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2019 ‘virtuosos’ recognised for teaching excellence

Wednesday 1 May 2019 10:34am

The 2019 Otago Excellence in Teaching Award winners (from left) Dr Anne-Marie Jackson, Dr David McMorran, Nicola Beatson and Associate Professor Ben Schonthal. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

Good teaching is about “awakening joy in knowledge and creative expression”, those gathered for the 2019 Otago Excellence in Teaching Awards heard on Tuesday.

Just 45 minutes before he retired after 32 years at the University, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Vernon Squire spoke those words as he presented this year’s awards to Associate Professor Ben Schonthal, Dr David McMorran, Dr Anne-Marie Jackson and Nicola Beatson.

“I have convened the evaluation panel for the Otago Teaching Excellence Awards and the national awards for many years, and each year this privilege gets more challenging because every single application reveals master-class skill in learning and teaching. Otago has some amazingly able teachers and each year the panel sees more and more of them,” Professor Squire said.

Everyone who submits an application is “first rate” and judges were looking for something that separates the “virtuoso from the expert, as all applicants easily surpass the University’s strategic imperative of excellent teaching”.

“I just cannot accept Einstein’s view that ‘numerous are the academic professors, but rare are wise and noble teachers’, with regard to Otago, as I believe we have many wise and noble teachers.

“Definitely, Ben, Anne-Marie, David and Nicola are as wise and noble as teachers get, and another common thread is that each of them is doing what they love to do and each of them brilliant at it because of that,” he said.

“They are our 2019 virtuosos; four Dame Janet Bakers singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs.”

Ben Schonthal, Religion

Religion Associate Professor Ben Schonthal says receiving the award reinforces the value of thinking about the “long-term impact of each class”.

His teaching is guided by a desire to impart more than key facts.

“Yes, I want students to learn certain details of Buddhist doctrine or key legal concepts, but I’m more concerned with what students will take with them five or 25 years from now, when they’ve forgotten the details. I am always thinking about the long-term impact of my classes.

“I hope students will come away from my classes feeling confident that they can approach big, messy human problems – from religious conflict to social inequality – and ask the right questions, find the right data and communicate the results in a way that’s clear, compelling and self-aware.”

He says his teaching abilities have been enhanced by inspirational faculty members and helpful resources available to Otago staff.

Associate Professor Schonthal has previously won several awards for his teaching and supervision at the University of Chicago and at Otago, including being named one of the top 10 teachers and a finalist for supervisor of the year by the Otago University Students’ Association, and receiving the Division of Humanities' Teaching Excellence Award. In 2016 he received the Otago University Award for Distinction in Research (Early Career).

Dr David McMorran, Department of Chemistry

An enthusiasm for the subject and drive to see chemistry students succeed, underpin the teaching approach of Dr David McMorran.

“Experience has confirmed to me that showing enthusiasm and passion for your subject rubs off on the students – if you want to be there then maybe they will want to be there too,” says the Senior Teaching Fellow, who has 21 years of teaching experience at Otago.

For the past 10 years, Dr McMorran has coordinated the highly competitive chemistry paper taken by more than 2000 first year health sciences students.

“The trick is to try to find ways to connect students’ experiences of these everyday things to the underlying science being taught.”

Dr McMorran believes effective teaching is the outcome of enthusiasm for, and a deep understanding of the subject to be able to connect the scientific information to students’ lives and interests.

In 2016, Dr McMorran was named the Division of Sciences Senior Teacher of the Year and his teaching has also being previously recognised with two OUSA teaching awards.

Dr Anne-Marie Jackson, School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences

A tireless dedication to providing alternative ways to engage with Māori communities has helped Dr Anne-Marie Jackson secure the Kaupapa Māori Teaching Award.

Dr Jackson, of Ngāpuhi descent, co-created the award-winning research theme Te Koronga for Māori postgraduate research excellence.

The kaupapa Māori concept is especially important for Te Koronga. Three per cent of staff in Sciences are Māori, and the amount of kaupapa Māori taught in the curriculum comes from one staff member.

“What the award does is it raises the status of kaupapa Māori in [the Division of] Sciences, and that is a much bigger kaupapa than me as an individual winning an award.”

Dr Jackson says the importance of the award extends beyond the University walls.

“For us, the driver of the curriculum is how do we support our community aspirations so they do not have to change how they function when it comes to working with an institution?

“The Kaupapa Māori Teaching Award will be good in showcasing there is a different way to be within the hallowed institutions of the Academy, and especially within Sciences. There are very few alternative ways of going about doing things.”

Nicola Beatson, Department of Accountancy and Finance

Nicola Beatson’s approach to teaching is pretty simple.

“I try to care about each and every one of my students and put myself into their shoes,” she says.“Each one of them is an individual who comes into the lecture with a different set of experiences. I constantly remind myself that although the words I’m saying make perfect sense to me, to students sometimes it can be confusing and hard.”

She believes her job is to “help clear the fog”.

“People learn at the edge of what they know already, so it’s trying to connect new ideas to something that is familiar.”

Destroying the “incorrect notion” that accounting is boring is what Beatson strives for.

“It’s a wonderful, complex and interesting discipline that is based on human decision making and judgement. If my students can see that accounting is more than just punching numbers into a calculator - although that is fun too - then that would make me very happy.”

The certificate will be hung on an already rather full wall. She won the Disability Information and Support Appreciation Award in 2016, OUSA’s Top 10 Lecturers teaching award in 2015, Premier Commerce Teaching award in 2017, and the Overall Premier Lecturer award last year.