Dr Kathie Irwin

(Ngati Porou, Rakaipaaka, Ngati Kahungunu)
Educator, mentor, mother, granddaughter, singer and writer - Story by Tony Cutting

If you ‘Google’ Dr Kathie Irwin you will get pages of results including numerous presentations (both international and local), a multitude of impressive documents, review papers and a raft of collaborative connections, notices of award wins and many interesting articles relating to the world of Education, Māori business, Women in leadership, social science and that’s just to get you started.

This alone would have generated enough interest in me to write her story, however, I have also had the pleasure of interviewing a couple of her past students who have got on with life and are also doing very well .  It was with the deepest respect and admiration they told me about how great an influence Kathie has been to them at crucial stages of their education.

Having previously met Kathie and experienced her no nonsense style I am looking forward to finding out more about where she has come from, what motivates and influences her and why she continues to help influence so many people in such a positive, realistic and supportive way.

I caught up with Kathie in her office in downtown Wellington, very aware of getting to the appointment on time and making sure I am well prepared – those who know Kathie well will understand. Kathie is very hospitable, we get through the introductions, get set with our glasses of water (tea or coffee having been an option) beckoning treats and start the interview.

The early years
Kathie Irwin was born in Waipiro Bay, on the East Coast, north of Gisborne – a daughter of two teachers.  Mum (Kathleen) a Māori / Orkney Islander / Presbyterian, and dad (Keith) a Pakeha Catholic of Scottish and Irish heritage. With both parents in education travel was inevitable and her path seems to have been set from an early age.

Her grandmother Horiana (mums, mum) was a very strong influence.  A strong lady who had gone against her own families beliefs and crossed over from the Mormon church to Presbyterian faith and guided by her belief and a commitment to hope which she would pass on to her daughter Kath, her grand-daughter Kathie, and many others around her.

Primary school years were based at Mahora Primary and then Heretaunga Intermediate schools.  She went on to Hastings Girls High School where her creative passion was given the perfect soil to flourish in.  During these years Kathie developed a love of singing and entertainment, she also found a passion for speaking having presented (aged 13) a competition winning korero on her granddad ‘Poppa’ (the Rev John Laughton) entitled “The Missionary on horseback”.   She became and still is a strong public speaker.

Her love of singing and performing would drive her to urge mum and dad to allow her to go to England and chase a singing and entertainment career – however that was not to be.  Mum and dad did not let her go, they insisted Kathie look at teaching and after some challenging moments in her later teenage years she finally relented – moving onto Teachers College in Palmerston North in 1974.

The passing of her mum
Seventeen was a challenging time for Kathie she was struggling with her own motivations when her mum left this world.  Emotionally she felt like running away but something inside her started to drive her to work harder, so she did just that and whether driven by her Mum in conjunction with her very strong Grandmother she began a journey that would take 40 years before she realised what it was all about.

A teaching career
Kathie openly admits she was not the greatest school girl in terms of grades and results during her primary and secondary years, yet somehow during the first six months at teachers college she fell in love with the occupation.  Mentally she told herself “I can teach and sing but it was unlikely I would be able to sing and become a teacher”

Suddenly she found the fire was lit inside her, she wanted to be a great teacher and became that annoying student who asked loads of questions, always with her hand up in class striving to learn as much as she could.  She went from an average college kid to a strong ‘A’ student virtually overnight once her motivation was found.  Kathie not only was motivated but she found she had become an absolute workaholic. 

University teaching years
Kathie moved from teaching college into a career starting at Massey University continuing her own education and working as a teacher specialising in Māori education.

Although enjoying her work she never really felt recognised by the other academics at Massey University and to be fair during this lengthy period (8 years) she was never approached about taking a more senior position until they found out of her plans to move to a key role with Victoria University. 

She was approached by Professor Gerald Grace from Victoria University regarding a pivotal position and after a 2 hour interview in the universities Wharenui with a panel consisting of a dozen or so senior staff all with very clear and separate views of what they wanted she emerged with the role offered to her. 

At Victoria she continued to work with her supportive style of teaching and coaching and helped this organisation exceed expectations regarding Māori participation and success.  Having met a number of Kathie’s ex students I can tell you she has continued with her Grandmothers and Mothers teachings and pass on belief and hope, helping many while on her own journey.

Moving On
Kathie progressed on as a Professor working for Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi for three years continuing her good work in education before moving on to a role as Chief Analyst Culture with Te Puni Kokiri.  Appointed a Director within the Families Commission she also started working as a key member of a number of boards both for non profit organisations and business. It was time to take years of research, leadership, education and experience and move into the role she was personally destined for.

Hope Brokers
In May 2007 Kathie established her own beloved business ‘Hope Brokers Inc’ albeit she had been trading in hope and helping people believe for many years before. Officially the business vision is ‘Creating new futures with people and organisations and her stated business services are Public Policy, Tertiary Education, Research and Evaluation, Strategy, Kaupapa Maori Models, Treaty of Waitangi Modelling, Machinery of Government.  If you know Kathie you realise she provides anyone lucky enough to spend time with her a lot, lot more.

Now we come to a new beginning
Next year will be 40 years since the passing of Kathie’s mum and finally she is coming to realise that much of her life has been dedicated in remembrance of both her mum and grandmother. In a way the past 40 years feels a bit like she has been in a desert focused on heading in the direction she felt would best please her mum.

The next 40 years will be dedicated to following her own passions and filling in the gaps for her own path including singing and recording her own CD - performing waiata, writing, more public speaking while continuing with helping others both professionally and personally understanding that with hope and belief you can achieve what you want in life.

Harvard Graduation

Now we must mention Kathie is mum to the very, very talented Harvard graduated lawyer, Horiana Irwin-Easthope but that’s another story....

We wish you all the best for the future Kathie and look forward to reading, listening to your wiata and working with you to make our world a better place for those who are lucky enough to have crossed paths with you.

Dr Kathie Irwin