Boys to gentlemen: How a Maori martial art is teaching tough kids to be good men
To his students, Whaitiri Poutawa is a rock star. Every day he travels from school to school, acoustic guitar and taiaha in hand, teaching young people the traditional Maori martial art known as mau rakau.
But his programme is about more than martial arts. Whaitiri explains how it helps boys learn about what being a man really means.
Five years ago, I was contacted by Birchville School because they had a group of boys who were disengaged from school life. Most of them were Maori or Pacific Islander, some non-Maori, but all of them needed a reason to come to school other than eating lunch.
The kapa haka teacher at the time wanted someone to teach the boys haka. "Just do Maori man stuff!" We needed something else to do during those sessions and I thought, let's do mau rakau.
Mau rakau is an instruction in the use of traditional weaponry, and the rituals around it.
What we're doing is delivering a confidence and leadership programme through culture and identity. The Maori martial arts, mau rakau, is the platform for achieving our outcomes, empowering boys and empowering girls.
When we talk about discipline for boys, the discussion often happens in ways they don't always understand or engage with. But through mau rakau, we found a way to calm them down and talk about self control, to translate discipline into self control.
The boys have to hold a stance for a set amount of time each week. If someone moves in that time slot, we start again. And while we're doing that, the boys are in a state of total calm, which enables us to push other messages.
I talk a lot to the boys about balance. It comes down to the theory of the gentleman. I tell them that as men we're strong, but we're caring. We're protectors who are also compassionate. We stand up for what's right, but don't cross the line into bullying. We play sports and we do our homework.
I suppose getting them to be still is half the challenge. But once you find that zone of stillness, those messages are received much more clearly.
The messages can be very basic things like having a firm handshake, a positive introduction, just knowing how to hold a conversation. This spills into larger ideas around how we treat women, and how we treat ourselves. There's even a unit and homework section devoted purely to personal hygiene.
A lot of boys are growing up without fathers and go through school without access to male teachers or other male role models. Sometimes there's nobody else to teach them how to be good young men.
What I've found is that boys really respond to emotional vulnerability. They don't want me to be strong and confident all the time. They want to know that it's OK to be upset, to have a bad day. And they want strategies to help them cope with those feelings.
So I tell the boys about my sister who passed away a couple of years ago. As I'm sharing that story, the mood in the gymnasium changes. The boys are so emotionally engaged. Some of them will start crying; I'll even start crying. Then all of a sudden, the boys will realise that it's OK to cry - boys are allowed to be emotional, too.
Some of our boys have behavioural issues and this programme gives them a place where they don't feel judged. They can talk freely to me and know I'm not going to write their name on the board or call their mum. They get to voice their side of what happened, regardless of whether they were in the right or wrong.
There are a whole bunch of young men out there walking around with issues that they can't talk about. Issues that later manifest into things like suicide, violence, drug and alcohol abuse.
It's all because men aren't talking. If we can teach our boys how to communicate now, then once they become men, a lot of these issues can be prevented.
As told to UNICEF New Zealand. UNICEF NZ stands for every child, so they can have a childhood.