A “stand-out” lecturer in Māori media studies and creative writing at Auckland University of Technology is paying forward an opportunity given to her 19 years ago – and is now helping to change the lives of her students for the better.
Jani Wilson was a first-year student in a tutorial with 25 of her Māori and Pacific peers when tutor Sam Cruickshank of Ngāpuhi said, “We’re here and we’re allowed to be excellent”.
Sam’s statement was contrary to the usual expectations of ‘just to pass was enough’ given to Māori and Pacific students when Jani was going through school.
“I will never forget when Sam gave us permission to be better than that – to be excellent,” she says.
That was 19 years ago. Today Jani is a lecturer in Māori media and creative writing at Auckland University of Technology. Teaching is her way of paying it forward. She says Māori students respond best when someone believes in them, expects the best from them and acknowledges their dreams.
“Why are Māori and Pasifika students failing classes? Why did I recently have 70 Polynesian students come to my class, unable to get into their courses, and now over 60 of them have access to degree programmes? “
“Half the job is getting students to believe in themselves, telling students they can do it,” says Jani.
“I grew up in an overalls-and-white-gumboot, predominantly Māori town, in a one-income whānau. I did all of my post-grad study on the DPB and I’m in a city that isn’t my home with a child on my own, still paying off a student loan.
“But these elements of my journey neither define or limit me. That speaks to our tauira because they can relate and take strength from someone who contests stereotypes.”
Connecting with students and building relationships helps Jani to understand where they are coming from. Being Māori herself, she relates to those students who don’t have strong academic expectations.
“Some teachers believe that some students aren’t going to improve so they don’t bother.”
Jani encourages students to bring their personal experience to class discussions to create a sense of belonging and to demonstrate they can achieve academically.
She has seen some of her students overcome massive obstacles, including homelessness, and still turn up to class and graduate.
Talking about the responsibilities of a Māori vs non-Māori producer, the students were given a script and asked what they would do and why it’s important. One student had an epiphany and said, “We’re the ones who have to go back to the marae”.
Setting up for success
Setting her students up for success in whatever career they choose is Jani’s aim. She has redesigned the Māori media papers so students can have the experience she didn’t have and wants to shift the future of Māori screen production so Māori can create and tell their own stories.
She always reflects on how far her tīpuna (ancestors) have come in terms of theory and technology in coming to New Zealand.
“I always approach things in that way; my students aren’t any less because they are Māori.
“Being Māori, being Pasifika… my students are so proud of their cultures. When we engage in tautohetohe (debates), many take the opportunity to speak their truths about perceptions of Māori and Pasifika in the media. It is important to have these conversations and to approach them through analysis and critique to move the media forward.”
The extra effort she puts into students is worth it when her students achieve success, despite the lack of belief by other parties.
“There’s an idea my students won’t be as technical or theoretically sound as others. I enjoy wiping the smiles off their faces when my students are better.”
Fostering Māori leadership
To shift the narrative on Māori, it’s also important to foster excellent Māori leadership, whether it is academic or practical, Jani says.
“I’m into the 99.9 per cent who are doing well for themselves. It’s important they become leaders to foster Māori aspirations in future generations.”
Student Stasia Tongatule says of Jani: “She’s a stand-out lecturer and doesn’t leave any students behind if they’re struggling. If I give her something, she’ll say ‘you can do better than that’; she’s always pushing us.”
Last year, Jani put student Micah Thompson’s name forward as part of a youth delegation at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Papua New Guinea.
“If she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have done it,” says Micah. “It was a life-changing experience.”
Jani says, “For me, the most noticeable change in Micah following the trip was his confidence and belief in his skills and abilities. He’s begun talking about postgraduate study which is really exciting.”
Listening to students
Jani’s advice for other teachers is to pay close attention to students and listen.
“Three things I do very deliberately are: I learn their name and I say it, even out of class. I remember a detail about each student and drop these into our classroom conversation so they know I listen. It has a reciprocal effect, and they listen too.
“If they’re engaged, I can do my job better and they can learn better. I do kapa haka and play sports, and it’s amazing how much my students respond to these conversations.”
Students pick up on this attentiveness and respond in kind.
“In class it shows how much attention she pays to us, throughout the course and since we’ve been here, we try and respond in the same way,” says Micah.
Jani likes to facilitate conversations creating a model where students and teachers are on the same level.
“Gone are the days where you can get up and just say stuff; the kids are googling as you’re teaching to check if what you’re saying is legit.”