Engaging the disengaged

As educators, we have all heard inspiring stories of the teacher or mentor who changed the direction of a disengaged student. For me, it is the story of Marcus Akuhata-Brown that remains and resonates in my head and heart.

Marcus was born in a small town on the East Coast of the North Island. He became a school principal at 21 years old and has been a social worker, diplomat, and international delegate. He now speaks all around the world on indigenous rights and advocating for disadvantaged youth, as well as working on land development activities in his tribal area.

The future for Marcus in his Gisborne school did not always look so bright. It was the one teacher who recognised his potential, who cared about and encouraged him, helped him to set goals and have the courage to break out of his comfort zones, that motivated him to succeed. Marcus is a gifted communicator. To hear how the ‘glass lids’ of low expectation and achievement were lifted off his life is moving and inspirational.

This year I have been working as a mentor in the Kohiko Mai (‘Invitation to shine’) pilot project which aims to engage disengaged students in Years 7-10. Our kaupapa understands the importance of the special relationship which can make a big difference, as it did for Marcus. A pivotal person in Kohiko Mai is the kaitautoko (advocate), selected by each invited student as a person whom they trust and with whom they can speak openly. The kaitautoko builds a strong relationship with their student or students, finds out what is working and what is not working for them in their classes and at school, and becomes an active advocate for them. Whānau and iwi are also involved.

Our initial conversations with students to find out what they feel about school, their perceptions of teacher practice, their learning and hauora have been illuminating. Kaitautoko have reported learning things about the students which they had not thought about before. In the school in which I am working, all of the students have said that they want to do better but do not know how they can change their disengagement. Not yet...

Kohiko Mai is strengths-based. We have been struck by the positivity of kaitautoko conversations about students. The focus has been on what students are interested in, what they are good at and insights into their lives, rather than behavioural issues. It is acknowledged that many of these students are struggling with difficult circumstances outside school and that they have untapped talents – like Marcus. Kohiko Mai teams are communicating with teachers and school leadership teams to help them adapt teaching and learning environments so that these can work better for individual students.

Because Kohiko Mai is a student-centred, school-owned endeavour, it is taking on a different shape in each school context. However, in most schools the project is building on existing inquiries and initiatives e.g. mentoring, learning logs, passion projects, local curriculum development and iwi/community initiatives. As one enthusiastic principal said, ‘This is what we are all about. This is the direction we are travelling in right now’.

Looking at the objectives and learning priorities of the conversation about National Education Shaping a Stronger Education System with New Zealanders, it’s encouraging and exciting to see that Kohiko Mai aligns well with these, especially the first two objectives - learners at the centre and barrier-free access. We all need to lift those glass lids for our disengaged students so that they can succeed, like Marcus Akuhata-Brown.

Read more about this project on the Kohiko Mai services page

Tags: learner agency active learners active learning engagement


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