Centring Care and Community: Decolonising a classroom changes more than just the content

Fenner School Director Saul Cunningham observed in an early decoloyarn (thinking decolonisation together) that “one of the really positive things we can do in Fenner is showcase examples of how new approaches to teaching and research, which reflect efforts to decolonise, have led to great results”.  

The especially exciting thing about showcasing examples of the kinds of approaches to teaching and research that Saul writes about, is that something profound rings clear: what seems like new academic and pedagogical ways to some, is practiced tradition to many. So what do students who are new to these approaches learn from their teachers? What are these great results Dr Cunningham writes of? 

The decoloyarns editorial team was thrilled when Caroline Hendy, an incoming PhD student in linguistics at the College of Asia and the Pacific, pitched this reflection on a decolonised unit that was part her post-graduate studies at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. Caroline’s experience highlights that decolonial approaches to teaching are not just about reframing the content and centring Indigenous voices, though that will always be crucial. Decolonising education involves reshaping the classroom to build a sense of community, not only between the teacher and students and between students, but also between students and their wider communities. 

When Caroline approached us with a pitch for a Decoloyarns article based on her experiences in a course taught by Kumu ('teacher') Julie Kaomea, we decided we needed to ask Kumu Kaomea what role she would like to play. We were humbled by her response, published here with her permission: 

     "Mahalo for your message. I appreciate the invitation. But after thinking it over, I believe it would be best if you and the editors meet without me. That would ensure that you have ultimate ea (freedom or sovereignty) in envisioning and creating this piece and sharing the experience from your personal perspective. So if that sounds okay to you, please go ahead without me. And if, as you suggested earlier, you could please simply share the final draft of your paper with me before it's published, I'd be comfortable with that very minimal level of involvement. Mahalo!"

Kumu Kaomea’s values of community, care and student sovereignty shone through in her short message to us, just as they did in every aspect of the course that Caroline experienced. This is but one example of decolonising teaching.  Some references giving other examples are provided at the end of the decoloyarn, to help you on your own decolonising the curriculum journey. 


I am a white non-Indigenous woman who grew up and lives on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country, and between August 2020 and May 2022 I did my Master's in Linguistics at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. During the last semester of my degree, I was lucky to take a course called 'Indigenous and Postcolonial Perspectives in Education', taught by Kumu ('teacher') Julie Kaomea, a Native Hawaiian scholar. In addition to the content centring on decolonisation, the class itself was a wonderful example of decolonising university education. I am sharing that experience in this Decoloyarn as an example of how a decolonised university course can offer a highly effective though fundamentally different way of learning by prioritising community, care, and student sovereignty.

Like all university courses, it started with a syllabus. 

I have had the privilege of being taught by many compassionate and caring teachers throughout my tertiary studies, but I had never before seen these values so prominently featured in a syllabus. My experience of syllabi is that, after detailing the semester plan, they tend to focus on outlining penalties for academic misdeeds and mistakes. You are not allowed to ask for extensions in these circumstances; going over the word limit will receive a penalty of such and such; plagiarism will be punished to the full extent of the academic law. 

In Kumu Kaomea’s syllabus, however, kindness and care were woven throughout. They were threaded through the ‘Conceptual Framework of the College of Education’ that was laid out at the start of the syllabus: 

“This course will support you in becoming Caring – Candidates care about students and their families and communities, teaching and learning, and their own professional development.” 

Expected behaviours were communicated with respect, free of threats, as demonstrated by the statement on ‘Academic Integrity and Ethical Behavior’ (notice, also, the inclusion of Hawaiian language terms in the syllabus): 

“Collaboration is encouraged! We have much to learn from and share with one another, as long as the sharing feels pono [roughly: ‘righteous and balanced’]. I trust you to trust your naʻau [roughly: ‘gut instinct’], but if you need any guidance, you can ask me or your classmates, or view this Academic Integrity Statement.” 

In the syllabus and throughout the course, Kumu Kaomea also clearly showed and explained what respectful learning looks like in her classroom: 

“Active participation includes thoughtfully sharing your reflections and insights, listening respectfully to your classmates, and allowing others the space to share their ideas without dominating the discussion in order to enhance everyone’s growth and experience.” 

This culture of sharing was re-established at the start of every class, when Kumu Kaomea would ask us if we had anything to share from our personal or professional lives that week. Kumu Kaomea would often share her own stories, too, creating an inclusive and personal learning environment. Many of the students in the class were parents, and when children made noise or sought attention, Kumu Kaomea would welcome them – reminding us that our families are part of our learning, not a distraction from it. The majority of the materials we had to prepare for class were made by or with First Nations peoples, and they included not just peer-reviewed research but also personal essays, interviews, documentaries, and fiction. They reflected the importance of listening and observation as part of active participation, and particularly the importance of non-Indigenous students like me giving space to First Nations students and perspectives (see particularly Kaomea, 2009). In line with the spirit of cultural sharing, I’ve linked some of the highlights of these different materials at the end of this piece. 

A final major aspect of the class was student sovereignty. We were expected to prepare all materials each week, but we had the choice of which ones we would like to discuss, which made break-out groups more interesting and engaging. We were allowed to choose not only the topic of our final project, but also the form in which we presented it. This resulted in a wonderful array of projects, including presentations, research papers, a short documentary, lesson plans, and business proposals. Student sovereignty included students being given ‘grade sovereignty’. In a self-reflection at the end of the semester, we were asked to indicate what letter grade we felt that we had earned as a result of our ‘effort, growth, and learning’ in the course. Kumu Kaomea explained this to us in the first class, giving us plenty of notice, and encouraged honesty in our self-evaluations. Kumu Kaomea emphasised that she would take these evaluations under serious consideration when assigning our final grades – which, in my experience, she did. 

These consistent expressions of care, respect, and emphasis on student sovereignty made Kumu Kaomea’s class a joy to be in. I was never stressed about the details of academic bureaucracy like I have been throughout many other university courses. The class topics, which focused on colonial practices and Indigenous resistance in educational contexts, were at times confronting and upsetting. Sometimes the class would share tears, but we supported each other through it with the warmth of community.  

Oh, and did I mention that this entire course was over Zoom? 


I would like to thank Kumu Kaomea for extending me the sovereignty to share my perspectives on her course. I would also like to acknowledge and express my gratitude to Kumu Kaomea for the significant emotional and other labour required to implement the values I’ve discussed within the confines of institutional regulations. 

Class materials from Kumu Kaomea

Chief Kabongo (1991, n.d.). The coming of the pink cheeks [Handout]. Zinn Education Project. https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/41611754/the-coming-of-the-pink-cheeks-zinn-education-project   

Kauanui, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui & Wolfe, Patrick (2012). Settler colonialism then and now: A conversation between J. Kēhaulani Kauanui and Patrick Wolfe. Politica & Società, 2(2012), 235-258. https://nycstandswithstandingrock.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/kauanui-wolfe-2012.pdf 

Kaomea, Julie (2005). Indigenous studies in the elementary curriculum: A cautionary Hawaiian example. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), 24-42. https://doi.org/10.1525/aeq.2005.36.1.024 
     "This article uses a Native Hawaiian example to raise difficult questions about the role and responsibility of non-Indigenous educators in teaching and supporting Indigenous studies. It challenges educators and educational researchers to think closely about how they might serve as allies in Indigenous struggles for self-determination." 

Kaomea, Julie (2009). Contemplating kuleana: Reflections on the rights and responsibilities of non-Indigenous participants in programmes for Indigenous education. AlterNative, 5(2), 78-99. https://doi.org/10.1177/117718010900500205    

Kaomea, Julie (2003). Reading erasures and making the familiar strange: Defamiliarizing methods for research in formerly colonized and historically oppressed communities. Educational Researcher, 32(2), 14-25. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3700052 

Additional resources on decolonising the classroom 

Teaiwa, Teresia (2014). The Ancestors We Get to Choose, in Theorizing Native Studies, Duke University Press 
     Prof Teresia Teaiwa describes the genealogies of knowledge that form the Pasifika Studies classroom, and teaching her classes in Pasifika Studies from an I-Kiribati standpoint and pedagogy.

Omodan, B. I. & Diko, N. (2021). A Conceptualisation of Ubuntugogy as a Decolonial Pedagogy in Africa. Journal of Culture and Values in Education, 4(2), 95-104. https://doi.org/10.46303/jcve.2021.8 

Article by Caroline Hendy, read and approved by Kumu Kaomea
Illustration by Jasmina El Bouamraoui and Karabo Poppy Moletsane

Updated:  20 February 2023/Responsible Officer:  Director, Fenner School/Page Contact:  Webmaster, Fenner School