Lynette Suliana Sikahema Finau was raised in Mesa, Arizona after her family’s immigration from the Island Kingdom of Tonga as a young child. She started college at Brigham Young University but graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies on Culture, Literature, and the Arts from UW. She has a dual Master’s Degree in Education and in Education Leadership and Change. She is currently a PhD Candidate at Antioch University’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change Program. With teaching endorsements in English Composition, Literature, and History, Finau is one of very few certificated Pacific Islander teachers in WA State. She’s taught in the Marysville and Tukwila school districts and is currently an English teacher at Spanaway Lake High School in the Bethel School District.
Recognizing the expansion of globalism and ethnic diversity of students in the classroom, and the persistent discrepancies in the racial and ethnic composition of the student body and the teaching force, Finau is conducting Grounded Theory research on Reflective Leadership; the mirroring effectiveness (role model) of teachers reflecting the culture of the students and the power dynamics of student identity and academics as her dissertation. It is designed with the intention to help increase the number of teachers of color as an essential component toward closing the achievement gap. Appointed by Governor Jay Inslee in 2013, Finau is currently serving a second term as a Board Commissioner for Washington State’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA) to assist in creating a culture where full participation and social equality of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are achievable.
The International Examiner sat down with Finau to discuss diversity in education.
International Examiner: What do you think is the most important issue for Pacific Islanders today?
Lynette Finau: The most important issue, to me, is the education of Pacific Islander students in a constant evolving process of living in a multicultural, multiethnic society, yet still limited with skills and tools needed to be successful in school.
IE: Why did you decide to become a teacher? Why are you drawn to working in education?
Finau: I chose teaching as a profession because it is the only career that would keep me close to my children and be well-informed on resources available to help them. Little did I know that what started as a target toward helping my own children extended to all Pacific Islander students. I’m drawn to education, especially middle school and high school, because somewhere along this difficult stage will and should be the turning point for them to recognize what is in store for them in the future, their place in it, and what skill sets they need to excel. Leadership is extremely important to them at this stage.
IE: Tell us a little bit about your thesis. How does the lack of diversity in the teaching force affect teachers and students of color? How will increasing teachers of color help close the opportunity gap?
Finau: Since entering the teaching profession, I have been astounded by the lack of teachers of color represented in the education system, given how global classrooms are today. Students of color are the demographic majority in the United States. In contrast, minority teachers make up less than 20% of the teaching force. The number of teachers of color, nationwide, is in no way in parity with the number of students of color. Add to this mismatch are the disparities in achievement gap between race and ethnicity.
This lack of Reflective Leadership (as I call it) for students of color, stirs my interest to examine major existing statistics, explore arguments, and critique analyses on the state of diversity in the teaching force. I am examining and analyzing the literature on research and scholarly work on students and teachers’ perceptions on identity and using Grounded Theory methodology on my experiences as a PI teacher and the effect it has on PI students. There is limited research and scholarly work to indicate that lack of Reflective Leadership in the classroom contributes to the achievement gap for students of color, and in particular Pacific Islander students. My goal is to add my own scholarship and research to this under researched area of inquiry as a tool towards narrowing the achievement gap.
PI teachers are a rarity in the education system, yet PI student enrollment has increased nationwide in the past 30 years and unfortunately, a high percentage of the PI student population exists within the achievement gap. With this continued underservicing and underrepresentation in the teaching force, how can we ensure that students of color succeed in the classroom? Increasing the number of teachers of color as mirrors or role models is one of many factors that can contribute to narrowing the achievement gap and the vision gap. This is the gap that can arise in how students of color view themselves as future professionals.
After all, it is difficult for students to be what they cannot see. Students need mirrors. They need to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and see teachers who reflect back to them their language, their culture, their ethnicity, their religion, and their experiences. In the teaching profession, there are not enough mirrors for students of color, especially when there is a clear relationship between teacher quality, diversity and student success.
IE: What would you say to young people of color who think they might be interested in teaching or working in education?
Finau: The old adage of being the change you want to see never diminishes. I tell my students everyday that what they see and experience in school that they believe needs to change in order for them to excel will not happen if they just talk and complain about it. Don’t be intimidated by the process.
In essence, once students of color are charged by the confidence and recognition that there are power dynamics in their identity and academics—that will be the driving force for them to go into education and be that leader and change they want to see.