Bobbie (Cook Islands/Irish New Zealander) makes maths real, meaningful and culturally connected for Māori, Pasifika and other diverse students.
What do you do on an average work day?
On an average work day you are likely to find me anywhere in New Zealand usually in high poverty schools and working alongside teachers and students doing mathematics in culturally sustaining ways. I travel constantly to support our mentors in other parts of New Zealand and schools to address issues of equity particularly for our Maori and Pasifika and other diverse learners.
If I am not in schools then I may be at Massey at the Albany Campus working with our mentors (who work alongside teachers in schools), providing supervision to my Masters and PhD students, lecturing and marking assignments as well as writing research articles and chapters for books around our research.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I could truly be called a lifelong learner because I have studied university papers all my adult life.
I grew up in a big working class family and as a primary school student I was what people now describe as transient, moving from school to school as my father shifted jobs. He worked on farms, as a saw milling worker and as a railway worker. We moved from job to job including up North, in the Waikato and in the King Country.
What helped me educationally was my love of reading and I could usually be found in the school library buried in a book. I also enjoyed science because my world was real, outside and roaming free in the countryside. I had a natural affinity with mathematics but not the mathematics done at school, and I often wondered why teachers taught all sorts of complicated procedures when I already had the answer using some of my informal strategies.
High school was a new world for me because I was at a school that streamed and I was not only very young (having been accelerated at primary school) but also streamed into the top stream which meant that I learnt French and Latin as well as other core subjects. This really affected my self-confidence and I tended to keep to myself because I was very conscious of my home background being so different from other students in the class. Sport helped and I was a good hockey player and so found some belonging in that space.
I continued to take Mathematics and Science in the 6th and 7th Form but was very isolated because not many girls took these subjects. At 16, my mathematics teacher suggested that I should go to Teachers College and she helped me fill in the application form and supported me at the interview.
At Ardmore Teachers College I took Mathematics as my specialist subject, not because I thought I was particularly good at it but because I did enjoy playing with patterns and thinking up my own ways of doing things. It was something I could do on my own and in my own way. I then spent a long time teaching in primary schools in New Zealand and England, and taught across all levels from new entrants to Year 8.
In 2003, I left teaching to work at Massey University in 2003 in order to complete a PhD. Having a PhD in Mathematics Education is not common for Primary School teachers in New Zealand (and internationally).
After my PhD, I taught Mathematics in the Postgraduate Pre-Service Primary Teaching Programme and as part of this role in later years I also co-ordinated the programme. More recently my focus has been on lecturing Masters papers and supervising Masters and PhD students with a focus within my specific field of research.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Although I always included mathematics as a focus of study and it does relate to my research interests, I think that what I learnt from doing it at school has made me the person and researcher I am today.
I was acutely aware at school of the deficit views many teachers held towards working class, and Pasifika peoples. I knew that they held lower expectations and this was illustrated to me when I did tests and teachers would act surprised that I had done so well. The experience I had has also helped me recognise the way in which mathematics is seen as non-cultural when actually it is embedded within culture and all people have the capability to do mathematics.
As a young person I assumed my intelligence and mathematical capabilities came from my father when actually I have a background of strong mathematical models in my Cook Island forbears. I need to look no further than my mother who could cut and sew a dress without a pattern, and sew tivaevae (Cook Island quilt) which draw on geometry and algebra. My great-grandfather designed and built a schooner in the remote island of Manihiki in the 1920, and my great-uncle was a navigator by the stars.
I use these models today and talk in schools about my ancestors as great mathematicians and why it allows our Pacific students to see what they have within their culture. I also push teachers to link to the home contexts of their students, so that mathematics is connected and real and meaningful.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
I think it is important that they continue to do mathematics because it is such a gate-keeper. It is the subject that they need to do to do any job at all. It is embedded in all jobs but they need to overcome any blocks. Keep studying it because you need it to continue to grow.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
My mother was so proud when I became a teacher and that was a highlight for me. But when I got my PhD I had 35 people at my Pasifika graduation, different people from each line of my family, and six drums, and the mamas all did the hula in celebration - it was such an awesome thing to be able to do at a university graduation. Teaching was for my family but the PhD went beyond to also celebrate primary school teachers and what we can do especially in mathematics. It has also served as a model for my own children who have followed in my footsteps and both have PhDs.
I am also very proud of my current research, Developing Mathematical Inquiry Communities, which has built on the PhD and now supports 91 schools and the teachers and students in them. Within this project we are growing other researchers (who come from teaching backgrounds), including some with Pacific ethnicity. The work has a clear focus on equity and social justice all within mathematics, and is recognised and affirmed in New Zealand as well as internationally. I have been lucky enough to work in Singapore with the Ministry there as a consultant, likewise in Coventry in England, and present and provide keynotes about this work in Australia and the U.S.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
STEM is the key to the future of New Zealand. We need all people to be literate in STEM so they can make wise life decisions, vote with knowledge and understanding.
New Zealand is also a country known for its 'number 8 wire' mentality and so we are innovative and creative and can contribute alot to the health of the wider world.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Women work differently, think differently and contribute differently and we need this for the health of the nation.
Roberta (known by everyone as Bobbie except some family members) works at Massey University in the Institute of Education within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. She is a first generation New Zealander born of a Cook Island mother and a New Zealander father of Irish descent. Bobbie comes from the Dean family from Manihiki Island in the Northern group, the Aporo family in Aitutaki, and the Cavanagh family from Ireland.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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