Real Life

How Jay is changing Kiwi values: ‘We need to stand up, NZ!’

A youth worker tells why we all need to be our own cheerleaders
Jay and wife Nicky standing together in front of a playgroundPhotos: Tessa Burrows

When youth worker Jay Geldard surveyed 500 teens and asked them what would make them more comfortable: to be given a compliment or to insulted, seven out of 10 chose the latter.

He remembers thinking how wrong that was.

“I was shocked then, but I’m not now,” says Jay. “Sometimes, even as adults we dodge the compliment.

“We’ve all learned the script… criticising others isn’t enough, so we’ve become our own harshest critics who downplay our achievements. Tall Poppy Syndrome is entrenched in Kiwi culture.”

Jay and wife Nicky, both 43, have both experienced it.

Nicky used to teach high school Media Studies. She would often hear colleagues quip, ‘All you do is watch videos in your class!’ resulting in her needing to validate what the job entailed.

For Jay, a former captain of the NZ Men’s netball team, he found playing a minority sport meant “you get ripped out from the start”.

“I was quite resilient to it. At 6ft 8in (2.03m), no one was going to really cut me down,” laughs the father-of-three. He goes on, “but I saw those around me experience it.

Two photos side by side. One with Steve Hansen and the other with Dame Noeline Taurua
To support his work, Jay has Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua (left) and former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen on board.

“Some of our sporting elite, such as gold medal-winning snowboarder Jossi Wells told me a big part of the reason he spends six months overseas is to remove himself from the negativity here.”

Based on their experiences and overwhelming feedback, the Christchurch-based pair felt compelled to shine a light on Tall Poppy Syndrome. So last year, they launched E Tū Tāngata (Stand Up Together). It’s an initiative focussed on turning our culture of criticism around.

They hope to transform the lives of Kiwi youth by combating self-deprecation and the need to pull others down. They do this through modules and workshops in schools and organisations.

Three principles are taught: you have value; we succeed together; and others matter.

“If we’re all hurting each other to make ourselves feel taller for a moment, no wonder it’s making a mess of our mental wellbeing and high suicide rates and we need to get rid of it,” says Nicky.

“If you teach children to value themselves, they’re less likely to cut those down around them.”

More than 1000 educators nationwide are now using E Tū Tāngata resources.

Jay in action against the Silver Ferns
The New Zealand men’s goal shoot playing against the Silver Ferns in 2021.

Te Kōmanawa Rowley School is rated one of the lowest decile schools in the South Island. It has also seen significant changes since they introduced E Tū Tāngata. The school’s attendance rate used to be at 40 percent but is now sitting at 87 percent. The roll is also climbing.

“One of the most amazing stories principal Graeme Norman has shared with us is about a student recently enrolled there who is in the care of Oranga Tamariki,” says Nicky.

“This little boy has shifted so much that he’s attended four different schools and is only six-years-old. At every other school, he was only there for two hours a day. But Graeme said to him: ‘At this school you’ll be here for the full day because you have value and we believe you can do it.’

“The boy would come into the school office wanting to go home. However, Graeme would say ‘I know you’re angry but you have value’ and would repeat this message to him.

“Then this child was later in a meeting with his case worker. The case worker asked him, ‘what do you like most about your new school?’ And he answered, ‘it doesn’t matter how angry I get, they tell me I still have value’.”

Jay also mentions, through tears, that when he speaks at school assemblies, students often tell him afterwards that they have never been told they have worth before.

“I pull out a hundred dollar note and say to the kids, this was made with a value. Then I screw it up and ask if it’s damaged goods now. The kids say, ‘No, it’s still worth a hundred’.

A family photo of Jay and Nicky with their three kids sitting on an outdoor bench
With their children Alyse, Joss and Casey.

“Then I say, ‘What if I put it in the dirt? If I stand on it and forget about it?’ And again, they agree it still holds value.

“That example helps them to put it into perspective. They realise that even though some of them have been stood on and forgotten about, they still have mana from when they were born.”

The Geldards hope their initiative will also have an impact on Kiwis sitting in a boardroom in New York or London, who want to put their hand up to say ‘I’m good enough for this job’ but don’t, because they grew up with Tall Poppy Syndrome.

“We’ve become too comfortable with seeing ourselves and others negatively and not wanting to be labelled a ‘tryhard’. It needs to change.

“We have nothing to lose by telling people they have value, because we’ve spent generations not doing it.”

To access E Tū Tāngata free resources or support the work they do, visit etutangata.nz

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