Interview with Ian Cormack Part 1

This interview was originally conducted in 2016. Since Ian was made a Fellow of the New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters (NZSTI) at the 2020 AGM and with the beginning of my own Te Reo Māori journey shortly afterwards, it is now high time that I published this interview. It will be posted as a four part blog series.

About Ian Cormack – author, editor and licensed Te Reo Māori translator and interpreter

Ian is a qualified Māori translator and interpreter who works as editor and translator. He is part Māori, part Pākehā (with English, Scottish, German and Norwegian roots). He holds a degree in Russian and medieval French, has a German level 2 qualification and also knows Latin and Greek. Together with his wife, Shirley, he owns Taumatua Māori Language Services. Ian can be contacted via email at [email protected].

Part 1

Beginnings in Kawakawa

Bay of Islands College, Kawakawa, Northland

Bay of Islands College, Kawakawa, Northland. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-39860-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/30115295

Shirley and Ian married in 1970 and they both taught French at Whanganui High School, with Shirley also teaching English and social studies. Since country service was a requirement at that time if a teacher wanted to raise the bar of their salary, Ian and Shirley moved to Kawakawa where they taught at the Bay of Islands College from 1971-1980. Of Ian’s 11 or 12 students, 9 were Māori and they challenged him to teach them their language (rather than French), because they did not learn it from their parents. He was teaching the second year technical stream of boys and some of his students were a bit older with one turning 21, two being 18 or 19 and a few 15 years old. Some of them were reasonably competent in Māori because they had learnt it at home and also used it at home. English, on the other hand was seen as the language that puts bread on the table.
Little Māori was spoken at some of the 12 maraes in the area, with at least 1 or 2 having difficulties finding speakers. Ian began learning Te Reo Māori in 1971 in a night class run in the church hall by the local Anglican minister. Interestingly enough, some of the other students at those night classes were people who had planned an overseas trip and wanted to at least be able to say a few words in their indigenous language in case they were asked to do so or to perform a haka!

In addition, Ian learnt Te Reo Māori from his students and on the maraes. Teachers were highly respected in the community and so he was frequently invited to weddings, 21st birthdays, funerals, etc.

The Northland College in Kaikohe at that time was the only place north of Auckland where Te Reo Māori was taught. In 1972, two Māori advisors set out to change this. After discussions with the local people, it was agreed that Ian would develop the programme until a person from within the Māori community was able to take over. This took 10 years, because secondary school teachers of Māori were required to have a degree at that time.

During his last three years as teacher in Kawakawa, Ian was on secondment during which time he wrote three books on Te Reo Māori: a sixth/seventh form book for teachers, a workbook and a school certificate provision booklet. The books are still used in some schools today and were published by the Department of Education.

Teaching in Whanganui and developing curriculums for Te Reo Māori

In 1980, Ian and Shirley moved to Whanganui so that their two children could be closer to their grandparents. While still being on secondment for one year, he started teaching Māori at Whanganui High School and started the teaching programme there. Ian became Head of Languages which included French, Japanese and Māori. Although having done some papers at university on the subject, there was no formal qualification available and no immersion streams for teaching Māori. He was involved in curriculum writing courses, writing primary school curriculums for Te Reo Māori and also a secondary school curriculum which was never implemented before the Department of Education changed to the Ministry of Education in 1990.

In the late 1980s, Ian was seconded again and worked as Māori language advisor and Māori language inspector for secondary schools.

Te Atakura and Te Ataarangi method

From 1987-1989, Ian was given a permanent position at a programme called Te Atakura. Between 9 and 12 people took part in this programme each year. They were each selected by their iwi as having the necessary language knowledge to join the programme, which was to train them to be a secondary teacher of Māori within one year. They came from various backgrounds like working at the freezing works, as meat inspectors or in mills, and many had never been to secondary school. This was certainly a challenge. As teacher, Ian had to build a relationship with them, and some of his students were older than him and kaumātua in their own iwi. He had to gain their trust and show them that being a fluent speaker alone does not make a good teacher.
A big challenge was to teach his students how to break up their language, because they had never been forced to do so. With the first students, it took one whole term to get their buy-in. In year two, Ian decided a different approach: He adapted the Te Ataarangi method and its Cuisenaire rods, and put them in the position of their future students.

Ian taught his students Russian for 1.5 days. One of them picked it up very quickly, others not so fast and one was even so upset that he got up and left the room.
But Ian’s approach was successful. His students understood that their future students would have the same negative experience if they only spoke Māori to them. They accepted the necessity to look at the structure of their language and learned to understand what worked and what was difficult for learners.

This programme lasted for 3 years. It was an almost impossible task to teach students who had never even attended secondary school all these skills within a year. Ian was also trained as a counsellor and was showed them techniques of counselling Māori students, however, not using a Western-style approach, but one that would work with Māori students. He essentially had two jobs and reckons he aged about ten years in those three years. In addition, there was the daily commute from Whanganui to Palmerston North, about 200 km return. Most of his students ended up getting into secondary school teaching. Because they were so skilled and so knowledgeable in their tikanga, however, they did not work in this profession for very long. Instead, they were recruited by government departments or even moved on to become university lecturers. The one year programme got them a foot in the door, and many of them had a secure income and professional jobs for the first time in their lives.

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