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Geography "taniwha" receives national teaching excellence award

Friday 14 September 2018 5:03pm

Professor Michelle Thompson-Fawcett in a recent Geography lecture.

Geography Professor Michelle Thompson-Fawcett describes being called a taniwha by a student as an extremely validating experience.

“During a speech at a Māori pregraduation celebration, one of my students once thanked me for being a taniwha. That serves as a constant reminder of how important it is for me to be guiding and nurturing, while also clear and direct when facilitating the learning of rangatahi (the younger generation),” she says.

The Geography Head of Department received further accolades in Parliament at the national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards last night when she received a Sustained Excellence award in the Kaupapa Māori category.

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

For the sixth time in seven years an Otago academic took top honours at the awards, with Faumuina Associate Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga, Associate Dean (Pacific) in the Division of Health Sciences, receiving the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award.

Otago was also well represented in other categories, with Dr Rebecca Bird (Department of Anatomy) and Associate Professor Sheila Skeaff (Department Human Nutrition) both receiving Sustained Excellence awards in the General category.

Professor Thompson-Fawcett discusses her approach to teaching . . . 

What are some general “values” that underpin your work?

My teaching practices are tightly interwoven with my research, and constantly evolve in-step with my 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 attempt to craft learning environments where indigenous knowledge, culture and values are recognised as normal and legitimate. In my case that involves indigenous community input into what is taught and how, and honouring indigenous worldviews and practices in the environment.

It’s about creating space for distinctive indigenous learning and intellectualism. It’s about teaching that is geographically positioned, historically embedded, holistically interconnected and consciously specific, while also continually negotiated.

What do you enjoy about teaching and hope to impart?

Professor Thompson-Fawcett receives her award from the Minister of Education, Hon Chris Hipkins.

In addition to being referred to as a taniwha I'm also commonly referred to as 'Aunty'.
I think that means someone who is accessible – someone to keep students on track, to show them the many opportunities and needs in their world, and to confide in and come to for reassurance and safety. These are all great motivations for me.

It is also a privilege to see students’ understanding of the places they live and with which they identify developing over time. Seeing them grow in confidence with regard to how they might act as stewards for these environments – and being champions of social justice for our diverse communities – is really rewarding.

What are some ‘bigger picture’ things you’d like your students to think about?

I want students to be aware of theories of knowledge, power, transformation and communication – not in an abstract way, but 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. I aim to impassion students to think rigorously, question the norm, challenge the status quo, reflect on their practices, and bring about positive transformation.

The disciplinary space in which I work has historically ignored Māori worldviews and the significant ancestral and spiritual attachment to whenua. I encourage students to appreciate Māori ways of knowing and what that means, for example, in regard to managing the natural and physical environment.

Ongoing colonial practices have restricted the rights of indigenous groups to plan, protect and participate in resource management, decision-making and policy-making. I encourage students to put meaningful effort into their thinking and practice in terms of understanding indigenous values and indigenous communities’ right to work towards their own planning and environmental aspirations.