Sunday, 7 Aug 2022

Te Rau Winterburn: Restoring and normalising te reo Māori


It takes only one generation to lose a language, and three to restore it.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to be raised at home with te reo Māori, as neither of my parents was taught or permitted to formally learn their traditional language. They were raised at a time when students caught speaking te reo Māori at school were punished and frowned upon in the community. My generation is the first in my family to reconnect and embrace our Māori language; my son will hopefully be the second, and his children the third.

If all goes to plan, our language and culture will be restored and normalised within our whānau (family). This is how precarious this endeavour is. My role and responsibility have now become urgent and more important than ever.

As the head of Māori initiatives at Education Perfect, I’m grateful for the ability and opportunity to connect and support kaiako (teachers) and senior leaders within Kiwi organisations who champion te reo (the Māori language) or kaupapa Māori (Māori
initiatives) within their schools and communities.

The kaiako Māori I know always go over and above for their ākonga (students), their whānau (families) and their communities – facilitating multiple initiatives simultaneously (in-school and out) and often alone or with a small dedicated group of whānau helpers.

Seldom do you hear Māori teachers complain, they make do. They are driven by their love of their culture and language, but more importantly, for the benefit of their ākonga (students). But this doesn’t make this mahi (job/work) any less challenging, overwhelming and consuming.

Imagine feeling responsible for hundreds of students purely because they identify as Māori? Imagine being pulled into every individual situation, student issue or restorative meeting because those involved were Māori? Imagine repeatedly seeing Māori youth struggling to be seen, validated and empowered for being who they are. Imagine constantly being reminded of how insignificant your language was, but then seeing versions of yourself being exploited, as the status quo still benefits the same people who devalued your culture?

Imagine for a second that everything you were and held dear meant nothing. This is the reality for many Māori youth and people. It is our job and responsibility as educators to guide, build resilience, develop self-confidence, role model values and educate all of our children to be better versions of themselves.

Earlier this year, I met a young teacher from a North Island high school who was proficient in te reo Māori and passionate about educating others (including work colleagues). I was surprised to learn that he was not of Māori descent.

This teacher was the perfect example of what our future generations could become, where all young people, regardless of ethnicity or background, feel safe and confident to express their authentic selves and be educated about the diversity and culture surrounding them.

I have performed on stage most of my life. It was the first chance I had to share my culture, stories and language with those outside my circle. While I was initially hesitant, I realised that I was in an environment that valued “difference”. I felt empowered to be me, and so in turn, shared more of my stories and I became the best version of myself.

There’s a real positive shift and movement happening throughout Aotearoa. People are embracing and loving waiata Māori (Māori songs) more than ever before, especially the songs of famous Kiwi singers translated into Māori. I think of Stan Walker, Six60, Sons of Zion, Shapeshifter, the artists who have worked on Waiata Anthems and so many others, all standing as powerful and positive influencers who are actively endorsing te reo and elevating its mana.

It gives me hope and joy hearing these waiata and observing the journeys that these artists are embarking on.

I always dreamed of contributing to the normalisation of our reo on a scale wider than my local community. My knowledge and ability with our Māori language and cultural practices have allowed me to see the world. It has secured many wonderful positions in schools and companies, including my current role, where I’m leading te ao Māori initiatives within the largest edtech company in Australia-NZ.

I feel privileged. It is humbling to have such an influential role, and I take the responsibility that goes with this role very seriously.

It is our cultural representation that defines us. In the future, I hope we are collectively proud of our Kiwi identity and heritage, for it is ultimately a part of each and every one of us as New Zealanders.

• Te Rau Winterburn (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga, Ngāti Kahungunu) is kaiwhakahaere kaupapa Māori (head of Māori initiatives) at Education Perfect.

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