Back to the Future at Pataua North!

Over the holiday break I had the wonderful experience of being able to revisit my past, when my family decided to celebrate my birthday by spending a weekend together in the place where I grew up.

All of my primary schooling was in the one-roomed Pataua School, where the greatest total roll number ever was 16. All my secondary years were spent riding in my father’s bus from Pataua North to Whangarei Girls’ High School every day. It has been 47 years since we left the community, and I hadn’t been back in all that time.

I obviously expected change, and it was there, in the numbers and quality of homes and beach houses and the tar-sealed road all the way from Whangarei!   The school is long gone, replaced by an outdoor education centre, in its prime location right on the banks of the Pataua Estuary.

What I didn’t expect was how much had remained the same. The footbridge my parents, and a community committee, fought so hard to establish still spans the river, joining Pataua North to Pataua South.  Before the bridge we came to school by boat, until we moved to live in our bus garage on Pataua North. Others came on horseback or walked.  Some families crossed two rivers to get to school.  The beauty of the location, right on the coast, the mountain – the original Pa site, the names of original families preserved in road names. Our old home is gone, but its location now has a street name and number. That’s progress!

My long-suffering whānau were treated to all these stories, and I came home reflecting on what it was about that upbringing and education, that shaped the way I have thought about learning ever since?

The only Pākehā families, other than ourselves, the teacher, and one shop owner, were farmers, well spread out along the road from Pataua to Whareora. The strength of the community was the long-established Māori whānau. The seeds of my interest in Māori education were planted in the Pataua School Kapa Haka group (all 16 of us), in the number of Māori hui, celebrations, tangi, and events we were always part of, and my daily interaction in a school where Pākehā were the minority.

With hindsight, I’m sure it mattered that the sole teacher was always a white male, and that the farming community was the only source of any economic wealth. However, even with my rose-coloured glasses off, my memories are of a community that came together in the school, of a respect for Māori culture and tikanga, of the school as the hub of all community activities – calf days, gala days, church services, kapa haka, sports events, community meetings, fundraising, weaving classes, making piupiu, carving – that all happened in the school grounds. We even had a tennis club, on the school tennis court – which is still there! There was one shop selling basic needs, no transport other than the bus once a day, few families had cars, or telephones, and people had to get together, face to face, in order to communicate. The isolation of the community was both its curse (or so we thought when we were young!) and its strength.

I’m not suggesting we should go back in time, although many small, rural, schools now still have that same rich community experience, however there are lessons to be learned in our modern, large, urban, schools and frenetic daily lives, about the way we interact and engage families in their children’s learning. There are lessons about the importance of the cultures that underpin every community. There are lessons about cultural content and learning from each other. There are lessons from the kaumatua and kuia who were constantly present in the community. All those lessons were the ones that stuck with me when I started teaching, were strengthened when my own children went to school, and have followed me into school leadership and research.

Thanks Pataua! I can’t wait to go back for another visit!