Listening to what young people tell us!

Not quite the same as having your name up in lights - but close enough!

Not quite the same as having your name up in lights - but close enough!

I was wonderfully hosted last week by the Waihi Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour, and the Waihi Community of Learning - speaking to teachers, community, and COL leaders. It was a real privilege to meet with senior Māori students of Waihi College, who are adding their voice to the COL reflection and thinking. On Friday, these young people participated in the staff workshops which followed my keynote the previous afternoon.

At the keynote, to a full assembly hall, I was honoured to be introduced by Mikaira Wells, the Head Girl of the College, and one of the impressive students I had met with during the day. With Mikaira's permission, I want to share  her speech because I think it clearly articulates what students know, and what we often don't hear. 

Mikaira said:

I stand in front of you today as a student representative and Head Girl of Te Kura Tuarua o Waihi. I would like to give a warm welcome to all early childhood, primary, and secondary school educators. I would also like to welcome those in the social service and business sectors who have joined us this afternoon as well. Nau mai, haere mai.

I volunteered to speak today for three reasons:

  1. So that I could get better at public speaking.

  2. To remind you, teachers, that as students we see flaws in the system and want to be a part of the answer.

  3. On a personal note, I am speaking to the void I was left with when I lost touch with who I am, as Māori.

My education began at Kohanga, where I was gifted with the knowledge of my Māori language and culture. I then went on (not by choice) to a more Westernised (mainstream) education system, an environment where I struggled to find where my Māori language, knowledge of my ancestors, and my culture fitted. Somewhere along the line, I lost me. I lost the knowledge of what it really was to be Māori.

I thought, “Yeah, Māori are so tough, we don’t need shoes.” I wanted to be a mother who lived in Taranaki because I thought being a Māori woman was about cooking for a crowd. I thought Māori were only good at rugby, drinking, telling jokes, playing the guitar, and hide-and-go-seek in the dark. I thought being Māori meant to be a “hands-on” person. I said to myself, “Man, that sucks! I want to have a good job and get lots of money. I don’t want to be on the dole.” My mindset was that I had to act “White” to be able to succeed. It got to the point where I was actually quite racist toward my own people.

My Dad and I were chatting about the statistics of Māori in prison, on the benefit, and school dropouts. He said to me, “Our people have succumbed to Westernisation so much so, that to be Māori, is to be at a disadvantage. Having brown skin means that you obviously can’t think the way everyone else can.” I said, “Yeah Dad well, they have been oppressed for centuries.”

He looked at me and frowned. He said, “the fact that you just used the word THEY to refer to your own people, implies that you are better than us. You have just separated yourself from the people that would no doubt stand by your side no matter what.” That was a hell of a wake-up call!

After that, I began to look at the statistics myself. I would search for my people everywhere. How many Māori could I spot on the footpath uptown? How many Māori could I spot in a fancy restaurant? How many Māori students were on the roll of my classes, and came to school on an everyday basis?

Many of my people have lost sight of what Māori identify is! Our people were recognised, as being an ‘industrious and intelligent race of people’ by the early missionaries who visited New Zealand. Warriors perhaps, physically fit and agile, intellectuals, artists, industrious, seekers of knowledge and new technologies... we are so much more than statistics.

As a Māori student, I have stepped up to the podium on behalf of my ancestors who were cut down at the roots…and denied the right to be Māori in many areas of life, including Education. I also represent my generation who continue to be cut down, and I have one question… Will this be the generation where we do things differently and see better outcomes for my people?

Mikaira is planning to study law next year. I wish her well, and have no doubt she will achieve her goals.

The next day, there was a workshop task that required participants to discuss questions then use their discussion to decide where their respective schools were on a continuum from a total "White space" at one end, to a critical. culturally sustaining space, at the other. Some staff were very surprised to find that the students in the workshop ranked the school at a lower level than the teachers did. Fortunately, I felt that school and COL leaders were very willing to listen and to take the student input on board, but this disconnect is all too common.

I returned from Waihi to participate in the second of the Education Summits, part of the Government's review of our education system, and, following my talk, that included the voices of rangatahi Māori (see my next blog post) I was asked by three different Year 13 Māori students for advice as to how they could approach their teachers and their principals, about the racist practice they were experiencing in their schools. One young woman described herself as a high achiever and told of the constant mistrust of teachers that her results were "real." I had similar questions from Māori students the previous week at the Christchurch Summit.

Why are we expecting Māori youth to have to withstand, and confront, racism in our schools? Where is our responsibility as the adults in this situation? As Mikaira so powerfully described, how do we sit in denial of the reality that our young Māori learners experience every day, in her words, being "cut down," and continue to think of ourselves as effective, professional educators?

Come on teachers and principals, we have to listen, and hear, what our Māori youth tell us. We have to provide safe opportunities for them to tell us their truth, then we have to listen, and believe them, take on the new learning we need, and make whatever authentic changes are required. The bottom line is, you might think you are being culturally 'responsive' or making space for Māori to learn "as Māori" in your school, but it doesn't matter how many courses you have been on, or how you have finally worked on your pronunciation of their names, if your Māori learners are not experiencing what you think you are delivering, then it's not working and you still have a lot of work to do! 

I salute the insight and courage of Mikaira, Abraham, Sidney, and Ngawhira, in Waihi, of Matthew and the Warrior-Researchers at Kia Aroha College, of the young people who asked me questions at the Education Summits, but I wish you you didn't have to ask those questions.