Why I teach
By Kristin Vogel
The middle school where I teach is a beautiful mixture of several ethnicities. Students claim heritage and culture from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Tonga, Samoa, The Philippines, and the majority of the countries in Western Europe. Our staff, however, is not as multicultural. This inevitably leads to some misunderstanding, and these misunderstandings can often damage the level of trust and respect that our students give us in the classroom.
Our school holds dances several times a year for various reasons: welcoming the new 6th graders, Halloween, winter holidays, Valentine’s Day, etc. During the Halloween dance this past October I was able to proactively prevent one of these misunderstandings and helped turn it into a learning experience for students and teachers alike.
The DJ that our school hires tends to play a set of songs in the middle of the dance for our Spanish-speaking students that give them the opportunity to have the spotlight for a few minutes. Students can come on stage and dance, lead the crowd in singing along, and be part of the merriment. I was assigned to dance duty with a colleague of mine who pointed out a group of Tongan and Samoan students who looked agitated. My colleague thought they were going to fight, and when the group of 15 boys and girls walked out of the auditorium to the basketball courts he began to walk towards the office to notify the principal. I asked him to hold off while I went outside to investigate.
Walking outside into the beautiful California afternoon I noticed that the boys had formed a semi-circle while the girls were sitting off to the side watching. The boys began to perform what is known as a haka, a traditional war dance. I’ve worked with Pacific Island students in the past, and know how important their traditions are. I began to talk to the girls to find out why the group had left the dance.
The girls told me that the group felt disrespected that the DJ never plays their songs. “There are more Tongans at school than Korean kids and the DJ plays one or two K-pop songs a dance. It’s not fair!” By now some of the boys came over and agreed with the sentiments. “We just want to dance to our music.” I asked the group if I could ask the DJ if he had a song they wanted to play. This is where my lack of knowledge came into play. One of the boys laughed playfully, “We don’t need a song, we bring the song!”
After explaining to the DJ what needed to happen to make things right the Samoan and Tongan boys gathered onstage, formed a semi-circle, and began to chant. Using their bodies to create the rhythm and beat, they performed the haka for the attendees of the dance, and received cheers and wild applause when they were done. After coming down from the stage they joined the rest of their peers on the dance floor while the DJ put on a Top 40 hit. As I left my assignment that afternoon the leader of the haka stopped me and said “We had never done that before at school. Maybe everyone will understand us now. Thank you.” I felt like I had done my job in diffusing a situation that could have gone horribly wrong, and hopefully shed some light on the fact that we should not assume the worst in our students.
This is why I teach.