Blazing the trail for future Māori lawyers

October 2016


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Professor Jacinta Ruru (Raukawa, Ngāti Ranginui, Pākehā) from the University of Otago’s Faculty of Law was presented with the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for Tertiary Teaching Excellence by Rt Hon John Key at this year’s Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards. Here, she shares her thoughts with Education Review on what makes an effective tertiary educator.


Jacinta RuruCongratulations on winning the supreme award at the TTEAs this year. What does this accolade mean to you?

Ruru:It is an incredible honour to be recognised in this way by Ako Aotearoa and provides an amazing opportunity to highlight the possibilities of kaupapa Māori teaching within a tertiary environment including within a discipline like law. It is a real privilege to be kaitiaki of the korowai ‘Rau Aroha’ for the next year and to share what this means with my past and present students and colleagues. I also feel as if it is now creating a whole lot of new opportunities to connect with Ako Aotearoa past winners from many different disciplines, which is going to be great.


What do you think gave you edge over the rest of the winners, in terms of being selected for the Supreme Award?

Ruru: I don’t know! All of the winners are so passionate about teaching and care deeply about tertiary student learning. I know I have been fortunate to have had many amazing students choose to do law and come into my classrooms. I am passionate about creating a new learning experience of law for students that is rooted in respecting the first laws of the country – Māori law. And I want to contribute significantly towards ensuring Māori law students enjoy the study of law and do well in the study of law.


Why are such awards important?

Ruru: They provide an opportunity to deeply reflect on what and why we teach and how we do this. They provide an opportunity to honour all of the students who have come into our classrooms. They celebrate the importance of tertiary teaching and showcase some best practices to inspire others.


What led you to became a tertiary educator?

Ruru: In some ways it was all chance and luck! I fell into tertiary study and then later in my third year at university I found law. I loved it as discipline of understanding society and the opportunities in law to create a more respectful society. At the end of my undergraduate law studies, the Faculty of Law at the University of Otago asked me to apply for a lecturing job: assistant lecturer, three-year fixed term. I’m not sure if universities still have this model but it was wonderful for me and the university as it enabled them to develop a ‘grow your own’ model of the academic providing me with the chance to see if I liked academia, to enable me to experience researching and teaching. I loved it and have never looked back!  


What do you relish about your job?

Ruru: Seeing students succeed in the classroom and beyond in their careers. Inspiring students to learn more about the challenges and opportunities in law for social justice.  


What are the biggest challenges you face in your role?

Ruru: Being the only Māori staff member in the Faculty of Law at the University of Otago in a discipline that has mostly been hostile to Māori ideas of law and Māori notions of justice has been hard.


What advice do you have for new or aspiring educators?

Ruru: To have the confidence to create a learning experience that makes sense to you. To learn from mistakes and not be afraid to try different things. To think about learning in an holistic manner creating opportunities for learning beyond the classroom and for students to feel engaged and part of discipline and department. To believe in and recognise the depth of knowledge that all students bring with them into the classroom.  


Where to from here? What are your next goals?

Ruru: At Otago we have a new multidisciplinary research programme named ‘Poutama Ara Rau’, which is a five-year study exploring how matauranga Māori can transform tertiary teaching and learning. I’m really excited about this and how it will hopefully lead to some great national and international collaborations as we contribute to building up published research on indigenous learning at the tertiary level. Nationally, I’m really loving the opportunities with Nga Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence as we work towards helping to realise Māori leading New Zealand into the future. This centre brings together 21 partners and more than 150 Māori researchers from across the country, all committed to transformative research and learning including building the capacity and capability of Māori postgraduate research and shining a light on the desperate need for New Zealand tertiary institutions, especially universities, to significantly increase the number of Māori academic staff to match the fast-growing numbers of Māori students. And of course to build on the momentum within the Faculty of Law at Otago for even greater student success, especially Māori student success.

As the first Professor of Law of Māori descent in New Zealand and the only Māori Law Faculty staff member at Otago University since 1999, Professor Jacinta Ruru is designing a new experience for students learning law. Her strategy brings greater focus to Māori experiences of the law, Māori relationships with land and Māori challenges for change in the classroom.
In addition to being founder and director of an annual year-long programme for Otago’s Māori law students: Te Īhaka; Building Māori Leaders in Law, supervising PhD students and undertaking the role of Kaiāwhina Māori in the Law Faculty (primary support person for Māori law students), Ruru’s accomplishments include:
  • two Fulbright Scholarships
  • ninety publications promoting research-informed teaching used as teaching material in law schools around New Zealand
  • establishing the Māori Law Moot Competition at Otago
  • co-designing a new multidisciplinary Māori programme focused on providing solutions to transform Māori learning
  • founding and co-chairing Te Poutama Māori (Otago’s Māori Academic Staff Caucus) to encourage Māori  research, teaching and service excellence
  • co-director of Nga Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori  Centre of Research Excellence.

Ruru is described by colleagues as “incredibly generous in sharing her teaching experiences and expertise”. A former student comments, “In succeeding at the highest level and carving out a unique niche in her field, she gives others the confidence to do the same.”


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