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Celebrating Otago’s top teacher

Tuesday 29 July 2014 8:08am

karyn paringatai performs with her students image
Dr Karyn Paringatai performs alongside her students at a Clocktower celebration of her Prime Minister’s award. Photos: Sharron Bennett.

Earlier this month, Otago lecturer Dr Karyn Paringatai of Te Tumu – School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies won New Zealand’s top tertiary teaching honour – the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for Tertiary Teaching Excellence.

This incredible honour was celebrated at a joyous event in the Clocktower yesterday afternoon, in which Dr Paringatai performed alongside her proud students.

In an interview with the Bulletin Board, Dr Paringatai discusses the award, her background, “teaching in the dark” and what makes her so passionate about the Māori language.

karyn paringatai performing small image
Dr Karyn Paringatai.

How did you feel winning the Prime Minister's award for teaching excellence?

Winning the Prime Minister’s award came as a complete surprise. I was not expecting to win this especially when I saw the calibre of the other recipients of the Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards that night. It is a huge honour and it is recognition of not only my efforts but it is also a reflection of everybody who has put the time and effort into developing me as a person and as an academic. For me it is also about the recognition of Māori knowledge and its growing importance nationally and internationally.

You are relatively early in your career - were you surprised to win this now?

My students take great delight in reminding me that I’m ‘old’ because to them 13 years of working is a long time. I’m also the fourth longest serving staff member in Te Tumu at the moment. So I have never thought that I am ‘early in my career’. I was more shocked about winning the award in the first place. I have since realised that the past 13 years is really only just the beginning in my life as an academic. I have so much more to learn and I’m excited about the opportunities that being a recipient of this award is already making available to me.

"It is a huge honour and it is recognition of not only my efforts but it is also a reflection of everybody who has put the time and effort into developing me as a person and as an academic."

It is such a wonderful, positive thing, but I imagine with it comes pressure for further success?

It is an amazing honour. ‘Success’ is a funny word because it means different things to different people. I certainly have goals (career and personal) that I want to achieve but I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t achieve them. They give me something to aim for and if the goal posts change then I have to adapt and adjust accordingly.

What exactly do you teach?

I teach Māori language acquisition (at the intermediate level) and Māori performing arts. Tied in with both of these subjects is Māori culture. I live what I teach. I live and work within a Māori paradigm where Māori knowledge systems and philosophies are central to my world view – it is a natural and organic way for me to operate. I cannot separate who I am as a teacher from who I am as a person outside of the classroom. I converse in te reo on a daily basis, I am a practitioner of Māori performing arts and I sub-consciously follow protocols and processes typically defined as Māori cultural practices. For me it is not so much about 'teaching' but showing my students and others around me how these things are applied in everyday life, otherwise they are just abstract concepts with no substance.

What was your pathway to this role? What is your background?

When I was little we would go to my grandmother’s house every week and at some point during those visits she would always ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without hesitation my reply was always the same, “I want to be a teacher Grandma.”

"In my teaching I aim to fuel my students’ passion for learning. I know what it is like to be a second language learner. I know that it is difficult, hard and incredibly frustrating. But the benefits are worth it."

I finished my BA (Hons) (Māori Studies) and a position as a Teaching Fellow opened up in Te Tumu. I was successful in applying for the position and have since finished my MA (2004) and PhD (2013). When I first began working in Te Tumu 13 years ago we had a ‘grow your own’ system, because at that time Māori scholars with PhDs were few and far between. Academia is a lot different now and the number of young, talented academics with PhDs working in the field of Māori, Pacific and/or Indigenous Studies has increased so much - I might not have a job right now. I am incredibly fortunate.

I whakapapa to Ngāti Porou, but I grew up in Invercargill. My upbringing was largely devoid of the intergenerational transmission of Māori cultural knowledge until I decided to pursue that information myself. I made a conscious decision to begin learning te reo Māori and finding out who I was when I was 11 years old, which was supplemented with my participation in Māori performing arts groups. I felt this was pivotal to my identity given I was raised away from my tribal area. Therefore, the skills and knowledge I have gained that I pass on to others are as a result of my own interests in these areas over the past 25 years. In my teaching I aim to fuel my students’ passion for learning. I know what it is like to be a second language learner. I know that it is difficult, hard and incredibly frustrating. But the benefits are worth it. Like me, my students have chosen to advance Māori scholarship and their own knowledge in this field – my aim is to make that process as smooth as possible.


I understand you used to be quite shy - how have you overcome this to become one of New Zealand's top tertiary teachers?

My shyness stemmed from my lack of confidence and knowledge about who I was. I had to work hard at reconciling who I thought I should be, according to preconceived notions about what knowledge someone of Māori descent should possess and what attributes they should display, with my reality of growing up in Invercargill away from my tribal area. Once I became comfortable with that then I become more at ease speaking in front of people. I don’t think I have overcome this shyness, I’ve just learnt strategies to help me cope. And the more experiences I am exposed to and the more I learn, the more confidence I gain.

I quickly realised when I first started teaching that my role is not to know everything. Teaching and learning is a two-way process: my students learn from me and I learn from them. This process is encapsulated in the Māori term of ako, which as a verb means to both ‘teach’ and ‘learn’. This concept recognises the cultural capital that both my students and I bring to the classroom and the way that new knowledge and understandings can grow out of sharing our experiences. I do not claim to know everything and I have no qualms in telling my students when I do not know the answer to their questions: together we endeavour to find the solutions.

Through this award and before that your Otago award, you have become known for "teaching in the dark". Can you tell us more about that?

I have been teaching Maori performing arts at the beginner level for 10 years. Fifty percent of my class are international students and over 80 percent of them have no background in Maori language, culture and/or performing arts. This has always made for slow, laboured learning of the haka and waiata. Just getting my students to remember the words, tune, choreography and actions was difficult enough and then I would ask them to emotionally connect with the item and perform it with appropriate facial expressions and body movement and do it in a language that the majority of them did not understand. As a consequence the correct pronunciation of Māori words become secondary.

"Te reo Māori is etched into the landscape of this country, it is in our whakapapa, our histories, our hearts and our soul. It is part of who I am because I make it a priority in my life."

I thought there has to be another way that places the reo at the centre and not on the periphery. One of the ideas that surfaced after discussions with my colleagues was teaching in the dark. Removing external stimuli so that the students are required to just focus on the words and the way that they are said using correct models of pronunciation. My students learn the words and tune in the dark and there is an emphasis on the retention of this information before moving on to the physical aspects of performance.

They learn the songs faster which in turn means there is more time to practise the execution of the items which leads to higher grades, we’ve added four more items to their performance bracket, international students are able to take on leading roles (especially in the haka) as they have more confidence to do so and time to practise, and the fear and embarrassment when making mistakes is minimised in the dark.

Why do you feel passionately about the Māori language?

A culture can barely survive let alone flourish without its language. Many government policies and attitudes have damaged the health and vitality of the reo. And yet it is still here. Te reo Māori is etched into the landscape of this country, it is in our whakapapa, our histories, our hearts and our soul. It is part of who I am because I make it a priority in my life. I am still learning and every day I make new discoveries about certain words, phrases, sentences that make me see things in a new light. That is what knowing another language does – it broadens your imagination and expands your mind. And what better language to start learning than the one that is indigenous to this country!

Where to from here - what are your future aspirations in your teaching?

I am not sure what my future aspirations are for teaching. I never dreamed I would ever be in this position. I’ve always been the type of person who struggles to plan a week ahead and now I have things booked six months in advance. It is a strange thing for me! I still have so much left to learn and every year I get a new group of amazing students to teach and they share with me their life experiences from which I grow personally and professionally. Teaching is learning and I all I know is I want to keep doing that.

Anything else you wish to add?

Lately, many people have called me ‘inspirational’. We all need someone who inspires us to do better than we know how. My family, friends, colleagues and students are my greatest inspirations – I am the person and teacher I am today because of them.

Whakarongo ki te reo Māori e karanga nei
Whakarongo ki ngā akoranga rangatira
Nā te atua i tuku iho ki a tātou e
Pupuritia, kōrerotia mō ake tonu
Tirohia ngā tikanga tapu a ngā tīpuna
Kapohia hei oranga ngākau – auē!
Whiua ki te ao!
Whiua ki te rangi!
Whiua ki ngā iwi katoa!
Kaua rawatia e tukua e

Kia memeha e!
Whakarongo ki te reo Māori e karanga nei
Whakarongo ki ngā akoranga rangatira
Tēnā kia purea te hau ora e
He kupu tuku iho mō tēnei reanga
He kupu tuku iho mō tēnei reanga

The late Ngoi Pēwhairangi (Ngāti Porou) composed the words of the song above. She was a staunch advocate and teacher of the Māori language and a lyrical genius. This song encourages people to take heed of the teachings found in the words and actions of our ancestors as an example of how to progress our future. This song encapsulates my role and duties as a teacher. I consider myself fortunate to have spent the past 13 years doing a job that I love. These words remind me every day that I have an obligation to pass on what I know to others. Knowledge is a gift that was handed down from our ancestors and I have a responsibility to use it to teach my students to be innovative, forward-thinking contributors to our society.