It’s the time of year when many schools are considering their achievement targets for the coming year —  analysing data; having discussions with staff — and thinking about how they can improve educational outcomes for all students. To be honest, we know that Māori students, in particular Māori boys, are sadly often overrepresented in the tail end of our educational achievement curve. As such, we often find them in starring roles in many school’s achievement targets. It appears that many of our Māori boys are underachieving across the board, and most notably in writing. More importantly, they appear to be achieving at a substantially lower standard than their female classmates, and most certainly in comparison to Pākehā/European students of their same age, and in the same learning environments. So, it stands to reason that we must have achievement targets aimed at improving the achievement of Māori boys in writing, doesn’t it? Or…is there more to this story?

national standards by subject graph

national standards by gender graph

reading, maths, writing statsAll tables retrieved from:


You may not have heard of the acronym, TBH, before, and you might be wondering why it is relevant here. You also may not have heard what those clever little Gen Z teens have been spending their time doing on social media — the TBH game! Gen Z teens for the past year or so have been plumping each other’s feathers, inflating each other’s egos, and generally just passing around the warm fuzzies! One person posts something like this:
[IMAGE Mail-tbh] which roughly translates to — ‘If you like this post, I will send you (via Facebook private message) a list of the honest things I think about you’. In short — warm fuzzies. Well, perhaps not always warm, but they appear to be mostly positive affirmations in typical Gen Z lingo.

In my eyes, this phenomenon is truly amazing and it really does warm my heart. What other generation has ever done this? My own Gen Z teen has allowed me to share with you all a couple of the many hundreds he has in his inbox. All of them kept, and all of them special to him.


(Of course, you need a Masters’ degree in Gen Z lingo and emoticons to interpret them, but I can assure you, they are all warm fuzzies!)

So, please bear with me for a moment while I propose a few TBH statements that may be born from teachers’ perceptions, and which are sitting beneath the targets relating to improving the writing achievement of our Māori boys:

TBH Māori boys are disengaged in learning
TBH Māori boys misbehave and distract others
TBH Māori boys find writing too hard
TBH Māori boys have a bad attitude and/or a closed mind set
TBH Māori boys have a poor work ethic
TBH Māori boys get little or no support at home
TBH Māori boys don’t like writing

Now, it might be that some, all, or none of these statements are true for our Māori boys. BUT, my wondering is this: How do you know? What’s the story behind your data?


Analysing achievement data is a no mean feat. It takes perseverance, tenacity, and, most of all, determination to uncover your story behind your data. Each school will have their own version of events with determining factors and influences. How can we discover what our data is revealing to us? I would advocate for an inquiry into your data that includes everyone’s voices — especially the voices of the stars of the show — our students. More information on inquiry may be found here.

If we really want to know what’s going on for our Māori boys in class, we need to ask them. Not just once, but repeatedly. In open, safe, and respectful environments. Most importantly, we need them to know we will hear them and we will act on their ideas, opinions, and honest reflections. Just like how they know when their mate has read their TBH statements, our kids know the difference between when they have been listened to and when they have been truly heard. Ask the tough questions when analysing your data. What assumptions are we making? Whose voices are included or not included? What don’t we collect data on? TBH you might feel slightly uncomfortable on the journey to discovering your story, but it’ll be worth it! All the very best views can be seen from the top of the mountain!


If non-Māori students in your school are achieving comparatively better than Māori students in writing, and they are all sitting in the same classes exposed to the same teaching practices, what might be the real reason our Māori boys are struggling with writing?

Russell Bishop’s work in the Te Kotahitanga project developed the Effective Teaching Profile. In his research, Russell discovered that the largest positive impact we can have on Māori student achievement lies in the hearts and minds of their educators. High expectations; a genuine ethos of care; effective personalised teaching strategies; and supporting the success of our Māori students asMāori, are all essential ingredients to raising achievement for Māori students.

effective teaching profileRetrieved from:

With this in mind, when considering the professional development needs for your school in order to meet your target of raising achievement for Māori boys in writing, perhaps we need to look past the data and consider the story behind it. It might be that the answer doesn’t exclusively lie in developing our writing programmes. Could it, in fact, be that the more pressing need is to develop the Culturally Responsive practices of our teachers and schools, and further affirm our status as treaty partners.


This is the mantra of the He Kākano programme. Put simply, I think this means that if we create learning environments that are conducive to Māori students, they will be conducive to everyone. Why? Because we are really just talking about great relationships with students that will inform the way we teach and support each and every one of them — responsive practices. Furthermore, if we are wanting to meet the needs of all of our students in a holistic way, then culture, language, and identity must be at the forefront.


As you embark on your next data-crunching expedition, I encourage you to explore and discover your story. Critically analysing data is of the utmost importance, particularly when considering the professional learning needs for your school, and, more importantly, when considering what is best for the students in your school. Discover your story and set the right targets for your students. Focus on the things that will really make the difference for them. TBH they’re worth it.

What's the story behind your writing?


Further reading:

  1. Creating culturally-safe schools for Māori students — Macfarlane, Glynn, Cavanagh, Bateman
  2. Culture Speaks — Russell Bishop and Mere Berryman
  3. Colouring in the White Spaces — B A Milne


For professional support in Culturally Responsive Practice, please check out our website and email
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Janelle Riki-Waaka

Janelle Riki-Waaka is a South Region Team Leader for the Learning with Digital Technologies project on behalf of CORE Education. Janelle has acted in various team leader roles in primary schools before joining CORE in 2011. She has considerable teaching and leadership experience in both English-medium and bilingual education settings, and has written whole-school Te Reo Māori teaching and learning programmes, school policies and procedures for bilingual programmes and mainstream schools, the Treaty of Waitangi in education, Ka Hikitia Managing for Success, as well as Tikanga Māori in education. Janelle has developed resources to support Te Reo Māori me ōna Tikanga programmes in school, and planned and delivered extensive professional development programmes for English-medium teachers. Janelle has been involved in organising many formal Māori ceremonies for schools, as well as planning and facilitating Māori consultation hui for community groups, iwi, and whānau.
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Anne Kenneally is an experienced professional learning facilitator. Anne facilitates the effective use of digital technologies to engage and empower all learners. She has been a part of the Learning with Digital Technologies team. She is also a mentor within the UChoose mentoring programme and Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) programmes. Anne has worked with schools and leadership teams across New Zealand supporting the development of effective use of technology, Google how-tos, and teaching as inquiry, through to strategic planning and school transformation initiatives. Anne has a strong focus on teaching as inquiry, supporting leaders and educators to maximise their potential. She is also passionate about removing ‘barriers to learning’ for students, particularly in literacy.

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