Strolling with Chris May through the grounds of Hamilton’s St Columba’s Catholic School, where he has taught for the last nine years, you get the sense that he was born into the profession. He greets every student that passes with a smile and hearty ‘hello’ and knows each one by name. But growing up, Chris never imagined becoming a teacher. There was no long-held dream to inspire the children of the future because, quite simply, he didn’t do well at school. He had no real interest in it and struggled through high school leaving with only 5th form English.
“I didn’t take ownership for my learning; I put little effort into it and never saw any purpose to what I was doing.”
Nine years later Chris heads up the Year 7 & 8 team at St Columba’s, manages eLearning across the whole school and puts all his efforts into ensuring the young men in his class are more engaged in their learning than he was. The Nga Tama Toa Year 8 boys’ programme he developed during his first year of teaching has provided the material for his book ‘Running with a Hurricane – Educating Boys for Manhood’ to support his teaching principles.
Recently Chris’s passion for what he does was acknowledged when One News included him in their Good Sorts segment that recognises regular Kiwis making a difference in their communities. With three million Facebook views to date of his Good Sorts interview, Chris remains humble when praised for his work. He insists that the dialogue around boys’ education that led to the success of Nga Tama Toa is down to collaboration with hundreds of contributors – both adults and students. He’s just “stoked” to have found his "why".
“I don’t feel as though I’m turning up to a job, this is a mission, a vocation that I love doing.”
But it was a mission that may never have been realised. Coming from a business-oriented family, it seemed a logical move for Chris to work in retail after finishing school. He continued in the business management line of study and work for several years but felt he wasn’t living his best life.
“The experience I had in the business world was the same four walls and the same thing every day.”
It wasn’t until he spent some time in a friend’s classroom that he discovered his calling. Seeing teaching as an opportunity to explore, inquire and learn every day inspired Chris to enrol in a Graduate Diploma of Teaching at the University of Waikato.
“I saw Waikato as an amazing opportunity to take my career in a different direction, and with the great reputation the School of Education has, it was an easy choice to make.”
Chris was offered a position at St Columba’s at the end of his final practicum. The idea of a boys’ learning group had been bubbling away in his mind when he saw boys, akin to his younger self, who were struggling with the traditional learning environment.
“When I started teaching and stood in front of my own class I saw boys behaving in the way I used to – unmotivated and disengaged in learning. I thought, there has to be a better way to do this.”
It was the catalyst for Chris to develop Nga Tama Toa. He called upon his mentors in education, his principal at the time Mike Mokal and a teacher from another school, Steve Horne, who brought clarity to his ideas and helped adapt them for use in a school setting.
The end result was a class that teaches boys the skills needed for manhood. Chris’s students start the day with a handshake and warm greeting, and are taught anything from how to cook a good steak and master the art of tying a tie to how to vacuum and change a tyre. Life skills that teach boys how to be great men are taught alongside the standard curriculum. Chris has intentionally erred away from the traditional model of boys sitting for long periods in front of a teacher - it didn’t work for him and he believed a more hands-on approach was essential to engage boys in learning. That, and letting them try for themselves.
“Always give people the opportunity to show you what they can do. Sometimes as a teacher you have to step back.”
With the success of his book and Nga Tama Toa going from strength to strength, Chris feels it’s time to broaden access to the programme. “The ‘who’ and ‘why’ are there – now it’s time to work on the ‘how’.”
Chris’s book ‘Running with a Hurricane – Educating boys for Manhood’ is available through Amazon in paperback and ebook.