Leah Fitzpatrick wasn't your average kaiako reo.

Her name rings loudly of her Irish ancestry, she often teaches people older than herself and most notably ... she's not Maori.

Yet, Leah's pursuit and passion has helped many tauira (students) discover te reo.

She is now the national kaiarahi (advisor) for teaching and learning framework for the institute and is supporting kaiako throughout the country to teach others.

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While teaching in Kawerau a few years ago, she held a 100 per cent retention rate for tauira on the Te Tohu Matauranga diploma course - a feat rarely heard of in tertiary education.

"For me it's about relationships, getting to know my tauira - seeing what ways I can help teach a person and spotting barriers that may come up along the way," Leah said.

"We've had a few that nearly fell out of the waka, but I was ringing them asking, 'What's going on', tracking them all around the country. I told them, 'I'm not going to let you fall out now'."

Her dedication to seeing her tauira succeed and now kaiako, stemmed from her own journey of learning te reo Maori.

"Having grown up in Kawerau, I was always around Maori in some form or another. It's always been in my consciousness I suppose."

Leah joined the first bilingual class offered at her college before deciding to take her studies further.

"After five years of learning Maori in school, I still couldn't hold a conversation. I was able to read and write, but didn't have the confidence to speak it," she said.

"I like to finish anything I start, so I wanted to at least be able to have a conversation."

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In 1991, she joined the first intake of immersion Bachelor of Arts in Te Reo Maori (Te Tohu Paetahi) at Waikato University.

"I was the only Pakeha in a class of 25, but the only people who ever challenged my learning te reo were non-Maori.

"They'd say, 'What a waste of time. Why are you doing that?' I just told them, 'You're entitled to your opinion, but this is something I want to do'.

"Most Maori were like, 'Choice, you're on the kaupapa'."

With no English allowed during the three years at university, Leah learnt quickly by listening to conversations around her.

"The understanding of the language came faster than learning to speak it. It was frustrating when there was a debate going on and I couldn't contribute. It was a huge learning curve for me.

"But I never studied to be a tutor of te reo. For me it was a personal thing, to do this for myself, if by chance I had Maori children, I wanted to be able to speak it to them."

Leah has two Maori teenage sons with her husband, Te Wananga o Aotearoa Waiariki regional manager Neville King.

She first started dating the Ngati Pikao descendant, who was also brought up in Kawerau, at university.

She continued studying and later became a social worker with Child, Youth and Family Services. It was when her husband started teaching the Te Ara Reo Maori programme for Te Wananga o Aotearoa in Rotorua that she took on the role of kaiawhina because of a staff shortage.

"I had quite a crisis of confidence around teaching. I was a Pakeha teaching reo. I thought, 'Who is going to take me seriously?'. I didn't want to cause offence," Leah said.

"I loved the programme and started to imagine hypothetically how I might teach the class."

She soon found out when she and her family moved to Christchurch to help establish the programme in the South Island. A programme high in demand and a lack of kaiako made Leah step, once again, into a teaching role.

"Moving to the South Island helped. I thought, I don't know anyone else here so I can't offend anyone. I don't think I'd have the courage if we had remained in Rotorua."

Leah said what also helped her overcome her self-doubt was being challenged by a friend who labelled the "I have no right to teach te reo" argument as a "cop-out".

"He strongly suggested that I actually had an obligation to teach what I know and to be an active participant in the te reo revolution," she said.

"I remember one student said to me, 'When I first came to your class, I thought here we go, another Pakeha telling us how to do things and went home moaning to my husband'.

"But she ended staying with us for years and said, 'If a Pakeha can speak Maori, I can learn, too'."

She had also looked to people such as author, educationalist and Pakeha, John C Moorfield of Te Whanake textbooks as role models to help her on her path as a teacher.

She has previously been awarded the Mauri Tu Mauri Ora Award - a Te Wananga o Aotearoa accolade which acknowledges the high graduation rates.

"It is given to those who exemplify the values of Te Wananga o Aotearoa, which are aroha, whakapono, kotahitanga and nga ture."

Leah also credited the team environment of Te Wananga o Aotearoa as contributing to the success of her tauira.

"It's part of what we do here. It's about building relationships and caring enough to pick up the phone if they're not in class.

"I've studied at other tertiary institutions and no one has ever rung me if I was away to ask, 'are you okay?'

"The wananga is such an inclusive environment. It's very family friendly and I can't imagine working anywhere else," she said.

"Te Wananga o Aotearoa is about going that extra mile we really want our students to succeed, we do that for each other a tuakana-teina role.

"Obviously I do not know everything about te reo and I will be learning for a lifetime, but what I do know is I am now comfortable and confident to humbly share in my community, in my family and with our boys'."