Melanie Riwai CouchFor generations, our kids have been emerging from schools with a range of ideas, or no ideas at all, about what line of work they might try embarking on.

The lucky ones have teachers and parents who can encourage and guide. Some of those lucky ones are in Christchurch at Te Whare Kura o Te Whānau Tahi, a Year 1–13 school in Spreydon, where the tumuaki is Melanie Riwai-Couch, who’s chatting here with Dale.


Thanks for joining us on e-Tangata, Melanie. I often start with family connections, and you’ve got an interesting double-banger name. Can you tell us about that?

Sure. I can attribute both of my surnames to my husband, Jared. My maiden name is MacDonald. I’m a MacDonald from Blenheim, from Rangitāne ki Wairau and Ngāti Kuia. But my husband’s surname is Riwai-Couch. He’s the grandson of Ben Couch who was an All Black in the 1940s, and then the Minister of Police 30 years later.

Ben’s name was actually Riwai Couch, and so my husband took on his grandfather’s full surname which became my name when we got married. So we have a nice connection between Te Tau Ihu and Ngāi Tahu, covering Te Wai Pounamu and up through Rangitāne ki Wairarapa and Kahungunu.

Let’s look at the MacDonald clan then. Can you tell us what your life was like as a tamaiti?

My father’s name was Dennis MacDonald. He was the 16th child in his family — the pōtiki. Both of his parents died when he was very young, so he was raised by his older siblings, particularly my Aunty Dolly. When he was still young he went to Invercargill to work in the meat works — and it was in Invercargill that he met and married my mother. Her name is Judy, and she was nursing there.

They had my three older sisters while living in Invercargill. Then, when I came along, they moved back to Blenheim, which is Dad’s tribal area. But in both towns a bicultural marriage in those days was uncommon enough to get looks from here and there. Dad started a security business in Blenheim, and he had a lot of big contracts with banks and other companies. And I remember, at his funeral, people talking about just how revolutionary that was — a Māori man who’d built his own business and had all of these responsibilities around Blenheim.

My parents separated when I was five, and all us girls lived with Dad, with him as a solo-parent father. And, as I was my dad’s youngest, when my sisters all went off to boarding school up at Church College in Hamilton, I had quite a unique childhood. A lot of my education came from driving back and forth with my dad to the tangi of his brothers and sisters or their spouses, and then we’d sit at people’s homes.

My dad was ahead of his time, I reckon. We’d be driving into Blenheim and he’d say: “You know what? If I had a million dollars, I’d put wind turbines on those hills.” This was well before those sorts of things were happening. Now, as I drive into Blenheim and see the turbines I think: That was my dad’s idea.

Tell us a little about your schooling, and how you came to choose a path in education.

At school I was pretty much in remedial low-stream classes right the way through until about Form 1. Then we did this standardised test on the first day of Form 2 and I got told that, all of sudden, I was in the top class. And I found myself sitting among children who all had encyclopaedias and other things — and I didn’t really know how I fitted into that.

But, because I was in this class when I went through to high school, I had to do French and Latin. I wasn’t able to do te reo Māori at school. I remember going to Peter Ruka, who was teaching at Avonside Girls High, and asking him for a book to help me learn te reo. And he gave me a copy of Te Rangatahi. I just muddled my way along.

At 16, I pulled out of school and went and did a reo course at polytech. I looked at getting a job, like at the flour mill, but I couldn’t get anything. Then a former teacher from Church College happened to be passing through town, and asked me what I wanted to do. And, in a moment of clarity, I said I wanted to teach. So I applied. I didn’t make the cut initially. But then I got in and studied to be a teacher — and that became my pathway.

And your interest in te reo — how did that develop?

There were people in Christchurch, like Ross Paniora and Tihi Puanaki and Kōkā Alamein Connell, who were very, very supportive. They were people supporting te reo here in Christchurch.

My professional work became Māori in English-medium education and looking at the Māori curriculum. And training teachers for teaching te reo Māori in secondary schools.

For me, education is taking something that’s difficult to understand and putting it into a form where people can see themselves in it. That’s what I enjoyed about the opportunities I had while I was at the Christchurch College of Education.

I went from there and, after our third baby, set myself up as a contractor. That’s how I came to be an education facilitator for Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. And that was the best education ever. All of a sudden I was thinking: “Why did I not know all of this while I was arranging teachers to come and teach in this rohe?”

My respect and appreciation for mana whenua — and my understanding — altered significantly. And it shaped my later PhD research around how schools and iwi can work together, and how the Ministry of Education can be an enabler (or otherwise), in helping iwi and schools to work together.

Initially, did you feel like an outsider in Christchurch?

Well, Dad had moved us girls to Christchurch after my parents separated, so we could have access to our mother. So I was very much raised with his community. If anyone needed somewhere to stay, they’d stop by at our place. I think everyone knew where the key to our house was. Dad was just a person who loved and cared about people.

My whānau were the people who were my dad’s friends and teammates and band members, and it’s a whānau that’s very much Te Waipounamu grounded. I remember when my husband asked my father’s permission for us to be married. I’ve never known my father to be a particularly tribally-savvy person, but he said: “Your uncle Frank would roll in his grave.”

And I recall thinking: ”What on earth are you talking about?” And he was talking about the boundary disputes between Ngāi Tahu and Rangitāne and the land around the Clarence River and what was happening with Te Tapuae o Uenuku, our maunga.

It was a side of my father that I never really appreciated because it didn’t seem to be his thing when he was growing up. He was the Māui in his family. He was the one who would sew his own suits that were purple or blue, sing karaoke and do all of these really innovative things before his time.

Dad really wanted us to get ahead in ways that weren’t just about education. It was more about: Okay, well, why can’t you be the Prime Minister?

I told him one time that I wanted to do bone carving. I wasn’t a very talkative teenager, so it probably surprised him to hear me say that. Next day I came home and he’d set up the entire yard — bandsaws and grinders and equipment he must’ve brought home from the abattoir. All of this stuff so I could go into full-scale bone carving production. And I’m thinking: “Gee, I just wanted to make a bone carving.” He was an incredibly enabling person. He didn’t recognise barriers.

I’m assuming you’d be an advocate for compulsory reo within schools. For what it’s given you and what it can give others, non-Māori included. As an educator, how do you sit with te reo Māori and what would you like to see happen with it?

I think that every child should have the opportunity to learn te reo Māori — and I think that through schooling there should be a progression from year to year. But there’s a risk, when we talk about te reo Māori being compulsory in schools, that we don’t actually have a system that can enable it. And te reo could suffer as a result of that.

As it is, I’m the tumuaki of a kura kaupapa Māori, and staffing is one of the biggest challenges. So, a school might say: “Right, now we’re teaching te reo Māori.” But where do those teachers come from? Because, if they come from our current Māori medium schools, then it’s going to exacerbate an already difficult situation with staffing.

So, yes, we should absolutely be teaching te reo Māori in schools. But it needs to be a planned approach. And it needs to be one where people are bold and brave about building resources, looking to digital technologies and alternative media. We need to set long-term goals. And invest. And have a really strong focus on quality. Otherwise te reo will suffer.

We’re actually better positioned to have compulsory teaching of Māori history. Yes, it’s fantastic that we’ve got this groundswell of support for te reo, but we need to be clear about what success looks like — and what is it that we’re trying to achieve. If this becomes just another thing that schools have to do with an already finite amount of resource and funding, it won’t be done well. And that would be really sad.

I believe you’ve had five tamariki with Jared. And that has me wondering how motherhood may have changed the type of teacher you are and your priorities as a teacher?

I only taught in schools very briefly. About a year and a bit at Lincoln High School before I secured my lectureship at the College of Education. I stayed there for nine years.

I really enjoy being a mother. I think my goal as a parent is to raise good human beings — kids who know who they are and have a sense of purpose, and who can show compassion and contribute in whatever area they want to be in.

The kids are great, and I’m probably guilty of living vicariously through them from time to time. My oldest is 16 and he’s moved from kura to Christchurch Boys High School in pursuit of his dreams as a rugby player, among other things. The other four are all at the kura where I’m the principal. My youngest is seven.

It’s been a big sacrifice for my husband, in particular, because being a principal is a very time-consuming role. I didn’t set out to be principal but I was working for the Ministry of Education when there was that proposal to merge the two kura kaupapa Māori in Christchurch. And one of those was my children’s kura.

That meant a conflict of interest for me because I was in the national office of the ministry, even though it was a completely separate area.

So within a few days I ended my contract and I represented Te Whānau Tahi in their bid to remain autonomous and remain at their current site. That took about a year. Then I moved into the tumuaki role shortly afterwards.

Working at the kura has been good because my children are there — and, in post-earthquake Christchurch, I like to know where my kids are. It’s just one of those things that gives you a sense of security. But it’s not without its challenges, having your own children at the kura where you work. The time might come soon where it’s time for me to move on and allow them to experience education where mum’s not the principal.

I’m very proud of my kids. We don’t have a particularly flash existence. We have school. We have sports. We have church. We have our community work. They’re good kids. They go to kura reo. Ultimately, we do everything we can for them and we hope that they can make good decisions for themselves as they grow older.

Does Jared speak te reo as well?

He does. It’s a work in progress — and this reflects the sort of person Jared is. We moved our oldest three children from mainstream into kura when Brigham, the oldest, was about 10. And then our youngest two had te reo as their first language, and they went right the way through kōhanga.

But when Dad was living with us and was ailing, Jared left his job so he could help care for my father at home. And, as we’ve gone down this pathway, he decided to go to Ara Institute of Canterbury to do his diploma in te reo.

He’d had pretty good jobs in the past. He’d worked for the Ministry of Māori Affairs, WINZ, Carich Computer Training and had really good positions. Then he took a year off to do this diploma, and he did that because he wanted to be able to kōrero with his children.

Now he’s got about another year to finish his degree in social work at the University of Canterbury. I kind of thought at the time: “Gee, if you’re going back to school full-time as an adult, couldn’t you go and do something that earns a really good salary? Please? Like, be an investment banker.”

And he just said: “No. I want to work with people. And I want to model for my children that this is a pathway that they can follow when they leave school.”

As a Christchurch whānau, you’ve had the extra pressures of the earthquakes. How have you dealt with those experiences?

I absolutely hated the earthquakes. Trauma is a terrible thing. Everyone experiences it differently. But we try to find a way of harnessing that and helping young people see —you know what? You survived that. How blessed are we that we survived that? What are you going to do now?

And we can have those experiences that could so easily crush us, but reframe them to say, well, actually, let’s turn this into a narrative about making it through. What’s going to be your contribution now? How are you going to use that to help you with your next big thing?

The other thing about the earthquakes is they were a very unifying experience for a community. You go out on the street and there were teenagers walking along the street asking if you’re okay. There’s always that opportunity for manaakitanga.

I’m not suggesting that the earthquakes were a desirable thing in any way at all, or wanting to minimise the trauma experienced by people, but I do think that out of these things you can find some incredible stories of strength and resilience.

What are some of the challenges you’ve been having to deal with, Melanie?

One of the big frustrations in schools is staffing. We’ve got to rebrand the teaching profession. The system grinds down teachers more and more over time. Young people look at teachers and think: “Heck no, I don’t want to be like them. They’re tired. They’re working all the time.”

I think we need to consider some new ways of doing things. You don’t see a doctor graduate and then just go solo. They’re part of a team. They’re able to consult. They’ve got collegiality.

To have that in education, schools would need to be resourced to be able to have first and second year teachers coupled with more experienced teachers in the field. Because I don’t believe teachers, in their training, are getting enough hands-on experience in schools, and I don’t believe they’re getting enough time across a range of settings.

Another challenge that interests me is in building emotional resilience in young people because I think our young people are experiencing a more and more reduced range of emotions. As people, we should be experiencing a full range of emotions — creativity, joy, curiosity, awe, love, respect. It’s hard to have all those emotions when things are tough.

We’ve obviously got huge issues in our country around poverty, around homelessness. All of those basics. But, at the same time, we can do hard stuff. And that can be the platform for hope and for success in a whole lot of ways.

My hope is that we can stop measuring kids on just national standards. I think they’re valid sources of information and we absolutely should be helping our children to master those areas, but I think we need to go: Hey. We know all the rhetoric. We know He aha te mea nui o tenei ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. Whakataukī galore. But I don’t think we’ve yet mastered how to walk the talk by investing in that area and by providing that support to local communities where it is most needed.


© E-Tangata, 2017

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