That ‘lightbulb moment’ is graduating teacher’s drive

The joy of “seeing lightbulbs going off in kids’ heads” is what motivates graduating teacher Fa’atoese Tofilau (Ese).

Of Samoan and Māori heritage, Ese will be among hundreds of University of Auckland students finally getting their moment on stage at Spark Arena this week, after Covid forced two previously planned ceremonies to be postponed.

He is graduating with a Bachelor of Education (Primary) from the University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work and already has a job at Manurewa Intermediate School, where he had been working for seven years as learning assistant before deciding to begin his studies.

He says completing the degree was “fulfilling a passion” and a natural next step after his learning assistant work and volunteer involvement in Kiwi Can, part of the Graham Dingle Foundation, where he taught life skills in different low decile schools around Auckland.

“I’ve worked with children for a large chunk of my life and putting a degree to my name confirmed for me that I was in the right place,” he says. “Also, meeting many like-minded people who all know what they are getting themselves into being teachers; it’s definitely not about the money, but rather wanting to make an impact on the next generation.”

Ese and proud members of his whanau on graduation day.

He found balancing university work with other work and family time – he is married to Lia and the proud father of “four awesome children” – challenging, and something that has prepared him well for his teaching career.

“I guess that goes for most uni students paying their way, a lot of late nights but well worth it in the end.”

And 2020 was quite a year to start out as a teacher, with two lockdowns forcing students home and classes online, but he says he was lucky to be in a school that is “super organised”.

“On hearing the news, the teachers immediately sprang into gear and joined forces to put together work for our students, creating home learning packs for each student and getting a device out to all who needed one.”

He says being tech-savvy really worked in his favour during lockdown, and he enjoyed being able to create work online.

“I was able to have Google Meets every morning with my class to touch base and for the students to let me know how they were coping. Every morning I would log into our Google Meet and wait for each student to log in and would play a video or have music playing to set the mood. We would have fun mornings doing activities on websites such as Quizizz or Kahoot before we got stuck into schoolwork.”

We are in this privileged position where we have a direct impact on the next generation.

Ese TofilauGraduating teacher, Faculty of Education and Social Work

As a maths specialist, he also ran workshops with different groups in his class as well as offering extra times for other students to stop in if they needed help.

“I would create Google Slides that would cover the day’s topics and have links attached that would take them to different sites to complete work. There are so many interactive learning sites out there that I used, and encouraged my students to use. It was more about keeping them interested in learning and encouraging them to keep their brains working, instead of treating lockdown as a holiday break.”

He says his teaching is guided by the Neil Postman quote, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see “.

“For me, that resonates and is exactly why I am in this job. We are in this privileged position where we have a direct impact on the next generation; building the ‘next Jacindas’ of this world. How awesome of a job is that?”

And if he could ask this new government for one thing that would make a difference for the children at Manurewa Intermediate?

“I guess it’s cliché, but it would be to tackle child poverty, an issue that not only affects Manurewa Intermediate, but the South Auckland community in general, where I grew up myself. It’s not about handouts but more about hand-ups. If learning were a race, our students are starting 50 even 60 metres behind the line, and addressing something like child poverty in our community would help immensely in closing that gap.”

His family will all be attending the graduation ceremony and are all “super proud”.

“It’s not every day they get to see someone graduate from university, so it is huge for them. Family for me is everything, my reason for doing what I do. Studying and proving to my siblings and my own children that it is never too late to follow your dreams.”

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