So when community members nominated her and later told her she’d been shortlisted for the Leadership Award, her response was one of incredulity.

“‘No way! That’s huge. That’s like Australia and New Zealand, no one is going to be looking at this Māori woman from a little town in Panguru,” Pomare-Peita recalls saying.

As it turns out, this Māori woman has been inspiring Panguru locals for decades, building confidence and capability in science, reconnecting them to taiao and empowering Māori youth with unwavering belief in their own abilities.   

When she was duly announced the 2023 winner of NEiTA’s Leadership Award, the community turned out in force for a big hui on the marae.

“I’m really humbled,” Pomare-Peita says of the accolade.

“It’s really big for my community, and I’m totally proud.”

Teaching in the area since she was 22 years old, and principal at Te Kura Taumata o Panguru for the last 27 years, Pomare-Peita had ex-students, young and old, approach her to say they’d always known she was worthy of such recognition.

“I’m so proud to know that, and it makes my heart smile because I’m glad that's how they see me,” the principal beams.

“Because I really believe in the intellectual capacity of my people,” she adds.

Te Kura Taumata o Panguru’s roll is comprised of 98 per cent Māori students.

“The education system for so long, the statistics show us that we’re underachievers ... and I can say it’s the system that’s wrong, it’s not my people. My people are extremely intelligent,” Pomare-Peita says.

“And I’m so glad that I’ve been consistent in that, all of my career.”

Humble as she may be, it’s not the first time Pomare-Peita’s efforts have been recognised, the teaching team from Te Kura Taumata o Panguru were also recipients of a Prime Minister's Excellence Award in engaging in 2021.

But awards aside, the tumuaki says one of her proudest career achievements has been establishing Noho Taiao (environment camps) on marae in the Tai Tokerau (Northland) area.

The focus of these camps is learning from the environment and within the environment.

The marae offers a rich learning space, with plenty of group work tasks, to encourage collaboration and leadership. 

The objective of this pedagogy is to instil in learners a love of their environment, the area in which they live, its social history, the bio-diversity that exists there, and of the way in which people respond to the environment.

Pomare-Peita established the Noho Taiao 15 years ago, but it was no easy task initially.

“I had to have the courage to walk against a wind that was quite cold,” the principal recalls.

“In a climate when people didn’t believe that our students were good at sciences.

“And I started [the noho taiao] on basically the smell of an oily rag really, no money, just the belief that our kids are good at science.”

Now, 15 years later, Pomare-Peita is proud to report she has had former students graduate university with bachelor of science degrees, and many senior students putting their hand up to work on as tuakana on the noho taiao. 

“I have students that are loving doing that, I don’t have students that are thinking that they’re not good enough,” she says.

Born and bred in Panguru, Pomare-Peita grew up living off the land with the mātauranga, kupu, and pūrākau of Te Rarawa passed down to her.

But, she says, not many of her students have been blessed with such knowledge.

“In Pangaru, we live on our own land. We would consider ourselves to be quite wealthy, quite rich. 

“But because we also live in the country area and we took on board the Pākea way of doing things, a lot of our people moved away, and shops were built,” Pomare-Peita says. 

“The historical processes that have impacted on us as a people, have removed us from the land and therefore the knowledge of the land. 

“So that’s why we teach the taiao, because it’s reclaiming that knowledge again and putting it back with our kids.”

Mina Pomare-Peita's NEiTA Award nomination notes her important work in establishing the school's noho taiao (environment camps) which have ignited a passion for science in many students.

Outside of taiao, Pomare-Peita has a passion for music and says if she hadn’t answered the call to be a teacher, she might have been a singer.

Music is a big part of school life and Panguru students have been a part of the annual New Zealand Ukulele Festival and Big Sing Choir, events she says little schools wouldn’t often participate in.

“We do western music, we do Māori music, we write songs.

“We do lots of drama, and we get our kids to write stuff,” she says.

“Māori students don’t just do kapa haka, we write plays, we put them on. 

“Are they 100 per cent perfect to the critical eye? Absolutely. 

“Māori kids are absolutely innovative and visible, because they’re happy in this space.”

Pomare-Peita is also provides a technology-rich curriculum, making sure her students are digitally-savvy.  

As a school principal Pomare-Peita has high hopes for each and every one of her students, and she would like all of them to leave her school empowered by a few significant ideas.

One is that their wealth is within their own community, and in themselves.

There’s no need to chase other people’s rainbows.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that where I come from is good enough,” she says.

“And whakapapa is a big deal, don't let anybody tell you that it isn't,” she adds.

“You come from greatness, and because of our whakapapa we have those relationships, you don't have to be lonely, you can be successful and you can take your whole family with you.”

Finally, Pomare-Peita tells her students not to let anyone put them off their pursuit of their dreams.

“When I went to school, I didn't know that coming from Pangaru, from Hokianga, that I was different.

“I didn't feel that was something that made me less, that was just my world.

“And so I celebrate all students who are different, whatever they come with,” the tumuaki explains.

“I think of it as a backpack. You've got this backpack, in educational language we call it your cultural capital, and basically, it's awesome.

“And if you're with other people, don't let them think that what they have is better than yours.”