I’m an experienced high school teacher and I’ve worked a lot with troubled young people in low-decile schools. I wanted to extend that and use my skills to make a positive impact on men in prison and so in In January 2021, I took up my role as Educational Arts Tutor at Hawkes Bay Regional Prison.

The high school kids I taught were very receptive to my classes, and the work they produced gave them pride and confidence. I see the same thing happening with the 60 or so men I teach every week in the prison.

For me, relationships and trust are the key to tane engaging in education and the arts.

When I began, the first thing I had to consider about my students was their cultures and learning background. Underachievement, due to leaving school without a qualification, plays a big part in how they feel about themselves and their abilities to achieve.

This fear of failure and the shame they feel often serve as a learning barrier to the tane. The Māori and Pasifika students link academic failure with their worth as a person.

Encouraging and promoting success for these students meant I had to understand their cultures. I had to be inclusive; integrate te reo and ngā tikanga into my teaching practice to engage and be respectful of their cultures; and to listen and encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning.

I see myself as a “lifelong learner”, and in the ongoing process of researching and learning more about Mātauranga Māori (body of knowledge), I become the learner as well as the teacher.

Navigating their own pathways

I liken it to a journey, using a compass to empower the tane to achieve excellence in art and artmaking by navigating their own pathways, and by understanding their cultures and their own learning processes.

I started my learning by familiarising myself with the Department of Corrections’ Hōkai Rangi Strategy 2019 to 2024, aimed at reducing the number of Māori in prisons across the country.

And then I asked myself a lot of questions. What was my purpose as an arts tutor at the prison? How do I fill an empty shell and make it whole again? How can my students understand the educational process? And how can I break a cycle and make a change?

To prepare myself for purposeful conversations, I needed to understand whakama (shame), leave bias and assumptions at the door, and value the whole person. I needed to focus on their strengths in artmaking and their long-term goals.

Working on the men’s strengths and self-esteem

The following whakataukī affirms the need for me to work on the men’s strengths and self-esteem, supporting them to navigate pathways to learning.

Hutia te rito o te harakeke
Kei hei te komako e ko
Ki mai ki ahau
He aha te mea nui o tea o?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

If your pluck out the centre of the flax bush
I ask you where would the bell bird feed from?
What is the most important thing in the world?
I tell you it is people, it is people, it is people.

For me, the key is to listen to the men, and have meaningful and enlightening conversations about artmaking. It is about encouraging the positives (i.e. the artwork they’re creating) and making the negative less obvious.

Nobody wants to be put down or discouraged in any way. By praising the tane and their artwork, the tane blossom, their backs straighten and the smiles broaden. Their behaviour changes and they feel that they are achieving, which they are!

Developing skills to undertake tertiary study

The men in my classes have to complete my course so they have the necessary skills to undertake tertiary study through The Learning Connexion’s distance learning programme

In 2021, I created a series of booklets covering a range of topics, starting with the principles of the artmaking process through to tone and texture; the art of drawing a face; and learning the art techniques of famous New Zealand and international artists.

During lockdown in 2022, I taught offsite and online with the men in the prison’s Youth Unit for ten weeks because of COVID-19 restrictions. Using the booklets, I was able to continue assessing their work and providing feedback. It was a good learning curve for everyone, me included, and the young men had to learn to keep on-task. I set up my easel at home so they could follow what I was doing, step by step.

To me, art is therapy and an excellent medium for people in prison to explore their creativity, learn new skills, help resolve their issues and heal. Art is a humanising, learning and healing process. It breaks down boundaries, can change attitudes and, in some cases, provide career pathways.

I’m inspired by the abilities of my students, who strive to succeed in the challenging environment of a prison. The light bulbs that art turns on is what powers me and stokes the embers of my journey to teach my craft with passion. I love my job and the students make my day, creatively.

Empowering tane to achieve excellence in artmaking


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