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Top teaching award for Otago academic and alumna

Wednesday 3 October 2018 2:23pm

The Otago academic who was recently crowned the top tertiary teacher in New Zealand says she is extremely humbled to receive the award.

Faumuina Associate Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga, Associate Dean (Pacific) in the Division of Health Sciences, received the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award at the national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, held at Parliament in September.

This is the sixth time in seven years that an Otago teacher has won this award.

Faumuina Associate Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga receives New Zealand's top tertiary teaching award from the Minister of Education, Hon Chris Hipkins, at a ceremony at Parliament last month. Photos: Ako Aotearoa.

Faumuina graduated from Otago in 1993, and says during her time as a student at the University she formed strong friendships which have remained to this day.

She stayed at St Margaret’s College, where she was a sub-warden, and later moved to complete her medical training in Christchurch.

“The Pacific students were fewer in numbers then, and we developed new friendships with other Pacific as well as local Kiwi students,” she says. “I stayed for the first time on a farm which belonged to one of my friends from Gore, and delivered my first lamb!”

She says they also came to know wonderful local people Norman and Meriel Eadie, who became their family away from home. This year, her Pacific cohort – now medical specialists and lawyers – all travelled back to Dunedin to celebrate the life of Norman Edie, who died aged 90, in September.

“The University has enabled me to be connected locally, nationally and internationally.”

Faumuina says receiving this award shows that her team’s teaching in Pacific Health is valued.

“We have established a new Centre for Pacific Health responsible for coordinating and leading Pacific teaching across Health Sciences,” she says.

“Winning this award means that the National Tertiary sector recognises the importance and value of what we do. I am part of an outstanding Pacific teaching team, leading the incorporation of Pacific teaching across Health Sciences programmes, and am delighted for our team – who work so incredibly hard to support and enhance student learning.

“I receive this on behalf of our Pacific team and communities. I look up to my Maori colleagues and friends who are outstanding leaders in the teaching space. Associate Professor Suzanne Pitama who won the PM Award in 2015, gave me guidance in the process. Tēnā rawa atu koe Suz.”

She also acknowledges the help of others in supporting her entry.

“I would like in particular to acknowledge Associate Professor Clinton Golding who spent hours guiding us, supporting and providing encouragement including proofing our profiles. The recently retired Peter Scott with his technical skills making our profiles look stunning, his contribution was priceless.”

Faumuina also received an Endorsement for Excellence in Supporting Pacific Learners at the ceremony, a reflection of her exceptional commitment to curriculum development and pastoral care of Pacific students.

University of Otago Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne has offered her warmest congratulations to the Otago recipients of the awards, and in particular, the outstanding achievement of Faumuina Associate Professor Sopoaga.

“I am enormously proud that once again, our teachers at the University of Otago are achieving at the highest level in New Zealand. For all the dedication and hard work I know they put into their teaching, they richly deserve this recognition.

“And for Otago to win the top national accolade for teaching excellence is the icing on the cake. Tai Sopoaga’s total dedication to her craft has long been recognised here at the University of Otago – so to receive this award is further testament to this incredibly dedicated individual. I am very proud that teachers of her calibre seek out Otago as a place to work and live – and ultimately, to contribute to the communities they serve – in Tai’s case, the Pacific community.”

Three other Otago academic leaders also received awards. They included Professor Michelle Thompson-Fawcett, of the Department of Geography who received a Sustained Excellence award in the Kaupapa Māori category, and Dr Rebecca Bird, of the Department of Anatomy, and Associate Professor Sheila Skeaff, of the Department Human Nutrition, who both received Sustained Excellence awards in the General category.

Teaching awards Sopoaga
The four Otago winners (from left) Professor Michelle Thompson-Fawcett, Faumuina Associate Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga, Dr Rebecca Bird and Associate Professor Sheila Skeaff at Parliament last month.

Professor Thompson-Fawcett says her teaching practices are “tightly interwoven” with her research, and constantly evolve with her partnerships with Māori and professional communities.

“In my disciplines of geography, environmental management and planning I find a traditional ethic of “locatedness” is highly beneficial to learning outcomes I’m seeking in the Aotearoa New Zealand context. As a result, my teaching initiatives reassert the potency and integrity of Indigenous philosophies and actions, and this involves considering how we might honour variation and difference through our teaching practices.

“I want students to be aware of theories of knowledge, power, transformation and communication in a way that is embedded in our everyday actions as social beings, professionals, facilitators and decision-makers. I work to create educative environments that are motivating, deeply challenging but compellingly hopeful.”

Dr Bird says it’s wonderful to be recognised with this award.

“I pride myself in creating a fun, inclusive environment for my students as they study science. I see education as a journey for my students, and am privileged to walk alongside them as they discover areas of human biology that interest and inspire them.

“It’s an honour to follow in the footsteps of the remarkable educators who’ve won the award previously, and to walk alongside the amazing teachers who are also recipients this year.”

Associate Professor Skeaff believes teaching is so important because students pay money to be educated and they want to be here.

“As everyone eats at least twice a day, nutrition is very relevant, and I really like interacting with students and hearing fresh perspectives and ideas on the subject. Any nutritional changes they make in their own lives can also filter out to their friends and family.”

The awards, hosted by Hon Chris Hipkins, Minister of Education, are administered and managed on his behalf by Ako Aotearoa – the National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence. All Sustained Excellence winners receive $20,000. The Supreme Award winner, selected from one of the ten finalists, takes home an additional $10,000.