Top teachers nationally recognised
26 October 2022
Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland lecturers in the areas of astrophysics and Pacific Studies have won prestigious national tertiary teaching awards.
Professor Richard Easther and Dr Marcia Leenen-Young have both won 2022 Te Whatu Kairangi – Aotearoa Tertiary Educator Awards, joining only seven other recipients from tertiary institutions around the country.
They have been recognised for their outstanding dedication, innovation and excellence in teaching within the tertiary education and training sector and are both in the running to receive the Prime Minister’s Educator of the Year Award at a ceremony on 23 November.
Dr Leenen-Young, a senior lecturer in Pacific Studies in the Faculty of Arts, has won in the category: Achieving diversity and inclusion for improving outcomes for Māori learners; Pacific learners; neurodiverse learners; and/or learners with disabilities.
As a Pacific historian, she says she’s guided by her Samoan mother and has focused on integrating Pacific values of community, service and respect into a dominantly Western system; prioritising the knowledge and voices of Pacific people.
Students have said Dr Leenen-Young is not just a great teacher, but also a great leader whose words match her actions in authentic ways, calling her “deeply talented, rare, and a special kind of teacher”.
She is honoured and humbled to receive this award.
“I draw inspiration from those Pacific women who were awarded national tertiary teaching awards before me as motivation to keep developing my teaching and focus consistently on how I can do better. I hope this award will encourage those after me to represent and be visible for our Pacific students and communities.”
She inspires a collective environment where her students can thrive, while behind the scenes her energy into the Pacific Studies curriculum ensures it’s fit-for-purpose.
She says a key tip for keeping students engaged is to be responsive to them in the lecture theatre.
“I encourage students to connect to the histories I am teaching – their histories – so it’s important that as a teacher I am responsive to not only how they are learning, but their reactions to what they’re learning. Because of this, sometimes it’s helpful to have a break in the lecture between tough discussions – not only for students to decompress, but also for you as the teacher to regroup.”
Dr Leenen-Young also received the Pacific Endorsement award in recognition for living Pacific values, with her citation saying: “She inspires a collective environment where her students can thrive, while behind the scenes her energy into the Pacific Studies curriculum ensures it’s fit-for-purpose.”
Professor Richard Easther, an astrophysicist and cosmologist in the Faculty of Science, has won in the general category: Innovation in learning, teaching, and curriculum.
As head of the Department of Physics from 2011 to 2021, Professor Easther effected a wholesale change in teaching, including introducing studio teaching for first-year students, where problem solving is emphasised ahead of traditional lectures.
“He is now a role model for teaching and learning,” according to the citation for his award for innovation.
“Kids are really different these days,” he told UniNews last year. “Our neurological hardware doesn’t change between generations, but students access knowledge today in ways unthinkable a decade ago. If our pedagogy replicates our own experience, we cannot serve our students.”
Under Professor Easther’s leadership, the department’s PhD community grew fivefold. In 2014 he co-created the Science Scholars programme, the first of its kind in New Zealand.
Initiating equity measures, mentoring staff, and creating community and international connections all contributed to the award.
“My journey as a scientist, a teacher, a communicator, and as a leader, has convinced me that contributing to the learning and understanding of others often does more to advance our fields than our personal research,” he says.
Our neurological hardware doesn’t change between generations, but students access knowledge today in ways unthinkable a decade ago. If our pedagogy replicates our own experience, we cannot serve our students.
Beyond the University, he is deeply involved with science communication. He provided science advice for the TV series Nigel Blows Stuff Up; instigated the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology’s now-annual STEM Fair; and helped bring science-themed programming to the Auckland Arts Festival.
Professor Easther stepped down as department head last year, handing over to Associate Professor Jan Eldridge.
Hosted by Ako Aotearoa, Te Whatu Kairangi was previously known as the Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards and are the most recognised and respected awards for tertiary education and training in Aotearoa New Zealand.
They are open to staff at universities, Wānanga, Te Pūkenga, adult and community education and private training establishments, among others.
For 2022, 26 portfolios of nominations were received from a wide range of organisations. The selection process involved initial assessments by external reviewers, a shortlist and final decisions by a ten-person panel of experts, headed by selection panel chair Dr Alison Kuiper.