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Speech: Culture Matters : One Shoe Doesn't Fit All' - Hon Tariana Turia

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Tariana Turia
Tariana Turia

It could not be a better time to be gathering together, to share our thoughts around the concept that culture matters.

Yesterday the airwaves were buzzing in response to the Education Review Office's report evaluating information from 60 secondary schools and 227 primary schools.

ERO posed a simple question to schools - how had they improved Maori student achievement? And yet despite its simplicity, the answer was anything but.

Schools couldn't compare 2009 data with 2006 because they didn't have the baseline information to do this;

Many schools did not systematically analyse achievement specifically for Maori students - they didn't know therefore, whether Maori students were succeeding or failing - and therefore whether they needed to change teaching practice;

where there had been programmes put in place, separate data for Maori was not collected, or if it was, not analysed

20% of schools did not gather attendance data for Maori.

So I come to the topic of this educational symposium, Culture Matters - and I am forced to ask - does it really matter in schools? How do we know that it matters, if schools aren't taking the time to look? How do we know whether the tamariki we face each day are gifted and talented, capable of genius, ripe for leadership if we haven't opened our eyes to that possibility?

In the by-line to this symposium is the concept "one shoe doesn't fit all". Well, we might have to make that a sign to hang up outside every marae, because inevitably shoes go missing, borrowed on the belief, presumably, that one shoe fits all. Except of course as my Te Arawa friends would tell me if you were at a Te Arawa marae, and you might find the shoes outside are only of the female variety.

But if we were to take Morero Marae as a case in point, I would hasten to suggest that actually the shoes lined up outside represent the widest variety of colour and size and shape and age and length and fashion that we could expect. There's no doubt even a diverse selection of jandals and gumboots to choose from.

Taking the concept further, you can probably all recall a time when you've picked up shoes that pinch too tight; or slip off your soles, or perhaps just feel generally uncomfortable.

This is the situation that far too many of our tamariki Maori experience in our classrooms every day.

In the report on Te Kotahitanga, the experiences of year nine and ten Maori students in mainstream classrooms, the words of the tamariki are devastating to hear but reflect the lived reality so many of you will be familiar with.

Students explained their lack of engagement in their learning as being related to the ways they were being taught, and the absence of any academic feedback from their teachers. They said..

"Some of us have good answers and we never get to say them. They just think all Maori will answer questions stupid".

"Some teachers are racist. They say bad things about us. We're thick. We smell. Our uniforms are paru. They shame us in class. Put us down. Say things about our whanau. They blame us for stealing when things go missing. Just cause we are Maori". Or: "Mrs S.can't even say my name.She makes me feel like I've got a dumb name and I'm dumb.she goes, "well, that is what I've got down here" and I go, "no it isn't my name".and then I just let her go offI know what she's going to say. I've heard it all before".

There are pages and pages of comments like this - it is enough to bring us to despair. What is most agonising of all is to hear the sense of frustration, of anger, of disillusionment, of withdrawal emerging out of the mouths of babes. And we have to remember, these are 14 and 15 year olds we are talking about.

Young people on the brink of the rest of their lives, who report that being Maori in a mainstream school is a negative experience. 'Just cause we're Maori' brings with it a string of associations that Maori will not be achievers; they will be more likely to be singled out as trouble-makers; they will be the subject of stereotypes that serve to constrain and limit them.

And yet, despite all, it was quite clear from this report, that the majority of students interviewed wanted to be able to attend school and to have a positive educational experience at school. Most of all they wanted to achieve as Maori students.

I wanted to spend some time walking in the shoes of our students, because sometimes I think when we talk about aspirations, about cultural competency, perhaps even about Whanau Ora; or we promote strategies like Ka Hikitia; or programmes like te Kotahitanga -it's easy to get caught up in all the words.

But if we were to turn and ask our mokopuna what would make the difference, it might be very straightforward, as in the words of another comment through the eyes of our young:

"The teacher I liked best wasn't Maori but he could have been. He knew about our stuff. Like he knew how to say my name. He never did dumb things like sitting on tables or patting you on the head. He knew about fantails in a room. He knew about tangi. All that sort of stuff".

As this taiohi would put it, knowing about our stuff matters. Culture matters. Whanau matter. Marae, hapu, whakapapa, iwi, powhiri matter.

Sometimes it's not even about what we know - it's knowing that there is knowledge or wisdom or experience out there that we might not necessarily have but we can respect. It's knowing that we don't know or need to know everything. It's a form of literacy which is about reading volumes into what isn't said; picking up on levels of comfort or discomfort, reading between the lines.

I have recently come across a report from Ann Milne, Principal of Clover Park Middle School and Te Whanau o Tupuranga in Otara, which I thought resonates with this whole focus of knowing that Culture Matters.

Ann's thesis was called 'Colouring in the White Spaces: Cultural identity and learning in school'. She based her work on the idea of a children's colouring book which we might think of as blank with spaces to be coloured in, instead of thinking it is already coloured in - with white.

White is the invisible colour because it's just there as the whole background. But there are also lines on the page - boundaries which tell us where we can put any colours we might want to add in; which become defining markers.

Ann's study concluded that schools are the 'white spaces' - just there, as the background set of rules that determine whose knowledge is important, what achievement matters, how the space is organised, who has the power.

The challenge she issued was to actively plant the seeds to enable culture to flourish - naming what counts as success, evaluating the progress of programmes, defining our world.

As an example she referred to an award for two graduating students in Te Whanau o Tupuranga. The award was named Te Poho o Kia Aroha - ka whawhai tonu matou mo ake tonu atu.

In explaining why their marae, Kia Aroha, was central to the name of the award, the Maori staff described the role of the marae where a student is, and I quote:

"Sustained with ancestral traditions, ancestral knowledge, unfailing love, nurturing, belief, a striving spirit, righteousness, kindness and skills, where they develop an openness of mind and become alert, alive, eager and brave, where a child learns to treat kindly their world and the surroundings that shelter them, and become aware of those that can harm them.

From here growth is seen as reaching the uppermost heights of the realisation of their aspirations and dreams".

I really liked this statement, because it tells me that education at Te Whanau o Tupuranga is as much about preparation for survival in te Ao Maori as it is about preparation for survival in the world.

It is about building the fitness that enables us to endure; celebrating that which is at the very essence of who we are.

This is Whanau Ora in practice - developing the resilience; feeding the soul, nurturing the sense of self-belief that we know we can do this. Knowing who we are.

I can not possibly be here in Taumarunui, without recalling the legacy of our greatly loved leader, Sir Archie John Te Atawhai Taiaroa.

Archie was always conscious that education provided an essential foundation for life; it was the vital step to our future as a people; and it must be valued accordingly by our whanau, hapu and iwi.

He never forgot that his tuakana, Lofty, gave up his own schooling and got a job, in order to help pay the fees for Archie to attend Hato Paora boarding school.

Just as his whanau invested in him, Archie was passionate about investing in the education of our future generations. When the time came to be ordained a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, he returned to Hato Paora, and said, "The real reason for accepting this accolade, and having it here, is for our mokopuna. Enjoy life, enjoy this world, outfit yourselves to be our leaders, prepare yourselves because the world is really yours, it's yours". There is no greater message that I could lay at this education symposium, then to reinforce those words. We must outfit all our mokopuna to be leaders, to be prepared with the 'stuff that matters' - and that stuff, inevitably includes culture. We must liberate our minds to promote Maori knowledge, kaupapa, tikanga, philosophies, worldviews. We must create the expectations of reciprocity, to foster the sense of collective responsibility to care for one another; to fulfil our aspirations for the wellbeing of our whanau. And so, finally, I return to ERO's report of yesterday. Let those statistics be indeed confined to yesterday, and let us instead focus on promoting success for Maori students. We need to know what counts, to measure and monitor success, and to do so, in close relationship with whanau. We must encourage effective partnerships with home and school, helping everyone - including our taiohi - to lift our expectations for achievement, to see value in te reo me nga tikanga, to know that schools can only be considered to be high performing if their Maori learners are progressing well and succeeding as Maori. Let us work together, towards a genuine relationship, to name and colour the spaces in our schools, and to enable all children, all cultures to enjoy a place in the sun.

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