Some schools call it tutor group, others call it form class. At our kura it’s known as whanau time. Whichever nomenclature* you want to use, it seems that most kura in New Zealand have some portion of the day dedicated to the pastoral care of a select group of students. The time given to these students and the way these groups are structured varies from school to school. In my time as both a student and an educator, I’ve been privileged enough to observe and be a part of a several different variations of homeroom. Some work incredibly well, whilst others don’t quite live up to the promise of a what these spaces intended. With the wide opportunity for variance, I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences of homeroom time and how I think we can best utilise it to support our rangatahi.
Clarity of purpose
You’ve got to ask yourself, what is the point of a tutor group? Now at each school and in each classroom, this will vary slightly but fundamentally homeroom is an opportunity to build a close caring relationship with students, whilst supporting their academic journey and wellbeing. Big ask huh? Add onto that facilitating whanau relationships amongst students, building agency and supporting transition into career pathways and you’re looking at A LOT of work. So, let’s break it down.
Building a culture
At our kura, there is 20 minutes a day in which students gather for ‘whanau time’. This comes just before morning tea. Two years ago, we switched to a vertical format, which meant new classes of roughly 32 students, across the year levels. These were facilitated by two teachers. Personally, I love being able to share the duties of the role (and even the roll) with my whanau teacher buddy. We both offer different support skills to our students and balance each other out well. This structural shift came out of a desire to reset our pastoral system. Prior to this at our kura it felt like many whanau classes I had observed were a stopgap for students and teachers to decompress and jump on their phones. The potential of ‘whanau time’ was not being met. In the initial shift into a new system, what I noticed was a replicated culture but now with the promise of relationships across year levels.
This year, I’m saying let’s get off the phones and ask ourselves what whanau really means. In a family, you know each other’s names and you know information about one another, we started there. Many teachers do this relationship building in the first few days of the school year and then it’s back to the mahi (work). I’m not surprised, extra planning for whanau takes time and it often ends up being forgotten. But we have to ask, WHY are students disengaged and tuned out? We’re not providing them with a better alternative. If you gave me the choice between sitting quietly for twenty minutes or going on my phone, I know which I’d choose. This IS the mahi, creating the better option. So, where do you even start?
To structure or not to structure
I remember a homeroom at another school where the teacher had something planned for each day. SSR (Silent Sustained Reading), board games day, watch a movie day and even D-Day (Device Day). It was well-intentioned idea but moving around it was clear the students were missing the opportunity to build relationships. In addition, there was very little one-to-one time between teacher and student. Here’s the thing, if you want to structure, it has to be borne out of the vision you have for homeroom time. In our class, we’ve started to structure some of days. We’ll do quizzes with information about other members of the class and on other days we’ll do CV building or goal setting. Yes, we have a ‘cards day’ where students get to play cards, but the point is that they engage with one other in conversation whilst doing this. It may seem silly to over-scaffold these interactions but how often do we assume that all kids have the skills to navigate interpersonal situations. In our class, we leave space and provide support for interactions as simple as “how was your weekend?” The misconception that all students come into class with these kinds of skills often leads to the uncomfortable silent spaces I mentioned before. Provide spaces for kids to talk but pair this with scaffolded opportunities for interaction.
The promise of our new vertical format was not only relationships amongst students but relationships across levels. It seems brilliant, a homeroom consisting of Years 9 through to 13. The vision of tuakana teina (mentor-mentee) relationships espoused by those that favour this model. However, walking into classrooms in 2021, what I saw often was students from the same year level sitting in their own corners of the room. Again, the problem is students will always replicate the norm unless we scaffold these spaces. We plan our pedagogical interactions, so why not our pastoral ones? One way our whanau has done this is through an internal competition, where students were put into groups (with one student from each year level) and tasked to come up with a name that represented their connection to one another. This competition will run throughout the term with one team receiving a prize at the end of each term.
Another way to build relationships which is manageable is to lean on those leaders within the class, students you know that have the skills to converse, to bring people into conversation, to support those struggling. Our senior leaders have been pivotal is slowly shifting our classroom culture and setting an example of the mahi we intend to undertake in the term. They also provide support for students to set academic goals and gain control of their learning. Utilise your leaders.
Homeroom time has to be about supporting students’ learning journeys. Sometimes this looks like providing career advice and at other times it might be getting a clear picture of what assessments are coming up. When I took a homeroom in 2020, the most this interaction consisted of was “sir can you check my credits?” I’d realised the failing. I had not provided students with the tools to take control of their own learning journey. In 2022, providing reflective opportunities for growth and goal setting is a crucial part of our whanau time. There are plenty of tools to support this. In our class we’ve been using MyMahi, an online tool that supports goal-setting and reflection. Here’s my wero (challenge): if you currently don’t have this time built into your whanau practice, set aside one day a fortnight to focus on goal setting. This doesn’t need to be an individual experience and could involve students working together and sharing ideas.
So those are my current reflections on homeroom. I’m keen to hear about what you do at your kura. Each school will have a different model, with time allocated differently and their own set of expectations. Yes, my whanau buddy and I still have to check attendance and read the notices but if each day we can enhance our homeroom space with a little bit of deliberate planning, then I believe we’ll see a drop in pastoral incidents, a rise in achievement and the promise of student & teacher relationships that support growth.
*For the purposes of this blog, I use the term homeroom.