A ‘creative teacher’ – Teaiwa recognised for visionary approach

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Professor Katerina Teaiwa. Picture: SUPPLIED

Professor Katerina Teaiwa is the first indigenous female from the Pacific to become a professor at the Australian National University.

Recognised for her visionary approach to teaching and mentoring her students in Pacific Studies, the 47-year-old was named the 2021 Australian University Teacher of the year.

“It was a surprise and also exciting to be recognised for my work in Pacific Studies because I’m passionate about this field being taught at all levels of schooling in Australia and across our region,” she says.

“We should all be learning more about Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia and the many diverse cultures, languages, environments, social and political systems, and histories of our diverse sea of islands.”

Her teaching methods are creative, unique and meaningful. They involve experiences such as embarking on a figurative voyage in a canoe to gain a sense of the Pacific’s vast and diverse social and cultural dimensions.

“I followed my elder sister Teresia, and used the metaphor of the canoe to imagine our classrooms as embarking on a learning journey into and across Oceania.

“I also bring in diverse kinds of assessment so that students with different skill sets can thrive.

“Before the pandemic I took many groups of students into the Pacific to partner with other students and communities on the ground. At the moment I support a student-run virtual conference called Asia Pacific Week that brings together 80 delegates from around the world to learn with Asia and Pacific scholars, policy makers and leaders.”

Born and raised in Fiji, Teaiwa is of Banaban, I-Kiribati and African-American descent.

“I’m creative and incorporate film, dance, poetry, social-media and multi-media content or platforms into our learning experiences.

“I also highlight indigenous approaches and issues of environmental, political or historical justice. I empower each student to lead the class themselves, at least twice a semester.”

The 47-year-old takes an egalitarian approach and does not see herself in a hierarchical position above students.

“I use these approaches because I have sat in many kinds of classrooms, from kindy to the PhD, and my favourite learning experiences always involved a passionate, creative teacher, like Sister Anna Rarasea, one of my favourite teachers from high school.

“So, I became a passionate, creative teacher myself.”

The former Yat-Sen Primary and Saint Joseph’s Secondary School student says the journey of being a professor involved a lot of hard work.

“It’s been a lot of hard work and sacrifice, and navigating some complex and challenging institutions and networks.

“I always had strong support from my parents, John Tabakitoa and Joan, and my late older sister Dr. Teresia Teaiwa to look up to, as she paved the way for many Pacific people in academia.

“I also admire my younger sister Maria’s work ethic and strength. She’s a medical doctor specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology.

“It’s been an incredibly worthwhile journey and I’ve been able to write a book, publish articles, create art exhibitions, travel to many places, develop research, administration, outreach and public speaking skills, and teach amazing students.”

Her biggest achievements so far from a career perspective is writing a book that many people now teach around the world, becoming a professor and winning the national University Teacher of the Year award in Australia.

However, being a mum to two beautiful daughters and raising a family with her husband has been a highlight of her personal achievements.

As a Pacific Island woman, Teaiwa faced many challenges.

“One of my major challenges was that growing up, being academic and being an outspoken girl wasn’t always valued by grownups, my peers and our wider friendship groups. I was actually told no one would want to marry me if I didn’t change my attitude.”

But being the strong minded woman that she is, she was able to overcome them.

“I definitely didn’t listen to most of these messages though I did struggle socially in many environments.

“I come from a family of strong, smart and creative women, and we did our own things and had close friends who celebrated each other’s achievements.”

Teaiwa attended a total of three universities and took up three different programs – Santa Clara University (Bachelor of Science), University of Hawai’i at Manoa (Masters in Pacific Islands Studies), Australian National University (PhD Anthropology).

“I loved reading; writing, studying and learning, and I really wanted to know more about the Pacific. This ocean is one third of the whole planet. There is so much to learn.”

Teaiwa’s hobbies include dance, visual arts and going to the gym.

“I barely have any free time but when I do I go to the gym or watch NBA basketball and wish the Brooklyn Nets or New York Knicks would win more games.”

Her advice to the young girls and women is value family and service but take care of your health and wellbeing; be true to yourself, generous to others, but don’t be afraid to be different. Your true friends will celebrate your choices and successes.”