Dr Spencer Wheaton, a "home-grown boy from UCT" got early teaching experience as a student tutor, and after his honours degree, took a two-year break from postgraduate studies to teach physical science at a local high school.
He recalls that although he was an expert in the subject matter, he didn't have a clue about teaching, and learnt a lot from those early experiences.
"One of those early lessons for me was that very few learn just by listening to someone else; you learn best by doing," he recalls. "The big mistake that I made in those early days was thinking that I could stand in front of the class and give a wonderfully clear exposition of physics and expect them just to get it. I remember getting those first test scripts back and realising that they hadn't got it at all!"
This realisation still informs his pedagogy today – he creates multi-dimensional, active experiences for students.
"You have to know where your students are coming from and what motivates them. One of the courses I teach is physics for non-physics majors; and those students are not particularly passionate about physics, otherwise they would be majoring in it, so I have to meet them where they are at and choose an approach that best sparks their interest."
He tries to do this by making connections with the real world and linking the physics to what they might be majoring in. Knowing that no two people learn the same way, he also tries to create variety in his approach.
"What works for one student, might not work for another, so you need to have as big a toolkit as possible of methods for teaching: using demonstrations, simulations, videos and stories."
Using these tools also allows him to break down barriers and be more approachable. "I think the most important thing is to be true to who you are," he says of his teaching style. "Students pick up on that, and they recognise when you are genuine. I am boyishly excited by my discipline, and that comes through. Lots of students are not terribly excited about physics but at least they appreciate that I am, and it helps to spark their interest and motivate them. They also see when you are putting in a lot of effort, and almost feel morally obligated to do the same."
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The Distinguished Teacher Award is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university. Through the award, the University of Cape Town acknowledges the primary place of teaching and learning in the university’s work.