Teu Le Va: Relationships across research and policy in Pasifika education

Publication Details

Teu le va is a tool primarily for educational researchers, to help them plan and implement research that contributes to the development of effective policy and practice in respect of Pasifika students in our schools.

Teu le va emphasises a number of principles or practices, including the need for: researchers to directly involve Pasifika learners, their families, and communities, and teachers as practitioners, in the development of research proposals or plans; ongoing collaboration between researchers and policy-makers; collaboration among researchers from different organisations and groups in order to build a sound knowledge base; ensuring that any research undertaken is relevant for a range of audiences (eg, parents, communities, teachers, policy-makers); all research, development and policy-making in Pasifika education to have a firm focus on student success: realising potential and identifying opportunities.

Author(s): Airini, Melani Anae and Karlo Mila-Schaaf with Eve Coxon, Diane Mara & Kabini Sanga

Date Published: July 2010

Working Together: Principles for collaboration between researchers and policy-makers

Principle one:

Optimal relationships through teu le va between researchers and policy-makers are necessary for a collective and collaborative approach to research and policy-making, and must be valued and acted on.

"If you seriously want better outcomes for Pacific young people and their families, then policy settings that impact upon them need to be congruent with this world. You need to be drawing upon the strengths, understandings and meanings of this world. … That would lead to a plurality of policy settings, of research approaches, of methods of evaluation practices in the field. … In the Pacific case, it would enable policies and practices that will enhance identity, draw upon positive strengths in the cultures and facilitate authentic Pacific development."
Efi, 2003

The document Pasifika Education Research Guidelines (Anae et al, 2001) has been cited by the authors of numerous research projects and academic papers as guidelines which have informed their research (Podmore and Airini, 2004; Tuafuti and McCaffery, 2005; Podmore et al, 2003; Baba, 2004; Crichton-Hill et al, 2006). However, it is timely that we reflect on Pasifika education research developments in New Zealand in order to conceptually consider at a broader level how these can lead to best practice and successful outcomes for all stakeholders involved in the research process - for Pasifika researchers, teams, funders, participants, communities, and policy-makers. The Teu le va approach offers both a philosophical and methodological basis for future Pasifika educational research in New Zealand which will inform and influence policy-planners and result in optimal practical outcomes for Pasifika learners.

As signalled by Efi (2003), and others, in order to transform existing research praxis to produce fundamental shifts in how Pasifika educational research is viewed, valued and acted on by policy-makers, a radical rethinking about the centrality of relationships is required.

Unlike previous Pacific research guidelines, Teu le va places a strong emphasis on optimal relationships in the va (see Health Research Council, 2004; Anae et al, 2001) as the primary or pivotal philosophical and practical change-maker.

The pan-Pacific notion of va is identified as being central to these guidelines and the notion of teu le va introduced; specifically in terms of developing the relationship between research and policy. The second change-maker focuses on the collective and collaborative aspects of these relationships. While it is necessary for parties in a relationship to maintain their separate identities in terms of their roles and functions, the collaborative aspect in Teu le va is that the parties in a relationship work together and work cooperatively in their reciprocal va in order to achieve optimal outcomes for Pasifika stakeholders.


Va - or vā, va'a, vaha - can be loosely translated as a spatial way of conceiving the secular and spiritual dimensions of relationships and relational order, that facilitates both personal and collective well-being, and teu le va as the 'valuing', 'nurturing' and 'looking after' of these relationships to achieve optimal outcomes for all stakeholders (see Anae, 2007).

The word 'teu' in Samoan literally means 'to keep (for example, in the heart or in the mind) the space', to put away (in a safe place) the space, 'to look after the space', or to 'tidy up the space'. The first two definitions imply foundation (theory) and permanence of space; the last two infer implementation (practice) and temporal space6.

Transforming the work of researchers and policy-makers will require a better understanding of how one relates to the other, and how to look after collaborative relationships.

A Samoan perspective on the va, together with four Tongan perspectives on the vā and implications for working together follow.

The concept of the Samoan self as a 'relational self' is explicit in the literature on Samoan well-being in New Zealand (Tamasese et al, 2005; Lui, 2003). The Samoan self is described as reliant on relationships that are occurring in the va, or space between. Samoan discourses on the va, va feoloa'i (spaces between relational arrangements), va tapuia (sacred spaces of relational arrangements), and teu le va are covered comprehensively in the literature (Shore, 1982; Duranti, 1981; Lilomaiava-Doktor, 2004) as well as in a paper delivered in 2005 which traces Samoan understandings of va/teu le va (Anae, 2005). In the latter paper, va and teu le va in the context of the Samoan voices conveyed by Tamasese et al (2005) are examined. These voices include a linguistic interpretation by Dr Emma Kruse Va'ai (2002) and a personal communication from Tupua Tamasese Tupuola Efi on the vafealoa'i and teu le va which is "the fatu (essence) of faasamoa". Also, Aiono Fanaafi Le Tagaloa, in her publication O Motugaafa (1996), sets out the tapu (sacredness) of the va between specific human relations.

From a Tongan perspective, Helu-Thaman (cited in Coxon, 2007) states that: "Because the cultural identity formation of most Oceanic people is relational rather than individualistic, it follows that the spaces or vā between and among persons, or between a person and his/her environment, together with the frameworks that determine such relationships, must be nurtured and protected. Understanding the significance of the notion of vā and educating for its continued nurturance and maintenance are central to any discussion about education for inter-cultural understanding in Oceania, if not globally."

This suggests that when researchers and policy-makers are working together for better Pasifika education outcomes, individual agendas should be transformed into relational contexts between people, things and environment in the nurturing and protection of mutually respectful relationships, for the good of what is at stake (see Case studies, Appendix five).

Taufe'ulungaki also refers to how: "In Tongan culture 'relationship' is described by the concept 'vā'. Literally it means 'space'. But, in Tongan communities, relationships or the space between any two individuals or groups, or between communities and nature, are defined by the context in which the interaction occurs. Thus, when the context changes, the relationship changes also, evening the case of the same two individuals or groups and maintaining, nurturing and developing that vā so that it remains strong and flexible … " (Taufe'ulungaki, 2004:6).

This means, for relationships between researchers and policy-makers, which are fluid and multi-levelled, driven by a range of contexts - including familiar and unfamiliar - that it is essential to set aside time to value and nurture the va in these diverse contexts.

A third Tongan perspective, from Ka'ili, states that in order to grasp the complexities of vā, we must first understand the meaning of vā, socio-spatial connection. "The word vā is not unique to Tonga, for cognates are found in many Moanan languages. Vā can be glossed as 'space between people or things'. This notion of space is known in Tonga, Samoa, Rotuma, and Tahiti as vā, while in Aotearoa and Hawai'i it is known as wā. Vā (or wā) points to a specific notion of space, namely, space between two or more points" (Ka'ili, 2005:89).

This suggests that when collaborating in research and policy-making stakeholders should, together, develop mutual expectations of good (ideal) behaviour, including body language and verbal language and time/place/space considerations, for optimal outcomes, and continually reflect on what these expectations might be.

A fourth perspective, expressed by Mila-Schaaf, suggests that: "Vā is closely associated with balance and harmony in relationships and the natural order and aesthetic of human interconnections and relationships. The va is used interchangeably to describe aesthetic balance in art and architecture as well as aesthetic balance in relationships" (Mila-Schaaf, 2006:8).

This means that working together involves attaining balance and harmony in all human interconnections and relationships - in expectations, behaviours, and communication. In turn, there is a need to allow time for this dynamic process. Working together means shifting the emphasis to include processes associated with making, growing, and thriving within good and ideal relationships.

Teu le va: A reference point for collaborative relationships

"We rarely attend to the context behind the context - the spheres or domains of social relationships within communities. If we understand that, we will know much better what it is that we are trying to deal with. ... There is a leadership angle to these 'Teu le va' guidelines. You need a collective heart and mind to lead this through; to coordinate and find the resource to see this through."
Kabini Sanga, 2008.

Teu le va refers to the 'putting away safely', 'the looking after' and 'the tidying up' of secular and sacred relationships to achieve optimal outcomes for all stakeholders (see Anae, 2007). Anae offers teu le va as a philosophical cultural reference point for research and policy-making. Its central focus is that of reciprocal relationships and the nurturing and acting out of these.

The concept/tenet/practice of teu le va - to cherish, nurse and take care of the va, the relationship - highlights the need for both parties in a research and policy-making relationship to 'tidy up' the physical, spiritual, cultural, social, psychological and tapu 'spaces' of human relationships in order to improve outcomes for all stakeholders involved7.

Anae (2007) suggests that we can teu le va in Pasifika research in general by exposing, understanding and reconciling our va with each other in reciprocal relationships in the research process. For example, the people and groups we meet and have relationships and relational arrangements with all have specific biographies (a whole plethora of ethnicities and agendas, as well as gender, class, age differences, etc), whether they are researchers, family members, colleagues, leaders, or others. To teu le va means to be committed to take all these different biographies into account in the context in which these relationships are occurring.

It is this as well as through face-to-face interaction, words spoken and behaviour (non-verbal body language, and so on), with purposeful and positive outcomes of the relationship in mind, that the relationship progresses and moves forward. For many Pasifika people, to not do this will incur the wrath of the gods, the keepers of tapu, and positive, successful outcomes will not eventuate, progress will be impeded, parties to the relationship will be put at risk, and appeasement and reconciliation will need to be sought.

The teu le va cultural reference point is the single most important aspect in moving beyond just the identification of and procrastination about the state of things, to a place/space/site of action - that is, to getting things done, in a win-win situation which benefits all stakeholders and which upholds the moral, ethical, spiritual dimensions of social relationships for all participants/people/stakeholders involved in these relationships (see Anae, 2007).

In summary, Principle one is about the centrality of valuing relationships and the need for Pasifika educational researchers and policy-makers involved in Pasifika educational research to acknowledge that the sacred and secular aspects of their relationships need to be 'looked after', valued, and acted on by mutually empowering processes and actions which will lead to optimal research outcomes being successfully translated into policy-making.

Principle two:

Collective knowledge generation is pivotal in developing optimal relationships to generate new knowledge and understandings.

"Research-development-policy collaboration for improved Pasifika education outcomes is fundamentally a human endeavour."
Amituanai-Toloa (2007:9)

Teu le va places Pasifika learners at the centre of all Pasifika education research and policy-making. Working collaboratively on this shared project is consistent with Pasifika world-views. It emphasises the importance of involving all knowledge production stakeholders and valuing the diverse contributions they have to offer.

The Teu le va approach is an inclusive framework that encompasses the contributions of the Pasifika community, Pasifika learners and their families and caregivers to Pasifika education research and policy-making. This approach therefore means less emphasis on the researcher and policy-maker per se and more on ways in which they might use strong research and policy methods and frameworks to record, analyse and integrate the perspectives, experiences and views of Pasifika families and caregivers, learners and their teachers.

Working together also includes sharing knowledge. Teu le va recognises the importance of developing skills to 'translate' information meaningfully across research and policy. For researchers and policy-makers this means investing in the development of expertise to communicate in ways that can be understood and promote mutual understanding by the diverse users of research and policy.

Teu le va acknowledges that Pasifika education research and policy units are relatively small and collegial. Small numbers can be advantageous when trying to gain collective momentum and take a unified approach to knowledge generation. Many relationships and alliances already exist, which can contribute to the common goal of improving Pasifika education outcomes, uniting a diverse range of people across New Zealand. Research8 shows that forming a web of relationships across Ministries, Pasifika communities, social policy agencies and service providers can overcome and add considerably to the knowledge and understandings reached. These collective and collaborative relationships however must be managed so that optimal knowledge generation is achieved.

In summary, Principle two is about the importance of collaborative relationships linking Pasifika learners, their families and communities with Pasifika educational researchers and Pasifika educational policy-makers. Teu le va maintains that this can be achieved through research which highlights robust research processes and that maximises the exposing of Pasifika voices, and the issues and concerns of Pasifika learners, their families and communities, so that new knowledge and understandings are generated.

Principle three:

Research and policy efforts must be clearly focused on achieving optimal Pasifika education and development outcomes.

Every Pasifika learner in New Zealand needs to succeed educationally. The Teu le va approach is about making that happen. The three interactive principles which focus on optimal relationships will generate new knowledge and lead to directive action.

Unequal power relations are an important consideration of the current relationship between researcher and policy-maker (and potential research funder). Teu le va makes the case for the positive use of power and good working relationships to lead to research and policy likely to influence improved Pasifika education outcomes. This includes:

  • researchers and policy-makers setting aside enough time and resources to take collective approaches to research, strengthening relationships, facilitating mutual understandings, working collaboratively, and providing support infrastructure for coordination;
  • efforts by researchers and policy organisations to become 'culturally competent'; and
  • guidelines that advise these organisations how to support programmes and policies philosophically and morally as well as fiscally (Rose, 2002).

The Teu le va approach emphasises the need to understand the domains of social relationships and the influence of all stakeholders involved in Pasifika educational research. In this way, types of research, research problems, findings, and linkages to policy-making can be more explicitly conceptualised and acted on, in terms of the sacred/spiritual and secular/practical aspects of the va in relationships (in)formed by research and policy-making processes (Anae, 2007).

The challenge for researchers and funders in their relationship with the researched is to teu le va to ensure that diverse Pasifika peoples' own narratives gain traction and become the dominant discourse, because in turn this determines possibilities for Pasifika 'ownership' and will provide realistic opportunities for Pasifika people to engage productively in successful educational outcomes.

In summary, Principle three is about Pasifika educational researchers and policy-makers working together to ensure that new knowledge and understandings generated by Teu le va research processes are put into practice by improved service delivery and policy-making for optimal Pasifika education and development outcomes.

This is a transformational shift away from a 'traditional' linear approach of 'research first, policy second'. It demands a radical rethink of how to move current education research and policy processes to a va where truly collaborative relationships can occur in addressing Pasifika education priorities (see 'Action' section, p.33).

Teu le va represents a philosophical and practical approach. Implementing all three principles within Teu le va in research practice and policy-making processes will provide research and policy-making outcomes which will directly improve and enhance educational experiences for Pasifika learners, their families and communities, thereby creating a better New Zealand for all.

How Teu le va can be understood, valued, and acted on in the research context

As pointed out in earlier sections, the Teu le va approach is crucial in ensuring that optimal relationships are formed, maintained and acted on between Pasifika education research stakeholders.

Much research in New Zealand has glossed over and ignored the cultural complexities of not only the multi-ethnic nature of Pasifika communities, but also the intra-ethnic nuances of the diverse groupings and identities of Pasifika peoples in New Zealand (see Anae et al, 2001). Until this is addressed, Pasifika research in New Zealand will be ineffective and lack ability for transformative change for a component of New Zealand's population which remains marginalised.

Teu le va exposes and provides pathways through these complexities which will lead to more robust research processes and more effective outcomes which recognise and address the cultural diversity of the Pasifika cohort. Through an understanding of the Ethnic Interface Model (Samu, 1998)9 and the Cube Model (Sasao and Sue, 1993)10, each of which highlight the importance of context, and by using the Teu le va approach, policy-makers will be able to interact with researchers throughout the entire process of new knowledge generation - from framing research questions, designs, methodologies, research instruments, proposals, and the make-up of the research team, to the carrying out of fieldwork, and ending in the documenting of findings, conclusions, implications and recommendations. Involvement in the process of new knowledge generation in this way means that policy-makers will reciprocate by acknowledgement of the attention paid to appropriate details and positively consider the merits of the recommendations made and implement these.

There are important parallels between Samu's Ethnic Interface model and Sasao and Sue's Cube model11. Linking both is the philosophical reference point, the concept/tenet/practice of 'teu le va' - to cherish, nurse and take care of the va, the relationship.

Teu le va provides an essential and significant contribution by highlighting the need for both parties to a relationship to 'tidy up' the physical, spiritual, cultural, social, psychological and tapu 'spaces' of human relationships in research praxis in order to maximise optimal outcomes for all stakeholders involved.

In summary, then, Teu le va offers a means of organising and conceptualising issues raised through Samu's Ethnic Interface model and Sasao and Sue's ecological Cube Model. It gives recognition to the centrality of context as a holistic environment, to the inter- and intra–ethnic diversity of multi-ethnic communities, and to the fluidity of sub-groups within these communities. Through this recognition, types of research, research problems, and the implications of findings will be more explicitly conceptualised, approached, valued and acted on, in terms of the sacred/spiritual and secular/practical aspects of the va in relationships (in)formed by the research process.

What this means in practice

Table 1 (Anae, 2007) represents how the Teu le va approach can be understood and acted on by both researchers and ministries/government departments/funders, for high quality, robust Pasifika educational research. The Teu le va approach represents a paradigm shift which ensures policy-makers are involved throughout the process of new knowledge generation.

Key features of practices that can be put in place by funders/policy-makers/ministries, and by researchers include:

  1. Untangling 'Pasifika' population cohorts in New Zealand - valuing and nurturing the va between Pacific indigenous and Pacific diaspora (Island-born as opposed to New Zealand-born) in terms of inter- and intra-ethnic spaces and positionings. In light of this, requests for research proposals (RFPs) sent out by ministries and other funders12 must be explicit about within which Pacific cohort(s) research is to be undertaken. Similarly, proposals developed by researchers must delineate clearly how they have addressed inter- and/or intra-ethnic complexities.
  2. Thinking about 'doing' research: 'sifting through the clutter…' - nurturing the 'va' between researcher and participant(s) in terms of methodology and methods.
  3. Best practice considerations - valuing and nurturing the va between funders and researcher/research team, between the researcher and members of the research team, between researcher(s) and participants, and between researcher(s) and communities.

    Relationships which must be nurtured by the researcher in the research process in this particular relational context are with:
    • tangata whenua;
    • the research institution;
    • those responsible for developing strategic priorities;
    • the funders;
    • olleagues in research team;
    • the junior researchers;·
    • the research participants; and
    • the communities.
  4. Progressing from research recommendations to policy formation - valuing and nurturing the va between researcher(s)/research teams and funders/policy-makers/ministries as a dynamic, interactive, open, inclusive process.

Table 1 presents each of the relational contexts outlined above with its associated principle/concept. Table 1 also illustrates practical application of the Teu le va approach within the different relational contexts, both from the funder/government department/ministry perspective and from the researcher/research team perspective.

Table 1: How the Teu le va approach can be understood and acted on by researchers and policy-makers (Anae, 2007)
Relational Contexts Concept/Principle Teu Le Va
Funders/ Ministries/ Policy-makers Researchers/ Research Teams
1. Untangling Pacific population cohorts - the va between Island-born/NZ-born. Acknowledging/ untangling inter/ intra dimensions of ethnicity and identity. Specific  statements to be included in requests for research (ie, when RFPs are  sent to tenderers) as to which Pacific population cohort is to be  researched (eg, whether Pan-Pacific or ethnic-specific) and also  whether inter- and/or intra-ethnic considerations are to be addressed. The  research proposal put forward should show a clear unravelling and  identifying of intra-ethnic complexities (eg, age, gender, status), as  well as 'hidden' status considerations (eg, gang, clique). There should  also be a clear focus on pan-Pacific and/or inter-ethnic considerations  with diverse sub-groups, as necessary.
2. Nurturing the va between research and participants regarding methodologies and methods. Avoiding  the 'clutter' - maximising research for optimal educational outcomes  for Pasifika students through careful consideration of research  methods/ methodologies to be used (with different groups and in  different contexts). There should be an  insistence in RFPs for methodology that is based on triangulation  between the three reference points, the Ethnic Interface Model, the  Cube Model and teu le va (ie, the proposal should align both with  funder/ ministry requirements/ strategies, etc, and also with the three  reference points). [Note: information about the Ethnic Interface  Model, the (variation of the) Cube Model and teu le va could be  appended to RFPs to help tenderers align their proposal to these  reference points.] The  successful research tenderer(s) must show clear knowledge and  experience of various palagi and Pacific research methodologies and  methods. They should also be able to negotiate through the process of  triangulating the Ethnic Interface/ Cube/ teu le va reference points in  order to justify the relationship between their proposed methods  (quantitative or qualitative, or both), types of questions to be asked  (eg, evaluative), and cultural complexity (eg, sub-cultural,  ethno-cultural, a-cultural - as in Cube Model on p.54).
3.  Best practice reference points - the va between funders/ researcher(s);  researcher and team; researcher(s) and participants; researcher(s) and  communities. Implementing sound research processes/ principles - for example, the six stages of research as outlined in the Pasifika Education Research Guidelines (Anae et al, 2001:28). RFPs should refer to research processes/ principles such as those in the Pasifika Education Research Guidelines and request that proposers/ tenderers show how they will address these in their research design and implementation processes. Reciprocal  relationships to be nurtured with: tangata whenua, the research  institution, the funders (eg, in relation to strategic priorities),  research colleagues in team, junior researchers, research participants,  and communities. How these relationships would be nurtured should be  clearly delineated in the research proposal (eg, acknowledging research  participants for their time, through koha, feedback, transcripts,  research reports/summaries of findings, or mentoring of junior  researchers, and so on.)
4. The va between funders/ policy-makers/ ministries and researcher(s)/ research teams. Through Teu le va research processes a commitment to transformative change for Pasifika  students, families and communities to reduce educational  underachievement in Aotearoa–New Zealand that is not only fiscal but  also philosophical and moral. Negotiating  with successful tenderer(s) regarding ethical, timing and funding  issues (for example). Ensuring a commitment to researchers that  findings may be translated into policy development to preserve the va  between funder and researcher and researcher and communities via  participants. Within  negotiated funding and timing parameters, take into account precedents/  considerations relating to best practice for selecting appropriate,  robust research approaches/ methods/ methodologies. Also, as an ongoing  process, widely disseminate well-researched and articulated findings to  research participants, communities, and policy-makers.

Efforts by policy organisations to become 'culturally competent', as pointed out by Rose (2002:140), should be applauded, but more importantly guidelines such as Teu le va are required to advise how these organisations can support programmes and policies philosophically and morally as well as fiscally (ibid, 140).

In summary: for research to (in)form and change multi-sectoral policy directions and service delivery researchers and policy-makers must learn to teu le va, to value, 'look after' and nurture the physical, spiritual, cultural, social, psychological and tapu 'spaces' of human relationships in our research praxis. The necessary links between the Ethnic Interface Model and the Cube Model are not definitive ones, nor do they contain all the answers to best practice research that will lead to transformative change for Pasifika students in New Zealand. As with all human endeavours, good human judgement and experience is needed to render such insights useful; however, the cultural and philosophical reference point of teu le va can go a long way in helping to expose, reconcile and direct human judgement and experience.


  1. Meaola Amituanai-Toloa (personal communication: 11 April, 2009).
  2. See also Health Research Council Guidelines on Pasifika Health Research (2004); Ka'ili (2005); Mahina (2002); Lilomaiava-Doktor (2006); Shore (1982); Duranti (1997); Wendt (1999); Anae (2005); Poltorak (2007).
  3. See Macpherson and Anae (2008). 'The small Ministry with the large reach: using relationships to extend organisational capacity', Kotuitui, New Zealand Journal of the Social Sciences Online, 3:35-55.
  4. Samu's Ethnic-Interface model is documented in the Literature Review on Pacific Education Issues (Coxon et al, 2002:10; see also Samu, 1998). For a summary of the model, see Appendix three.
  5. A summary of the Cube Model is given in Appendix four.
  6. Anae, Melani. (2007). 'Teu le va: Research that could make a difference to Pasifika schooling in New Zealand.' Paper commissioned by the Ministry of Education and presented at the joint NZARE/Ministry Education symposium Is your research making a difference to Pasifika education?, Wellington, November 2007.
  7. 'Funders can include the Ministry of Education, universities, other institutions and groups involved in educational research.

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