Dr Jani Wilson

I teach Māori media and creative writing in Auckland and, for quite some time now, something’s been playing on my mind.

I’ve been thinking about the ways in which indigenous academic excellence could be fostered in my Māori students — and my obligation as their kaiako, their teacher, to transmit it to them.

Right now, impoverishment — physical, spiritual, inspirational, educational, financial, and mental — is a real challenge, so I feel a huge responsibility to put a puncture in the cycle’s tyres — to disturb the waters.

Flashback: a year ago, one of my students was living on the streets while attending my classes.

It’s incredibly hard to live in Auckland as a working person, let alone as a single, full-time adult student in your 50s. For some of our students, getting to uni is ridiculously difficult, and so I try to make my classes worth the long commutes, and the sizeable weekly dent in their student allowance.

Last year, my homeless student graduated with a certificate in Māori media. He wore the piupiu his grandmother made as he crossed the floor to receive it. An incredibly proud moment.

Now when I see him, he tells me he’s been working on ideas for television pilots and short films. He lives in a house. He has dreams, and a perspective.

How did I get to this topic? In the middle of — let’s call it a recent “debate” with my teenage daughter Manaaki — she said to me: “Mum, you’re just a kaiako.”

Woahsers. Nine excruciating years studying at the University of Auckland, of which post-grad was on the DPB with a small child. Then 18 months of no job, despite having a PhD. …

(DIALOGUE – WINZ Case Manager: Maybe you shouldn’t mention your qualifications on your CV.

ACTION – Jani: Smile

DIALOGUE – Jani: Neh.)

Then came a two-year fellowship in public health (not my area, at all). A two-year post-doc. And now I’m a tenured lecturer in Māori media and creative writing at AUT, and my kid reduced our struggle to get us here with five words. The little schmuck.

Am I just a kaiako, Bubba?

Last year, my Level 6 Māori Media Project class had the premiere of their new documentaries. Typically, as they’d been all semester, they were late, prioritising glamour over punctuality. The punctual Pākehā in the auditorium weren’t impressed.

(DIALOGUE – One punctual Pākehā: We were meant to eat at 5pm.

ACTION – Māori in the room: look down, shake heads.)

But, fortunately for my students, being at the premiere on time was not part of the assessment criteria.

One documentary, Mumu Reo, asked the question: “Are our (Māori) attitudes killing te reo Māori?” The other, SOLD, asked: “What price tag do we put on our cultural taonga?”

We showed the posters. The students explained the posters. The lights dimmed. We ran the trailers. The lights went right down. The films came on. Laughing, tongue-clicking, and squirming occurred at all the intended moments. The credits rolled, and the applause boomed.

Whānau stood and acknowledged the students. Others (including a punctual Pākehā) asked some very difficult questions, mostly related to the films, some not. I didn’t intervene because this was part of the assessment to prove they “knew their shit!”

My undernourished, sleep-deprived, delirious students oozed confidence. They’d done the research, conducted the interviews, and screened quality productions designed to provoke.

They didn’t need me. It felt amazing.

The next morning, a post-graduate student who was part of the audience approached me and said of Māori Media Project: “Whāea, I’ve already done that paper, but do you think I could come back and redo it?” I replied: “Ummmm … why would you redo a paper you’ve already passed?” He said: “Cos I want to do the paper with you. I want what your class has.

Am I just a kaiako, Bubba?

In my experience, Māori students respond best when someone believes in them, expects the best from them, and acknowledges their dreams. For some of my students, I may be the only kaiako in their school life who has done so.

(DIALOGUE — A senior colleague to my best friend, a new-entrance primary school teacher in Ōtara: Why do you even bother tailoring the reading for each of your kids? It’s just not worth the effort.

ACTION — My best friend: Smiles.

INNER-MONOLOGUE — My best friend: F**k you! My students are gonna kick your students’ asses at reading this year.

RESPONSE TO INNER-MONOLOGUE — Jani: We have very similar teaching outlooks.)

My Māori Media students are worth the effort.

I set the bar high for them because I want them to grow into independent, well-researched, critical thinkers who are also skilled Māori producers. Not just in the media, but anywhere.

The best part about working with Māori Media students is that there are a range of ways in which they can tell and show me what they think. To tell their stories, they use the layering of images, sounds, voices, memories, histories, and apps to convey their thoughts and understanding.

Even though they’re adults, I play games with them. I encourage them to be extravagant when they tell and write stories in class. I especially love the ones who tell the biggest, juiciest, most believable bullshit.

We have so much fun. We touch the carvings in our wharenui, and we imagine what the tīpuna would do and say once we turn off the lights and close the door. We do these exercises to spark the imagination, like when we were children — that imagination that excited us. I see my students’ ideas thrive from our classroom conversation, to the page, to the screen.

Dear Bubba. I’m not just a kaiako. I help Māori students grow their dreams.


Dr Jani K.T. Wilson (Ngāti Awa/Ngāpuhi/Ngāti Hine) teaches Māori media and creative writing at Auckland University of Technology. She is also the co-ordinator for MAI-ki-Aronui, a network designed for Māori and Indigenous PhD and potential PhD candidates.

This is an edited version of a piece that was first published in K.I.N (Knowledge in Indigenous Networks.)

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