If you did not know, you might not guess. “Bevan-Brown” sounds impeccably British and Associate Professor Jill Bevan-Brown’s appearance matches her name: fair complexioned, with a wave of fine fair hair and an engaging smile. The accent is educated middle-New Zealand. But Bevan-Brown is very much Maori, genealogically through her father’s side, in her personal identity and in her working life, where she is doing all she can to improve the education outcomes for Maori children with special needs
The mismatch between who people automatically assume her to be, and who she actually is, has occasionally given Bevan-Brown a privileged view of the state of race relations in New Zealand.
“While at boarding school I once went to a classmate’s home for Sunday lunch. I remember the mother in this house talking about the Maoris down the road and how dirty and horrible they were. So I stood up and told her off.” She chuckles, a little embarrassed at her cheek. “I was never invited back.” A pause. “I got myself into hot water a few times.”
Jill Bevan-Brown grew up in Wellington’s Porirua basin. Her mother was (and remains) a New Zealander of Irish extraction; her father, a Maori. He was also an All Black at a time when South Africa – New Zealand’s rugby arch-rival – refused to play teams containing ‘coloured’ players. For most of the 20th century, this was just the way things were. But in the early 1950s, when Bevan-Brown’s father found himself excluded from the All Black side to tour South Africa, there was increasing disquiet. “When I was little, there were reporters coming to the house and asking him what he thought about not being chosen,” says Bevan-Brown, who felt the injustice with a child’s intense sense of fair and unfair.1
Bevan-Brown did well at school, then went off to train as a teacher – one of the several then conventional career options for a bright girl. She did a three-year teaching qualification at Wellington Teachers College while working on a bachelor’s degree at Victoria University.
After graduating as a teacher, she taught for a while in the Porirua basin, before heading to Britain, where she became a supply teacher.
Along the way, she often found herself dealing with children from outside the mainstream culture and with children who had special needs.
Her classes in Porirua – a satellite city to Wellington, with a large proportion of state houses – included many Maori.
In Britain, her classes were populated by the children of Caribbean migrants, many of whom had English as a second language. “My worst class was all boys and had, I think, just one white face,” recalls Bevan-Brown. “In the first half hour they were throwing things at me, they were climbing out the window. It was your real To Sir with Love-type classroom. Just horrible. When I came back from morning tea one student said to me ‘Hey, miss, what are you doing here? No one has ever come back.’ I thought, ‘You are not going to beat me.’” Eventually Bevan-Brown found the one child in the class who was interested. “And then another child started listening and then another and soon I was teaching the whole class. By the end of the week it was a reasonable job.”
At the close of her OE she returned to Porirua, this time as a Guidance and Learning Teacher, visiting intermediate schools to assist teachers in working with children who were experiencing behavioural and learning problems. The root cause? “I found the majority of problems arose because children couldn’t cope with the level of work they were being given. Children reading at the age of a six-year old would be given reading material designed for their chronological age of 12. That’s why they had started playing truant or becoming abusive.”
Next Bevan-Brown took up a position at the Otaki Health Camp School, catering to the children referred for six-week stays at the health camp for a variety of health-related, behavioural, and family problems. Again, reflecting the national indices of relative social disadvantage, the children were disproportionately Maori. It was while with the health camp school that Bevan-Brown did her master’s degree extramurally. “I realised I needed some ‘topping up’,” she says. Then came a graduate one-year diploma course in teaching children with special needs. This was at Massey, as was the PhD which followed. “And I have been here ever since,” she says.
At this point a brief history lesson may be in order, for the landscape of today’s Maori education is vastly different from that of 1990, when Bevan-Brown joined Massey’s staff. In 1990 the first ko-hanga reo (early childhood education centres where teaching is in the Maori language) had just turned eight and the first kura kaupapa Maori (state schools where teaching is in the Maori language) had reached the grand old age of five. Bevan-Brown had a number of questions she was eager to answer, but no research literature to turn to. “What is the Maori perspective on intellectual disability? What do Maori parents want for their children who are intellectually disabled? Do they get different services? Do they need different services? Back in 1989 there just wasn’t anything out there. My first research project, which was on Maori perspectives of intellectual disability, was borne out of necessity.”
The book that resulted from Bevan-Brown’s PhD thesis, Cultural self-review: Providing culturally effective, inclusive education for Maori learners, is used by schools and early childhood centres throughout New Zealand.2
How might the Maori perspective on special needs differ from that of mainstream New Zealand and why should it make a difference? One difference might be in how a special need affects interactions within a culture.
Consider autism or, more broadly, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Someone with ASD will have difficulty in learning to engage in the give-and-take of everyday human interaction. Frequently he or she will avoid eye contact, and interpreting the thoughts and feelings of others, something most of us do instinctively, is something the child with ASD struggles with. It is not an easy condition to live with, but within Maoridom it presents still greater difficulties. “One important value for Maori is whakawhanaungatanga. When you meet someone new, you want to know: Where they come from? What tribal area? Who are their whanau? Do you have any relatives in common?” ASD does not sit easily with the practices of whakawhanaungatanga. Within mainstream culture, a certain degree of social reticence or awkwardness may be less of an impediment. “Autism is a medical diagnosis which is outside of culture, but how it plays out in children’s lives is influenced by cultural practices, beliefs and values,” says Bevan-Brown.
‘Giftedness’, on the other hand, is a mutable concept, one that shifts according to cultural standpoint. There is such a thing, Bevan-Brown writes, as cultural giftedness, by which she means not just culture-specific giftedness – such as, say, in Maori arts, craft, music, history or language – but also giftedness within culturally-valued properties. These might include such things as awhinatanga and whakaritenga mahi (helping and serving others), ma-ia (courage or bravery), manaakitanga (hospitality), and pukumahi and pu-keke (industriousness and determination).
There are also differences in the way cultures view giftedness as a property that can belong to individuals or groups. Mainstream Western culture views giftedness as a quality that belongs to the individual; Maoridom extends this to the concept of giftedness belonging to the group. And this doesn’t just mean that the sum of the individual talents is greater than its parts: Lennon plus McCartney gives you the Beatles. It means that the giftedness is inherent within the group and it is the act of the group working together that sparks the gift. A gifted group need not consist of members who are each considered individually gifted.
This is a message Bevan-Brown often finds herself delivering to teachers. “Sometimes a group of Maori kids have produced say a brilliant science project, and the teacher will say, ‘Gee, I wonder which one of them is responsible for this.’
“I tell teachers, ‘Well it may not be any one child, it may have been produced by the interaction of the group, by the ko-tahitanga.’”
Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t individually gifted Maori children. “I asked one school about what they were doing with giftedness and they said they did team sports, because Maori are gifted in team sports. “I said ‘Yes? What about [champion golfer] Michael Campbell?’”
Nor is her wider definition of ‘giftedness’ meant to lead to children being glibly declared to be, say, ‘gifted in helping and serving others’. Rather, what Bevan-Brown is doing is urging teachers to be alive to the variousness of children in their classrooms and to respond to their individual needs and circumstances. “Teachers have to provide for the children they have in their class, and those children aren’t all average white middle-class kids; they are Asian or Maori or Samoan; they are kids with special needs and special abilities. That’s the challenge of teaching. If we are teaching to the middle, to the norm, then all these other kids are missing out. I acknowledge that it’s a lot to ask, but that’s the responsibility that goes with being a teacher.”
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