Trust as foundation for the learning relationship, with Kairapu Mitchell Clark

Trust as foundation for the learning relationship, with Kairapu Mitchell Clark

Mar 23, 2022 - Voices

Proudly raised in Manurewa, Mitchell Clark (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Tautahi) has gone from strength to strength since embarking on the Teach First NZ Programme as part of Cohort 2018 with Ako Mātātupu. Enjoy this wide-ranging conversation on teaching physics and music, finding ground to stand in Māori and rainbow identities, and some advice (and anti-advice!) for those considering stepping into teacher training.

Tēnā koe Mitchell, welcome to the Ako Mātātupu blog! Tell us about some of the most important parts of your life.

I was born in Gisborne, and on my Mum’s side I whakapapa back to Ngāpuhi iwi, Ngāti Tautahi hapū, and a little marae called Te Iringa just outside of Kaikohe. But I’ve lived almost all my life in Manurewa, South Auckland. I went to all Manurewa schools, and stayed at home while attending uni. South Auckland has always been and will always be home.

I was successful as a student, with my highest school achievement being named joint Dux of Manurewa High School in 2012. However my university studies - particularly those in the Science disciplines - at length got me acquainted with failure for the first time, which was a valuable lesson, and helped me to temper my own self-expectations. Becoming a teacher was obviously a huge moment for me, and over the four years I’ve been teaching, I’ve learned so much about myself and the way I see the world.

The important parts of my life so far all relate to my sense of identity; whether my long, slow journey to working out what it means for me to be Māori, or my equally long, but more punctuated journey to finding authenticity as an out gay man (I blog at if you’d like to read the full story of that journey). I’ve definitely changed for the better since becoming a teacher.

What is your role or job title? What did you study to get there?

Currently I’m a Science Curriculum Leader at Manurewa High School, in addition to my regular Science teaching and Physics specialty area. But I’ve diversified in the last few years, taking on an Astronomy waananga, a Level 1 Writing course, and a few Music courses on the side. I studied a conjoint BMus/BSc at the University of Auckland (prior to my teaching qualification through Ako Mātātupu), so it’s been brilliant to branch out into both of my specialties since finishing the programme.

Since 2021, I’ve also taken on the lead teacher role for the school’s student-led Diversity Council, which aims to raise awareness of rainbow (LGBTQ+) issues in our school and community, and to create safe spaces for rainbow students, staff, and visitors. I was quite unprepared for how rewarding this would be personally; I feel like I’ve grown so much - not only in my rainbow identity, but in my leadership capacity and advocacy.

What were some of the specifics about the Teach First NZ Programme offering that drew you to apply?

I have to be honest, it was the opportunity of full-time teaching work and the scholarship-based postgraduate qualification that drew me in at first. I had a uni friend who had joined an earlier cohort. Teaching had always been floating around at the back of my mind as a possibility, and former teachers of mine had recommended Ako Mātātupu, but I didn’t seriously consider it until my last semester of uni. The requirement to teach in a low-decile school for two years barely caused me to bat an eyelid, as I had only ever considered teaching at my old (decile 1) high school anyway. In that sense, Ako Mātātupu also offered me the chance to give back to my community in a tangible way.

What do you love about working with students?

I love how they keep me honest. So many times I’ve tried to communicate a rule, an expectation, or a task and get hit straight back with a ‘Why?’ or an even stronger counterargument. They force me to think about the reasons I’m asking them to do things. I also love when they feel safe enough to share their thinking, because it always sparks a good discussion. I love when you’ve developed enough of a relationship to banter with them, and have them respond in kind. More than anything I love how forgiving they are on those occasions when I get it wrong, and I appreciate those who approach me to offer feedback. It makes me feel like I’ve cultivated trust as the foundation for the learning relationship.

How would you describe a typical teaching work day?

Depending on the day, I might teach anywhere from 1 to 4 classes (we have three 90-minute blocks a day, plus a 40-minute form time to start). Most of my classes are in the same lab, and my workspace adjoins it, making it easy to pop in and out to collect things I may have forgotten to bring. Because I’m a bit of a night-owl, I usually arrive just after 8am, and do any last-minute prep or attend meetings/PL before school starts at 9am. I open and close each class with traditional karakia. Non-contact periods are usually spent chipping away at my to-do list, including sending emails to all and sundry, doing planning (including placing lab equipment orders), or meeting with colleagues. As far as planning goes, I typically sketch out a rough idea of the week over the weekend, then flesh out the ideas a bit the day before the lesson. After school I have meetings two days a week; I might run a tutorial for my seniors one of the remaining days, then I typically stay to 5:30 or 6pm to continue working (including making phone calls to whānau) - I find I can concentrate better at school than at home.

What would you say is the biggest limitation or difficulty in your job

Definitely time. There never seems to be enough of it! You never want to let the kids down or give them a dull lesson, but at the same time, you have to set boundaries on your personal hours or else you’ll burn out. I have somewhat of a buffer as I don’t have any dependants, but I know the sacrifices some of my colleagues have made and continue to make regarding time with their whānau.

What sort of person do you believe is suited to teaching and leading in education?

Someone who’s willing to work on themselves and, some might say ironically, to be teachable. Preconceived ideas won’t get you far when you’re standing in front of 25-30 living, breathing, thinking young humans.

Someone who can think on their feet, and is willing to try things out. Plan A almost never works perfectly. Sometimes Plan B doesn’t either. Sometimes you literally have to pull something out of thin air, and that definitely gets easier with experience, but you need to be prepared to try a lot of things, and have them not work a lot of times.

Someone who will plough through the snow to make it easier for those who come behind. Someone who when faced with a lack of infrastructure, will try and build it themselves, if only to keep their head above water. Who knows? Your work might end up being a lifeline for someone else.

Which three pieces of advice would you give to a current university student?

1. Learn to be able to laugh at yourself. A moment’s indignity for you is a bonding moment for everyone else.

2. Be confident, but not arrogant. Be honest, but don’t overshare. Bring your own stories and self into the classroom, because your attitude sets the tone; authenticity creates trust, and students can spot inauthenticity a mile away. Treat students like the adults they will become, and be prepared to share your reasons, because they will always ask ‘Why?’

3. And somewhat ironically, given the question… Don’t take anyone’s advice wholesale, no matter what authority they hold. Figure out what elements resonate with you and blend them into your own personal alloy, to make you stronger, more flexible, and more fit-for-purpose.

Ngā mihi Mitchell! You are an absolute taonga in this movement toward a fair and just education system and society. Remember to check out Mitchell's blog & find out about applying to the Teach First NZ Programme here.

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