What is the role of culture in education?

Written by Joseph Houghton
NZ Born of Pasifika and European descent


I remember two questions from the interview I had for the teaching job I currently have:

The first one was, “What is your favourite Shakespearean play?”

The answer was Henry V – a play I had studied at high school and at University – one which the themes of leadership, brotherhood and national identity are strongly explored. I sweated over this question, hoping to impress the somewhat overbearing Head of English.

The second one was, “If offered the position, will you take responsibility for the Pacific Island group?”

Interestingly, after being an English teacher for nine years, I have still not taught Henry V, but I have spent the best part of nearly eight years working with and for the Pasifika students at my school – loving every minute of it and learning far more from them, then they every did from me.

Because of my association with this group, I have spent many late nights and a lot of early mornings pondering questions such as:

1.     What is the role of culture in education?

2.    How do we, as an institution, value and appreciate our students and families from different cultural backgrounds?

3.    How do we responsibly and responsively educate the next generation of Pacific Peoples in New Zealand?

These are questions that drive me and frequently break me – mentally and emotionally. The answers that I come up with both frustrate me and invigorate me.

On March 18th, we had the Christchurch Polyfest – my seventh. Just like all six before it, I stood to the side of the stage and fought back tears as I watched hours, days, weeks, months, years and generations of cultural knowledge and pride be displayed to the world.

Why is culture so powerful? It is powerful precisely because it is culture. The same Head of English who interviewed me once said that ‘culture is what we do – it’s as simple as that’. And it is. It is what we do, formed and evolved over multiple generations and hundreds of years. Distilled over time. The basis of individual and communal strength.

Educational institutions in this country are starting to wake up to the power of culture. As a friend of mine remarked after Polyfest - Sometimes it can feel like Pasifika Peoples may not have much of a voice, but we have a song, and it’s beautiful.


JOSEPH IS OF COOK ISLAND AND EUROPEAN DESCENT. HE IS CURRENTLY A SECONDARY SCHOOL TEACHER IN CHRISTCHURCH, WHERE HE HAS LIVED FOR HIS WHOLE LIFE. HIS JOB INVOLVES THE PASTORAL CARE OF MAORI AND PASIFIKA STUDENTS AT HIS SCHOOL, AS WELL AS TEACHING ENGLISH. HE HAS JUST COMPLETED HIS POSTGRADUATE DIPLOMA IN EDUCATION THOUGH MASSEY UNIVERSITY ON EDUCATIONAL ISSUES CONCERNING MAORI AND PASIFIKA STUDENTS AND HAS ASPIRATIONS OF STARTING HIS PHD IN THE NEAR FUTURE.