Recounting why I left school

By Ellipsister, Co-Editor

Aaron Smale at Mana Magazine wrote a conversation starting article on the PPTA and what he argues is its failure to date to lift achievement of Māori students. As a Māori school leaver, I sympathise with his argument.

I left school exactly the day I turned 16 and was therefore legally allowed to drop out. My Dad was livid and I could tell he was also deeply disappointed. I enrolled in a couple of tech courses in art and design. Turns out, I wasn’t particularly talented – nor committed. My attendance rate was appalling. Eventually I completed a hairdressing course (and worked as a hairdresser for a few years). It seemed the thing to do – and I was obsessed with creating my own identity.

On reflection that speaks to the struggle I endured throughout my life – was I Māori or Pākehā (Mum is Māori, Dad is Pākehā)? For years I refused to identify as Māori because of all the negative stereotypes that were thrust on me. And also my schooling experience taught me it was better to identify with my Pākehā heritage, than with my Māori heritage. Although, that was a tight rope to walk given I was so obviously brown. It has taken me my entire adult life to disentangle those colonising notions.

Why did I leave school?

When I was 11, I had wanted to be a Lawyer or a Cardiac Surgeon. I was a pretty good student and believed that I could do it. Before you think I had a sweet as home environment – I didn’t. I’m not going to divulge details. Those dreams of becoming a Lawyer or Surgeon were my escape from the poverty trap. I also had supportive teachers that invested time in my learning.

Life changed just as I started High School. I had stability at home for the first time in a long time – but sadly that came with some drawbacks, that one day I may open up about here, but not yet.

I struggled in my first year – I did ok, but not great. I remember feeling like a massive failure. The next year my grades got progressively worse and I started acting out and got into trouble a few times. By the time I got to School C, I was completely lost. I couldn’t actually comprehend what was being asked of me. I didn’t understand how to think. I didn’t dare ask for help, for fear of being told I was dumb – and actually, I’d never been taught how to ask for help. During my time at High School not once did any of my teachers take me aside to see how I was doing and if I needed help with any of my work. I was simply ignored. I wasn’t one of those boisterous students. I was a nobody with nothing constructive or insightful to offer. I was mediocre and lost sight of all my aspirations. A piece of paper with a few letter grades, and a brief comment about me being ‘a quiet student’ was the extent of their feedback. As if somehow I wasn’t self-aware of my quietness. It is in fact, crippling shyness – a trait that I struggle with daily.

So I left school because in my mind, I was too hopeless to achieve the grades I needed to get into University. When some of my friends left (to pursue hairdressing apprenticeships) or dropped out to do a tech course, I followed suit.  I had lost complete faith and confidence in my ability to achieve in that environment.  Sure, I had gotten through School C but barely. I did half of sixth form and on my 16th birthday cleared out my locker and left. Also, I had become increasingly truant – hiding out at a friend’s house, so I imagine I was getting pretty close to suspension or expulsion.

Now, I get that the system failed me. And while I can appreciate that in many cases teachers are under-resourced and overworked – my experience was not just about that. There was no effort by teachers at my High School to try to understand the lived experiences of urban Māori in the small white provincial town I grew up in. Not once, did a High School teacher give me some hope that I was capable of achieving my aspirations. Instead, I sat in class feeling like the walking talking stereotype that I was labelled as in the primary school playground and harassed with on the street by the local skinheads.

It absolutely was my choice to leave. But that choice was complex. I had been ground down to a point where I had zero confidence. I felt my choices were leave and save my dignity or subject myself to the utter humiliation of total failure proving right all those who had ridiculed or ignored my existence. I know now how wrong that all sounds. But those were my thoughts. Turns out, my giving up and leaving had pretty much the same effect.

So the point I see Smale make is that despite the long history of involvement of the PPTA in the education system, a disproportionate number of Māori schooling and education experiences are not positive and this has an effect on our mana. I don’t blame the PPTA for the outcomes of Māori, but I certainly question the monopolising of teaching (gatekeeping) and the ‘qualification requirement’ for a function or role that our tīpuna and many others throughout history have performed ‘unqualified’.

My view on this will likely infuriate those with a vested interest in the ‘qualification’ aspect of teaching. Do I think just anyone can teach? Absolutely not. I would certainly encourage safety checking to ensure students aren’t put at risk. I would also think employers of ‘unqualified’ teachers would ensure that those applying to teach were recognised as competent to do so by their peers. Noting, there are some subjects in which I consider it is inappropriate to require a formal qualification, especially with regard to Te Reo me ōna Tikanga Māori. Many of our kuia, koroua and rangatira have years of experience transferring that knowledge – and in a culturally appropriate way. I also think someone who has worked in a particular field, who has a strong practical understanding of a subject and has demonstrated strong leadership and mentoring in their roles could also make good teachers.

Yes, I get that a teaching qualification sets a professional standard that teachers are expected to comply with and there are absolutely benefits in that, in particular accountability. I disagree however that only teachers with a qualification will adhere to those professional standards. Sure there is a risk of rogue unqualified teachers, but the same is true of qualified teachers.

I said this on Twitter and will repeat here: I have no interest in pursuing a socialist versus capitalist narrative. My interest is in finding ways that will enable Māori to be designers of our own solutions – no matter what system we have because in my mind, this is one of the key ways we can exercise our tino rangatiratanga to improve outcomes for all our whānau.

When we can build alternative social institutions that are not reliant on the State (our oppressor) and not susceptible to the corruptive practices of corporatisation (our exploiter), then we can begin to dismantle the disparity. Dismantling began with the Kura Kaupapa and Kohanga Reo movement. It’s about time the State and gatekeepers recognise the legitimacy of our epistemologies and pedagogies and stop perpetuating the myth that mainstream approaches are superior to our indigenous practices. Its time for Māori to advance that movement further.



I went to University at 23 when my first baby was 18 months old. The first year was really hard. I didn’t even know how to write an introduction for an essay. Since then, I have completed a conjoint BA/LLB, my law Profs and an LLM with First Class Honours. LOL at those teachers and all those people who didn’t believe in me.



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