Cushla Foe was working in retail in Queensland when she decided she was ready for a new and harder challenge. So she packed her bags, farewelled her large extended family and headed for the University of Waikato in Tauranga to study for a teaching degree.
Cushla (Tūhoe, Ngāti Awa) graduated in 2021 with a Bachelor of Teaching – Early Childhood Education (ECE).
She worked hard during her study years. Rather than taking the long summer breaks at the end of each year, she took Summer School papers, which meant while she was completing the third year of her teaching degree she could also study for a Certificate in Raranga (weaving) at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
It was her first teaching placement at University that helped shape her learning direction.
“My first-year mentor enabled me to deepen my understanding and exploration of cultural concepts at university by applying knowledge acquired from my learnings at the Wānanga,” Cushla says.
“We shared many similar values and characteristics which led me to make stronger connections to my Māori whakapapa, and gain further education within the realm of te ao Māori and art. My mentor’s continuous pursuit of self and professional development inspired me to complete a pottery course during my second year of studies and then I went on to complete my weaving certificate.”
That first placement was at Tauranga’s Brookfield Kindergarten, and her other two placements were at New Shoots Tauranga, and Tai o Fenua Kindergarten. These placements gave her a well-rounded and varied teaching and learning experience.
“This component of my degree was extremely rewarding and beneficial because I was able to apply theory to practice and develop better understandings of the knowledge gained during lectures and tutorials. It definitely made me a far more confident kaiako [teacher] and better prepared me to head out into the education sector as a working professional,” she says.
“The other benefit of working in these centres was that I was able to understand the differences between government and private centres, as well as create strong connections with knowledgeable kaiako and individuals who became friends as opposed to just mentor teachers.”
To help finance her studies, Cushla worked as a receptionist at City Fitness gym and did some relief teaching at New Shoots, but she still found time to get involved in the Employability Plus Programme (EPP) offered by the University of Waikato.
“That encouraged me to become a volunteer for Recreate which provided programmes for youth living with disabilities.”
She was also awarded a Summer Research Scholarship to carry out research on Pasifika picture books, and was awarded Te Manu Taiko Senior Māori High Achiever Award for academic excellence and community/university contribution.
“I chose my degree because I have always had a love of children and understand the importance of supporting future generations to pave the way for a better future,” Cushla says. “It’s a career that supports tamariki to be independent and innovative individuals who have a strong sense of self, so it’s a very rewarding career indeed.”
She’s the first in her immediate family to go to university and wanted her gran who lives in Whakatāne to come to her graduation, but because of Covid-19, graduation ceremonies were cancelled and Cushla graduated in absentia, knowing her grandmother would still be proud as punch.
“I am so thankful for the knowledge I have acquired during my studies and the connections I was able to create with other people. This led me to pursue experiences and courses that I possibly never would have completed if it weren’t for my tertiary studies.”
She admits feeling exhausted after three years of intense study, but after a summer break is ready to start teaching and knows she’ll continue to learn on the job.
“It’s understood within the ECE curriculum that tamariki should be supported to become competent and confident life-long learners and this is so true, even for us as kaiako! I am in my mid-20s and feel that my learning journey has only just begun and I’m so excited for where this continues to lead me.”
Cushla’s studies helped her to develop a strong sense of self and identity.
“I was encouraged to explore my culture and whakapapa in ways that I never even imagined. This enabled me to discover passions involving art, culture, and environmental sustainability, which presented me with opportunities far beyond the university which I know will only contribute to more prospects later on in life.”
If she were giving advice to other students, she’d tell them to work hard, but to look after themselves mentally and physically.
“Find ways to de-stress and ground yourself whether that be making time to exercise regularly, getting outdoors and into nature, meditating, cooking, being creative, or spending time with whānau. If you do have moments that get quite tough then be sure to open up to someone you can trust and remember that the lecturers are very understanding!”