Maree Huntley still makes sure she goes to the Queen Charlotte College prize-giving. The Picton Community Early Learning Centre head teacher is 60 and seeing the children of the first students she started with, crossing the stage to receive awards and honours, still brings a tear to her eye and a burst of pride.
“It’s a wee bit of déjà vu,” she says. “You lose track of time and want to call them their parents’ names.”
Maree’s passion for community involvement and education runs in the family. Five of her and husband Garth’s seven daughters are teachers in the Marlborough area. Lydia Huntley was a teacher aide at Queen Charlotte College, though is currently taking family time. Belinda Mataele is a Year 7 and 8 syndicate leader at Queen Charlotte College and was an early childhood teacher before that. Di Huntley is a teacher aide at Queen Charlotte College, while her twin sister, Jo Huntley, is head teacher and kaiārahi Māori at Waitohi (Picton) Kindergarten, where their sister Jennifer Taiapa also works.
The next generation is also stepping up to the profession. Jo’s daughter Harley is in her last year of high school and aspires to study Māori and then teach, while Maree’s niece Amy Hartley is a teacher aide at Mayfield School in Canterbury. Although she and her sisters have tried out different occupations, they have always been drawn back to teaching, Di says.
With seven daughters, Maree says life was busy when the girls were young. She and Garth had their hands full raising five kids under four-and-a-half years old, while also providing respite care for children involved with IHC. Maree’s journey of becoming a teacher started 20 years ago, after seeing all her girls through Picton Community Early Learning Centre (formerly Creche). Her sister, Donna, was working there and Maree began as a reliever a few days a week when Donna fell ill. Maree ended up studying for a diploma in early childhood learning and became head teacher. Sadly, Donna has since passed away.
“Every time I see tamariki go off to school, it’s such a feeling of satisfaction to see them grow through those years, especially when we get them quite young.”
For 20 years, Maree served as a union representative, joining NZEI on her first day as a teacher. Being a part of the union gives her a feeling of security, particularly in a community centre that can have lots of changes in committee and management. She says pay parity has been the biggest issue she’s advocated for via the union.
“We’re very lucky, our parents and management are behind us working towards pay parity and pay equity,” Maree says. However, the one constant through the political turmoil of her years in education is the pleasure she’s found in teaching.
“Every time I see tamariki go off to school, it’s such a feeling of satisfaction to see them grow through those years, especially when we get them quite young,” she says. “And they just grow into these confident five-year-olds ready for the next challenge in life, of school.”
When Maree first started teaching, children used to arrive at the centre at six weeks old because parents could only receive six weeks’ parental leave. Now, most tamariki are entering the early childhood centre at six months old.
We spend a lot of previous time with them,” she says, striving to provide the best possible care and education.
The family has strong ancestral ties to six Te Wai Pounamu and Te Tau Ihu iwi through Garth: Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Rārua, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Apa, Rangitāne, and Ngāti Kuia. The Marlborough Sounds plays a big part in the students’ learning; boat trips into the vast and beautiful Sounds are a regular, which they describe as a playground as well as a classroom.
“We are mana whenua, and that’s something you can see quite strongly through all of our practice,”
Maree’s daughter, Jo, says those local links are a key part of not just their identity but also their teaching practice.
“We are mana whenua, and that’s something you can see quite strongly through all of our practice,” Jo says. “We have grown up with strong, loving, caring, nurturing men and women in our family. It’s really made an impact on all of us and why we are the way we are; there’s always been lots of kids around and lots of intergenerational caring.”
Jo chose early childhood education because of her conviction that the first 1,000 days in a child’s life are important. Her current role as head teacher and Kaiārahi Māori sees her working with all the centres in the Marlborough Kindergarten Association, guiding them with responsible cultural practice.
“I once had a conversation with a secondary teacher and he said ‘Why don’t you go into that? There’s more money there’,” she recalls. “I said: ‘I want to make your job easier!’” She puts in the mahi, Jo adds, because she knows that these preschool years were incredibly valuable for children.
Jo entered the profession by working with her mother at Picton Community Early Learning Centre for a few years, then moved to Nelson and worked for four years in a private centre before returning home.
“Being under Mum was amazing and I learned so much,” she says. “But I also felt that I got to become my own teacher when I moved away.”
When she moved back to Picton, she got a job as headteacher at Waitohi Kindergarten, just a couple of blocks away from Maree’s workplace. As well as drawing inspiration from her mother and her aunt, Jo also finds motivation in her teaching career from the difficulties her father went through when he was a student.
“Even though Mum was a big inspiration in helping guide us into study, having conversations with my dad and his experiences with education were influential,” she says. “He didn’t have the best education experience being Māori and a boy.”
Meanwhile, Jo’s sister Belinda has always loved working with children, and cites her mother as a huge influence. She used to beg Maree to let her come to work with her during the school holidays, she recalls.
She adds that her mother has never looked at the profession as “just a job”.
“I just loved her passion and the way she would connect with children and their families,” she says. “She has never one day woken up and thought ‘Ugh, I’ve got to go to work,’” Belinda says. “It is her passion. And some days are more challenging than others. But there’s not one day that she wouldn’t want to be there.”
All the Huntleys say the biggest conversation they are currently dealing with is around trauma-informed practice, and Jo says it’s becoming “a game-changer for the sector”.
All students come with a story, explains Belinda, and being able to support them with regulating their emotions is one of their biggest tasks. “Addressing that first allows the learning to come,” she says.
Jo agrees. “That’s been a big journey,” she says. “We’ve done lots of professional development around that. Some children haven’t had the best start to life.”
People need to understand that when it comes to discipline, children aren’t being naughty, she says. “There are big things behind it, and it doesn’t need to be a diagnosis either, like ADHD or dyslexia or a behaviour problem. And it doesn’t have to be called trauma.”
“It’s treating the children as people. A big thing I have learned through trauma-informed practice is having empathy and treating it as a learning opportunity, with awhi and mana for the child.”
Jo says declining parental mental health is one of the biggest shifts she’s noticed in the past five years, and understanding how that affects children and responding appropriately by empowering families has been important.
“We really have to work with our families, build those skills and capabilities and link with agencies,” she says. Teaching has always had an element of social worker, psychologist, counsellor; now, Jo says, she’s spending a lot more time with families in the office.
Di says that sport is a big focus for all the sisters and allows them to forge great links with the community. The trio at Queen Charlotte College have driven the development of girls’ rugby there, and Di manages touch and ripper rugby for Years 7 and 8. Having this interaction outside of school makes the job easier, she says.
“It’s easier to connect with the kids in the classroom as you can see them as a whole person,”
“If I am out and about in the community, then I connect with them on their interests and learn who they really are.
“When they are in the classroom and they are anxious or have a low confidence in their learning, knowing who they are in the real world helps you coach them along with the learning process. It’s really a deeper understanding of who this person is and how you can support them.”
Di is also an attendance and engagement officer for the Marlborough region. That requires supporting families to figure out what barriers are keeping children out of school and working with families and schools to overcome them.
“There are really complex needs within families,” she says. A child might have anxiety about school, or the family may not have a vehicle. Recently she helped a family with a morning routine for a boy with anxiety whose parents are separated. Laid out visually, Di’s schedule helped the boy and his mother feel less overwhelmed in the morning, and he was able to take it with him when he stayed with his father.
The Huntleys all agree that one of the major rewards of their profession is seeing the children grow up into confident and successful community members, with their own families.
“When you see them on the rugby field as adults and they come up and share a simple story or interaction that meant a lot to them – that’s a highlight,” Di says. “There are a lot of success stories out there.”