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How these teachers are exploring culture and raising equity through te ao Māori

Dhammika Silva says cultural awareness is the most important thing in her classroom

Wintec academic, Dhammika Silva says cultural awareness is the most important thing in the classroom.

Dhammika Silva and Ninitha Koya journeyed to Aotearoa New Zealand at different times and from different places, and now they are teaching in Hamilton at the Centre for Business and Enterprise at Wintec.

At Wintec, they are two of many kaiako/teachers, who are on a journey through Wintec’s Tōia Mai framework, to learn and incorporate mātauranga Māori – or Māori knowledge – and understand Te Tiriti principles in their teaching practice.

Through Tōia Mai, they aim to raise equity and enable all learners in an inclusive way.

It’s a journey, they say of “aha moments”, of synergy and discovery, when they are surrounded by many cultural influences - their own - and the diverse cultural makeup of the ākonga/learners they teach.

Their smiles are infectious, and their hearts are as big and warm as the countries they come from.

Silva is from Sri Lanka and Koya is from India. 

“I like to start each class session with a waiata to embrace cultural inclusiveness,” says Silva.

 “I have introduced Tūtira mai Ngā Iwi, as it is about people coming together and I believe it strengthens diversity within the classroom. It also has a good beat, and our international students really like to sing along to it.”

Her personal favourite is Wintec’s waiata E Kore Koe e Ngaro.

“I believe the most important thing in this mātauranga Māori journey is cultural awareness. Most of my classes are culturally diverse and respect, understanding and appreciation of cultural differences helps us to relate better to each other. Our classes help lay the foundation for ākonga so when they go into the workforce, they can adjust and appreciate the cultural connections they will encounter.”

With borders closed, Silva says the cultural mix in her classes has changed with fewer international students, but a number have stayed on at Wintec.

“The last two years or so have seen a drastic change to the cultural makeup of our student cohorts. This means I am adapting to the style of learning our current cohorts have and responding to their needs.

“I encourage them to challenge me, ask me questions, and this is how we learn."

Koya’s life journey has taken her and her family from South India, to London, to St. Lucia in the Caribbean and now Aotearoa, New Zealand. She agrees the most important thing is cultural awareness.

“Equity is the central thing that runs my class.

“Different lived experiences, different starting points and ways of living all come in to inhabit the same space together,” says Koya.

“I am very mindful, I make it clear that I am not the source of knowledge, but we are generating knowledge together. It’s your lived experience you will be educating me on. So at the beginning it is established that we will co-create knowledge. As the lecturer, I am assimilating the information.”

At Wintec, all new kaiako take part in a te ao Māori wānanga /learning experience. They learn about tikanga, whakawhanaungatanga and manaakitanga, values that are part of the cultural framework at Wintec.

“The training I did at Wintec really exposed me to the Māori and Pacific world view.

“All faculty do this, kanohi ke te kanohi - face to face. Our class had a lovely mix of engineering, nursing midwifery and IT people so it was a great space to share ideas.

“Now my classes always start with a karakia, but I am mindful my pronunciation is nowhere close.”

In 2021, she did not have any ākonga Māori in her classes, her students were all international.

“I did not have anyone in class to correct me or tell me I was mispronouncing or misappropriating at the beginning. When we have Māori students in class, they are so welcoming, they are excited and they want to share.

“It’s a relaxed space. We share whakatauki, [Māori proverbs] as I am more confident where I am at right now with one or two lines and I connect that to class concepts.

“We talk about how we are one whānau and we all work together, and we talk about the meaning and how it connects, and I say how does this apply to your situation? How does this apply in your country?”

Often, she says these whakatauki relate to students’ family culture and others discuss individual goals versus common goals.

Equity is central to Ninitha Koya's teaching practice at Wintec

Equity is central to Ninitha Koya's teaching practice at Wintec.

“I am incredibly lucky my module has culture woven into it so when I teach business communication, we are looking at intercultural communication, and mātauranga Māori sits in this space very comfortably.

“I say, “this is rooted in Māori culture but what does it tell you about how you connect?”

“I use a lot of play dough, Lego serious play in my classes to help my students talk and open up.”

Koya says, “Give them playdough and ask what is one cultural thing that guides you?”

“Once you have a model in front of you then suddenly you have something to talk about. I hear “Hey, your model is like mine, I grew up in China and you grew up in Whakatane!” And bonds are formed that connect the interpersonal side of learning.”

“I have had amazing luck, says Koya. “They think they don’t have the right words to explain.

“One boy said ‘I don’t have a culture’ but I say everyone has a culture. Most people think culture is a dance or a food or a costume. But some people don’t connect back to these. So we talk about their personal culture. For example, “Is it in your culture to run up the Hakarimatas every Saturday morning?”

“That’s where equity comes through because then everyone has a space and I ensure everyone is given the opportunities and support they need to share their thoughts as equals."

Silva is Sri Lankan by birth and grew up in Papua New Guinea and Australia.

“I resonate with so many cultures from Sri Lankan to Papua New Guinean to Australian and Māori. When I was in Sri Lanka my sister was here in New Zealand and she said, “did you know there are so many Māori words that resemble ours?” Even the names of some streets!

“We also have similar cultural practices. We respect the elderly and take care of our parents. Kai is always the centre of any cultural activity and Sri Lanka has such a diverse palate. The respect also comes into the classroom. I see a lot of that in ākonga Māori. They say “thank you for the session today” every time. They like to know about my culture. I can really resonate to te ao Māori, it’s similar to Sri Lankan, whether it is special ceremonies, tangi or social gatherings, and then there’s the fun element.”

“Two thousand percent I agree with that!” laughs Koya.

“So many times I have said, “hang on a minute, this is exactly what we do”. That’s where those connections happen, those ‘aha’ moments. And a Chinese student will say, “we do that too”.

“A unifying factor is food. A lot of our cultures are centred around food. The kai is central, but when people eat, they relax and suddenly the formality is gone.

“Even the pronunciation! We roll our R’s the same way. When I first came here, I said the word Kirikiriroa marae and a colleague said, “you got that, you said it without anglicising it.”

“I come from Kerala, the southernmost tip of India. Our geography, culture, weather and food is very similar to Pacific nations’. This means, I connect very easily with my Pacific students, their ways and even their food, as a lot of our food is coconut-based.”

Silva says, she sees "a huge change to teaching and learning practice from when I was a student at Wintec, to what is now part of my practice. It’s really focussed now the Tōia Mai excellence framework has come into play.

"Now when we welcome ākonga Māori onto this campus, it’s going to be a great transformation to their learning and to our practice as well".

Koya admits to adding in a bit of her culture too.

“I unashamedly play Bollywood music at the start of class, and we dance. The girls especially love it.

“We sit on the threshold of cultural competency, and we need to tap into that. Our ongoing conversation is how we adopt a better cultural approach when disruption is happening and learn about what can we do together.”
This story is part of a series demonstrating how cultural change is making a major difference to learners, staff, employers and the wider community.

Wintec is working to improve equitable outcomes for tauira/learners and demonstrate Te Tiriti o Waitangi partnerships through a major change programme, Tōia Mai. Tōia Mai is grounded in te ao Māori and mātauranga Māori to create sustained and meaningful change across Wintec for tauira and kaimahi (staff).

Ensuring education responds to the needs of Māori, Pacific and all learners is a focus for Te Pūkenga – New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology. As a subsidiary of Te Pūkenga, Wintec’s Tōia Mai framework aligns closely with this. 

Find out more about studying Business at Wintec.

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