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Fireside Chat with Matua Russell

by Rebecca Thomas

Imagine the nerves and the lump in your throat when you’ve been asked by Russell Bishop to stand up and share with a room full of educators what you have been doing to address the Literacy Crisis over the past year. What would you tell him? What would your story be?

One by one our Northland kaiako crept tentatively to the mic with bated breath.

Fondly Russell listened, making notes.

Once the initial stutter and awkwardness dissipated these teachers' natural passions and fire in their hearts took over. Their words flowed and the audience was captivated, occasionally nodding their heads and discreetly wiping away a tear here and there from the emotion and aroha that was reverberating in each of their journeys.

They shared very personal stories about how they had battled to fight for their students, how they refused to accept disparities, how they refused to let any student leave their school illiterate, how they fought hard to maintain relationships with our very marginalised and disadvantaged children. They simply rejected the notion that anything other than success was an option.

Actively listening and naming each school and teacher, Russell responded personally to all of them in turn. It was magical for both educators and experts. Watching the smile creep over his delighted face and his eyes twinkle with proudness at the level of dedication and commitment in the room was a pleasure; we were truly amongst north-east teachers.

Despite their isolation, despite their challenges, despite their dwindling budgets and limited support there was not a whisper of blame to be heard.

Russell commended them all for being agentic, he was amazed at their grit and tenacity to pull together, to support each other, to leave no avenue explored.

The vulnerability and openness they expressed to a room full of people was relentless.

Once Russell exited the virtual stage the conversation pursued, they all wanted these messages amplifying. They wanted to tell more than just the room that the impossible was possible, and share what they had to do to make it so. It is for them I am writing these words.

After a refreshment at 6:10pm no less, after a hard day at work they stayed. This mighty band of north-east leaders had just got started and wanted more action. The workshops that were to follow full of fun and practical things were quickly disestablished in favour of forming a working party instead, time to plan their next steps; time for their wants and needs.

Their lists were clear:

awhi mai

awhi atu



a platform to share resources

a collaboration of sectors (all sectors)

more connection with schools outside of their geographical bounds

sustainable ideas

transitions and relationships

As I watched this driven army of educators get excitedly mobilised, I made a promise to myself that the support for them wouldn't simply end here.

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