community. She completed her Master of Educational Administration and her Doctor of Education degrees through Massey University with the specific intention of learning how to best support leadership in schools to improve the quality of teaching and learning for Māori students. When not teaching or studying, Sue can be found out in the garden or enjoying life with her husband, five children, four daughters-in-law, and twelve grandchildren on her beloved coastal farm.