What she loves most about her work is working with students and developing a rapport with them, says Dr Tafili Utumapu-McBride who is a senior lecturer in AUT's School of Education.
“Teaching the student teachers in the Bachelor of Education is a three-year programme and some of our students also come back for postgraduate study. So, there is a lot of rapport building. That is the special aspect of the work I do and the trust we develop with our students.
“I always say to my students, ‘Come out of your comfort zone and embrace something different like our Pacific specialty’. I believe that the real learning comes from embracing something different; without it there is no risk and no growth. Many of our students end up teaching in communities different from where they grew up, and they love what they’re doing and embrace the diversity. That is something they may not have done without the programme and without meeting lecturers like me.”
Now in her 17th year at AUT, Tafili initially came to the university to mentor students in the academic support team but then joined the School of Education in 2011 to reconnect with her passion for Pacific education.
“I’ve enjoyed the collaborative work with my wonderful colleagues who have the same commitment to our students, and the friendships that develop over time. It’s a whānau-based environment, and we inspire each other and feed off each other.”
In addition to teaching, Tafili is also involved in a number of research projects focused on exploring how Pacific students learn best and how educators can best teach them.
Another focus for her is the teaching and the maintenance of Pacific knowledge, and documenting this knowledge to enrich Pacific people’s sense of belonging and cultural identity.
“One of the research projects I’m currently involved in is a major Teaching and Learning Research Initiative project, Pepe Meamea, which looks at embedding Samoan perspectives and practices into early childhood education for Samoan infants and toddlers. I work alongside co-researchers from the University of Auckland and the Ministry of Pacific Peoples, and there are 12 early childhood centres involved: six Samoan immersion centres and six English-speaking centres based in South Auckland.
“We’re looking at traditional Samoan practices and customary rituals in early childhood education, in particular the equivalent of Infants and Toddlers. For Samoans, this is common practice but formalising this all has been very inspirational and empowering. It’s lovely to see this sharing of knowledge – and the project has been amazing in terms of the talanoa and the discussions.”
Tafili expects the first article on the two-year project to be published soon, with one almost ready for peer reviewing and two more articles planned before the end of the year.
Tafili says it’s migrant mentality that motivates her and inspires her to make a difference to her students and her community.
“I didn’t come here all the way from Samoa to be second best. I want to be the best I can and make a difference in whatever domain, in whatever career. That is what has charged me over the years. In Samoa, we look at leadership as something that has been earned through service. For me, the aspects of my culture and the relationships I make with people are what is important. I believe that when you love what you are doing, it shows in your teaching and in the way you relate to people.”
There is also another reason that drives her; one that is a little bit closer to home.
“I want to set an example for my teenage twin daughters – who were born in New Zealand and have a Pakeha dad – so that they too strive for excellence in everything that they do and make the most of the opportunities that will determine their future roles and career paths.”
“I came to this country for a reason: to aspire to better things, like education. Interacting and supporting students every day is very close to my heart.”