Tongan teacher seeks cultural representation in the classroom

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Lynette Finau is both an English teacher and a commissioner on CAPAA. • Courtesy Photo

Lynette Finau became a teacher so she could have the same day-to-day schedule as her children. She never expected her chosen profession would lead her to becoming a role model for other young Pacific Islander students in the South Seattle area.

Now the Spanaway Lake High School English teacher is finishing up her term as commissioner on the Washington State Commission of Asian Pacific American Affairs.

Finau describes her work as being a voice for Asians and Pacific Islanders in the community and making sure they have full access to education, business, and healthcare resources in the state. She is currently focusing on incorporating Pacific Islander culture and family involvement in Seattle K-12 classrooms.

Finau’s journey into teaching started in the Marysville School District. When she decided to work in Rainier Beach High School and Franklin High School in South Seattle because of the lack of diversity in Marysville, she was surprised to realize that there was a lack of Polynesian teachers in the schools.

“I was aware of the large Pacific Islander community in this area and I just assumed that they must have [Pacific Islander] teachers,” she said. “But they didn’t.”

With the instinct that other Polynesian students were facing similar struggles to what she faced when she was younger, Finau decided to branch out from teaching her values to her own children to serving other Polynesian youth.

Finau’s own childhood was not easy. Her mother accepted an offer to attend college at Brigham Young University in Hawai‘i. Although this was her ticket to America, the offer did not apply to her children and, as a result, Finau and her brothers stayed with their grandparents in Tonga.

It took six years for Finau and her brothers to reunite with their parents in America, where they settled in Arizona. Finau described her transition to a new country and learning a new language as difficult.

“I basically had to learn English in the playground, the hallways,” Finau said. “I had to fend for myself to learn the language on my own because they didn’t need the [English Language Learning] program at a school where there were no ELL students.”

Finau and her brothers discovered their tickets to college were through excelling in athletics. Finau’s older brother, Vai Sikahema, was the first Tongan to make it into the National Football League and go to college on a football scholarship.

Now, Finau’s daughter Jade is on the UW volleyball team and her son Jarett graduated last year after having played football for the Huskies from 2011 to 2015. Finau attributed their academic success to their talents in sports, remembering how her own athletic experiences helped her get into college.

Jade Finau saw her mother’s stories as lessons because she noticed that her experiences growing up in an area that lacked ethnic diversity was similar to her mother’s own upbringing in Arizona.

In order to help connect them to their roots, Lynette Finau taught her children Tongan dance and singing in the Tongan language.

“Growing up, my mom told me when we leave home we should always remember our upbringing as Tongan Americans,” Jade Finau said. “‘Remember’ and ‘gratitude’ are two of my mom’s favorite words because it’s important to remember who helped us along the way and to always be grateful for what we have.”

Jade recalled a day of show-and-tell in her first-grade class when the students had to bring something that was important to them. While other students brought photographs of their dog or their stuffed animals, Jade’s mother told her to dance in front of her class.

“I was embarrassed,” Jade said. “It brought the reality that I was different and my mom wanted me to show that I was different.”

Although she grew to love cultural dancing and singing, Jade had to sacrifice Tongan arts to make time for sports. She followed her mother’s advice to try collegiate volleyball instead of her favorite sport, basketball, because her mother believed she had more of a chance to succeed in volleyball. Now, Jade describes her talent in volleyball as a “blessing in disguise.”

“If I wasn’t playing sports, I’m sure I would have found a way to make it into college anyway because I would’ve had more time to focus on academics,” Finau said. “I think it’s more fun to go through the sports route because it opened a lot of doors for me.”

According to the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, there were about 60 Polynesians in the NFL in 2014. Five Polynesian players were selected in the first 66 picks of the 2015 NFL draft, including former UW Husky Danny Shelton.

The high number of Pacific Islander athletes on the field, however, do not reflect the same number of Pacific Islander educators in schools in the United States.

Jarett Finau said that having a lack of support leads many Pacific Islander youth into trouble, and that is why he believes his parents pushed him to do sports.

“When people are poor, they do dumb things,” Finau said. “They don’t have resources, so the only way they can get out of a bad situation is by doing something. If I wasn’t in football, I would’ve probably been doing something else.”

Finau said the most valuable thing he learned from his mother was the importance of education.

Pursuing higher education was a recurring theme in his family because Lynette’s grandparents were taught the English language from Mormon missionaries.

Lynette Finau believes that succeeding in the American school system is also dependent on cultural representation. She said Pacific Islander students struggle to find their niche in school because they do not see role models who reflect who they are.

“These students are just used to seeing white teachers, that’s the norm for them,” Finau said. “But to see a teacher come in who can speak their language and who can communicate with their parents … it just completely changes their perspective and gives them a sense of self confidence because there’s a leader there that looks like them and represents them.”

The change Finau wants to see in the public school system is for the school system to not only focus on the individual student, but to also take into account their cultural backgrounds and be able to communicate with their families. In the future, she hopes to move away from K-12 work and move on to teaching higher education. Her dissertation is on reflective leadership, meaning the value of the students’ cultures being reflected by the teacher.

“I hope the little work that I have done will inspire more students to become teachers because that’s the only way we can create the change that we want to see,” Finau said.

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