Russell Bishop

Russell Bishop, in the course of a career of more than 40 years in education, has taken a special interest in how Māori fare in mainstream schools. He’s been a teacher, a university lecturer, a professor of Māori education, a researcher, and a writer. He’s challenged a number of practices that, too often, have led to Māori kids doing worse than their classmates. And he’s provided other approaches, notably with Te Kotahitanga, that have changed that. Here he’s talking with Dale about the work that has absorbed him through the years.


Kia ora, Russell. You’re known for the work you’ve done to help teachers do a much better job teaching Māori kids. So we’ll focus on that shortly. But let’s hear, for a start, about your whakapapa and your early days.

Dad’s family is Pākehā with a mix of English and Scots. They come from Dunedin and parts of the South Island. Mum’s family are a mix of Scots and Māori. Her Scottish ancestors were originally from the Scottish Highlands. And her dad was Waikato Tainui.

I was born in Kingston, on the southern shores of Lake Wakatipu. It was, and still is, a pretty small place. The family moved there after World War Two when Dad came back from four years in the Western Desert.

My brother, Gavin, was born in 1946, and I arrived in 1950. We lived there for around five years and then moved to Invercargill and later to Wellington. Dad worked for the Railways, which was big time then.

Did you have many Māori mates growing up?

Yeah. We had Ngāi Tahu mates in Invercargill. They were mainly from families with muttonbird rights and I remember my friends going off to the Tītī Islands at the start of each school year. We were jealous of them as it seemed to be such an adventure.

And your mum’s Māori connection?

Mum’s father was Ben McKay who was from Waikato Tainui. My mother was Doris Hinepau Irihapeti McKay, the Irihapeti after her grandmother and the Hinepau after her dad’s grandmother. But it was only years later that I found out about our family. The names were what led me to the wider family. Irihapeti led me back to Waikato Tainui and Hinepau led me back to Ngāti Pukeko in the Bay of Plenty.

One result of looking into our whānau story was a family reunion in the early 1990s. That got the family together, acknowledging who we were. It was great. Fantastic. And all the work I’ve done since then has been based on whanaungatanga.

At the end of the reunion, a kaumātua, Motu Katipa, said to my brother and myself: “You two guys need to get back to the Waikato and do something for your iwi.” That was in the back of my mind for years and, when a chair came up at Waikato University, I applied and won it.

The reunion was excellent in many ways because I’d always been curious about where my family was from, especially my grandfather, Ben McKay. As a kid, whenever I asked our older aunties about where we’d come from, they’d bang pots together, or say they were busy and had to get the tea — anything to avoid this awkward question. Because being Māori in Southland in the ‘50s and ‘60s wasn’t the greatest experience for our family.

Mum’s older sisters were dark-skinned and had long wavy hair, very Māori looking. But they were in denial about their Māori heritage. Which was understandable, given the times.

How did you get started on your academic journey?

The family moved to Wellington when I was 14. We lived in Naenae, a working-class suburb. I went to school there, to university and then started teaching in Porirua. And what struck me was that Māori kids at that school, and other schools around us, weren’t doing as well as Pākehā kids.

Everybody said it was their home background and all that sort of stuff. Their culture was “holding them back”. That was the dominant explanation by my teacher colleagues. And this was the prevalent view in the wider community.

Yet, many of the Māori kids came from very good families. Employment was high and there were strong Māori influences. We were just up the road from Takapuahia, which was a really prominent marae. Overseas visitors regularly came there. David Bowie, for instance, was welcomed there. Prince Charles, too.

So I found it strange that Māori kids weren’t doing well at school. People were saying it was “their background”. But their background didn’t look too bad to me. It was certainly as good as my upbringing in Southland.

After I’d taught in a few Porirua schools for over a decade, a job came up at Otago University in Māori education and I got that.

They were kind enough to give me time and allowances to do my masters and PhD. And, for my masters, I looked at the dispersal of Mum’s family throughout New Zealand. That was at the time of the family reunion.

What did you zero in on with your PhD?

Well, I’d been fascinated by the big question: “How come Māori people have never been able to participate fully in New Zealand society when clearly they are capable of doing so?” Looking for the answer is what got me going in the academic area. It was also the basis of my PhD.

Another related question was how can we, as researchers, do research in Māori settings so that it’s useful to Māori? At the time, there were a number of rāhui placed on people doing research. For example, the kōhanga reo leaders said: “We don’t want researchers coming into our kōhanga because all you academic types take from us and never give anything back. It’s no use to us. You just bleed us dry.”

So I tried to respond to that challenge. And the solution I came up with was exactly the same as I found in my family story. It was whanaungatanga. That was the key issue. Establishing relationships was fundamental to doing research. It sounds simple now but it was a revelation to me and to my colleagues at the time. We had to do something before doing the research. We had to engage in establishing family-like relationships so that we could do the work of research.

In my masters, I established literal whakapapa relationships but, in my PhD, I was establishing metaphoric relationships, as if it was a family.

In 1998, I wrote a book Culture Counts, where I suggested that the most important thing teachers could do, before they could do the job of teaching, was to establish figurative whakapapa-type relationships with Māori students and their families. This would let the students and their families know that you were serious and in your classroom, Māori could succeed. That’s what was missing from the schools and the classrooms where Māori kids weren’t achieving at the level they should — a base of whanaungatanga.

Then I got a promotion to Waikato University and there the same question still needed answering: “How come Māori kids aren’t doing well at school?”

That was a strong challenge to the conventional approach. Did it put you off-side with your academic colleagues?

In 2001, the Ministry of Education put out a call for a project which eventually became Te Kotahitanga. I was able to direct the development of that project for 12 of the 13 years it ran in schools. It was a means of putting into practice the idea that, if you established family-like relationships in your classroom, you’d be able to do the job of teaching effectively. And, if you did the job of teaching effectively, Māori kids would achieve. We showed that was absolutely true.

One thing fundamental to creating a family-like relationship in the classroom is to do away with what’s called “deficit theorising”. That’s when a teacher looks at particular kids and thinks: “You’ve got more problems than I can deal with. You come to school with big problems. Your brother and sister, who I taught a few years ago, had the same problems — and you’ve got them too.”

It’s the same thing I’d found in Porirua when I started teaching. I didn’t agree with it then, and I still don’t agree with it. That became the first stumbling block that teachers had to get over. They needed to understand that, if teachers were seeing kids in negative terms, the kids were more likely to respond to them in negative ways. And it was a downward spiral waiting to happen.

So we had to provide teachers with the opportunity to see what it was like to be a Māori student in schools today. And we did that by getting stories from the Māori students about their experiences. We asked them: “What’s it like to be a Māori student today?”

And they said: “It’s awful. The relationships we have with our teachers are pretty toxic because they think we’re useless. They keep telling us we can’t do anything. And, if they do give us praise, it’s for our behaviour, not our academic work. We want academic praise and direction.”

The teachers’ unions initially went nuts over this suggestion. They didn’t like it at all. And I became their favourite dartboard. They threw darts at me for some time.

It’s ironic that now the PPTA (the secondary teachers’ union) likes what I talk about because it makes life better for teachers as well as making life a lot better for kids. So, with the unions, I’ve gone from being a pariah to a favoured person — which is quite nice.

What Māori scholars influenced you when you were formulating these ideas?

Turoa Royal was a great supporter. And there was tremendous support from a number of kaumātua and kuia such as Rangiwhakaehu Walker, Mate Reweti, Morehu Ngatoko and my own relative, Koroneihana Cooper. They agreed that whanaungatanga was fundamental to the job of teaching and were extremely supportive of this approach.

But there were some Māori who were upset because their idea of culture was different from mine. For me, culture helps you to understand your world. You see the world through your culture. It’s the way you make sense of, and understand, experiences.

A lot of people, however, have been promoting the idea that culture is something you look at, and something you participate in. And they see things like kapa haka being cultural. I had a difference of opinion with lots of people about that.

What I was trying to promote is the idea that culture is not an either-or. It’s not either the visible dimensions or the invisible ones. It’s both. Culture should be promoted as both the visible dimensions — the language and tikanga — and the invisible ones — the modes of understanding.

And then you get into an argument about what comes first, the chicken or the egg. What I was trying to promote was the idea that young Māori people need to, and can, do better in mainstream schools. That’s where Māori are going to be for some time until we can get kura kaupapa Māori schooling going much more effectively.

I observed that, when young Māori were becoming more successful at, say, maths and science, they were also reaching out to their Māori side and doing te reo and tikanga activities. And they were successful at all sorts of things.

There’s an old idea that someone who’s good at sport won’t be much of an academic. But that’s rubbish. Many top sports people in our country have also been top academics. And, likewise, Māori can excel in both forms of culture. It’s not one or the other.

In my research, I also observed that when a school primarily promotes te reo and tikanga Māori for Māori students, that tends to isolate the Māori kids. They’re likely to be shoved off into a whānau unit, in an old prefab around the back. And that can marginalise them from other activities in the school.

But even worse is that the responsibility for their education, which should be the responsibility of every teacher, is palmed off on to a small group of teachers, often recently qualified and inexperienced young Māori teachers.

I’m very much a fan of Māori being successful at school — and maths teachers teaching maths rather than trying to teach Māori culture.

I am a big fan of schools promoting success for Māori students in both te reo and tikanga and other subjects like maths and science, and all teachers being responsible for Māori students being successful in all areas of endeavour.

As I recall, there was a bit of push back when Te Kotahitanga was introduced. And perhaps some of that came from school principals who were entrenched in their ways. So there wasn’t the trickle down to the staff which could’ve been one hallmark of success for the new approach. Why do think there was so much resistance?

I think that, first of all, it was because the Ministry of Education kept saying the whole programme was too expensive. I kept pointing out to them that incarceration is more expensive — keeping Māori men and women in prisons in enormous numbers, as we do, is far more expensive than any educational reform.

Any successful education reform reduces the amount of money that you have to spend downstream in social welfare and on prisons and all that sort of stuff. This is well known all around the world and yet western democracies continue to lock up indigenous peoples at an alarming rate.

There are influential people who scratch their head and say: “Goodness me. Why is this happening?” And they go back to the old default setting, the old idea, that “there must be something wrong with these Māori people.”

Well, Māori managed to lead successful lives for quite some time in New Zealand — as other indigenous people did in North America and elsewhere around the world. So there has to be something wrong with the relationship between the newcomers, the colonisers, and those who arrived centuries earlier. And it’s when you start looking at that relationship that you can find solutions.

Do you feel that one way forward is for there to be more emphasis on training in cultural competence for our teachers?

I’m worried about that approach, Dale. The majority of teachers are non-Māori and I don’t think that trying to turn non-Māori people into Māori so they can become culturally competent is worth the effort. It’s an approach that has never really worked.

What I’m interested in is, for example, Pākehā maths teachers teaching maths properly to Māori kids. That’s what I want them to do. I think Māori people can handle the visible cultural stuff, the tikanga, the reo learning and all that.

Thank you for your insights and observations. But it may be best if you feel free in this discussion to raise any other significant issues and challenges that come to your mind — without my questions directing what territory we examine.

Well there are two things. One is the idea these days that changing the educational administration and reforming the Tomorrow’s Schools approach (introduced in the David Lange days) is somehow going to promote equity.

But that’s nonsense.

There is just no evidence that changing an educational system has ever brought about equity. There’s no link between structural change and student outcomes, so I don’t know why they’re promoting it now. The money that it costs would be better spent supporting teachers to change their teaching to a relationship-based, whanaungatanga approach. That brings about equity — not spending millions of dollars on changing educational administration and governance.

In many ways, this preoccupation with changing educational structures is more to address Pākehā agendas in education rather than Māori aspirations.

The second point is that we can promote equity alongside excellence by having the will. When you have an effective programme like Te Kotahitanga, keep it going and keep developing it.

Too often, the Ministry of Education’s approach is to put a new scheme into place when there’s no evidence of it being effective, and no underlying theoretical foundation, but because it is cheap.

Of course, there’s always more to life than our work and our whānau, even though they may be, at times, all-consuming. What else have you been able to fit into your schedule through the years? You don’t happen to be the drummer in a rock band, do you?

No, I’m not. But I’m an inveterate walker. I do a lot of walking. You probably don’t know, but I got terribly ill about five years ago. It was a terrible cancer and I nearly died but, thanks to an effective medical system, they managed to save me from it. I’ve always been a walker and about three years after getting over the cancer, a double-hit lymphoma, my wife and I walked the Camino de Santiago.

It’s 800 kilometres across Northern Spain and that took us 36 days of walking and eating wonderful Spanish food and drinking wonderful Spanish wine. So I should acknowledge that it wasn’t too arduous. And we’re intending to go back this year and do another walk, about 750kms this time, in Southwest France.

What that’s doing is me saying that I’m still alive. I’m still here despite the attempts of the cancer to get rid of me.

And as you look into the future for our schools?

Back in 2001 to 2003, we started work with Kerikeri High School where the principal is Elizabeth Forgie, a great principal, who’s still promoting Māori student achievement as one of their major goals.

And they raised Māori student achievement in NCEA 1, 2 and 3 from around 20 percent to more than 80 percent. So, if Māori students go to that school, they’re pretty much guaranteed of success at the same rate as non-Māori.

That’s what I want to see all through New Zealand. I want to see that sort of fairness. When I started teaching in 1973, I could see that the education system wasn’t fair. It was dumbing down and dumping down on Māori. And it kept excusing itself for not doing the best it could for Māori kids by blaming Māori kids themselves.

I want to see that Kerikeri High School approach being replicated everywhere — and that same dedication to improving educational achievement for Māori and other kids who’ve been marginalised, so that all our kids can benefit from what education has to offer. All our kids should have that chance.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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