Discovering purpose and potential

08 June 2018 | Story Ambre Nicolson. Photo Robyn Walker. Read time 7 min.
“I strive to create an active, collaborative learning environment filled with curiosity and enquiry in which all participants are both teachers and learners.”
“I strive to create an active, collaborative learning environment filled with curiosity and enquiry in which all participants are both teachers and learners.”

Professor Pradeep Navsaria believes that the hallmark of good teaching is an active, collaborative and curiosity-driven learning environment in which all participants are both teachers and learners. He shares some insights into his work and the approach to teaching that led to him winning a 2017 Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA).

What first drew you to medicine?

The world needs more doctors. Medicine is a globally recognised field with diverse career opportunities. But above all, there is no greater joy than the one you feel when you manage to help a very sick patient.

What led to your decision to teach and how long have you been teaching for?

Although I have been teaching for 22 years now, I am what you would call an accidental or incidental teacher. As a trauma surgeon working at Groote Schuur Hospital, 75% of my time is spent with patients. Groote Schuur is a tertiary academic teaching hospital affiliated with the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT). We are thus exposed and compelled to teach and supervise both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Being able to balance the excessive clinical workload in a resource-limited environment with teaching and research commitments.

What does the DTA award mean to you?

Teaching is an important part of my life. It is an honour to be recognised by one’s students and colleagues for something that is indeed a labour of love. 


“Professor Navsaria . . . has been responsible for ensuring a whole new generation of general surgeons are adequately equipped with the necessary surgical skills.”

What makes for innovative teaching in your opinion?

Each student enters the classroom, operating room or ward with a unique and valuable set of life experiences. Teaching requires openness to change; therefore, I continually examine my teaching techniques and experiment with ways to become a more effective teacher. I strive to create an active, collaborative learning environment filled with curiosity and enquiry in which all participants are both teachers and learners and where students can discover knowledge rather than be passive recipients.

It is essential for me to be available to my students and colleagues, to help them reach their goals. I have an open-door policy and strive to be approachable and welcoming to my entire university community. Although I have no formal education in teaching methods, my approach to teaching is very simple. I like to motivate my students to reach heights they did not think they could achieve. I attempt to do this by keeping the students focused and attentive through my engaging style; always using real-world anecdotes and observations. I attempt to integrate a light-hearted style with consistent, direct and purposeful exposure to patients. Students are engaged in the critical analysis and reasoning that accompanies the diagnosis and management of ill patients.


“The open-door approach has made me feel comfortable to turn to him for advice, both in [the] clinical set-up as well as in my personal life.”

If there’s one thing you would like your students to take away from your teaching, what would that be?

As a surgeon, scientist, academic, researcher, role model and professor, I have the opportunity to impact the lives of students, and I take that role seriously. For me, teaching is about inspiring others to discover their purpose and potential. Medicine is about compassion, service, altruism and trustworthiness, values that have always and will continue to guide the profession. It is with these values that I teach and I try to equip and instil in all my students.

What qualities and skills do you think will define your students’ success in the future?

Altruism in medicine is practising unselfishly. The future generation of doctors/surgeons need to see this in practice, and hopefully will view me and a handful of my dedicated colleagues as excellent role models, and emulate us. I teach my students that patients’ needs are paramount and must be considered before the individual’s needs.

It means that when providing care to a patient, a physician should always put that patient first. To serve [your] patients, you must be competent in the medical areas in which you practice.

Competence requires the application of current knowledge with requisite skill and judgment needed to meet the patient’s medical needs. In short, I like this anonymous quote: “We do not teach maths, history, science or grammar – we teach students.”

UCT Surgical Society (undergraduate medical students):

“His teaching style is one of encouragement and praise, which quite noticeably enables students to perform better. Professor Navsaria is a very versatile teacher. From formal lectures to large groups of students, to smaller, hands-on skill tutorials, he is able to adapt to the situation and bring out the best in the students’ knowledge.”

Postgraduate general surgical trainee:

“Professor Navsaria was the supervisor for the completion of my MMed dissertation, which I began work on while I was a trainee in general surgery, rotating through the Groote Schuur Hospital trauma unit. I always recommend Prof Navsaria as a supervisor to anyone who asks. He allowed me the space to explore my own ideas, but provided the guidance I needed to put them into practice. He always responded promptly and constructively to questions and problems, encouraged me to present my findings at congresses and ultimately helped me hand in a completed dissertation that earned a distinction.”

International postgraduate general surgical trainee:

“From the first day of me joining the department till today, Professor Navsaria continues to be a friend, a mentor and a father figure, guiding and shaping my surgical training each and every day in the ward, in the theatre and the lecture room. His commitment to teaching and surgery, passion, and impeccable clinical acumen have been an inspiration to me, and I am proud and extremely fortunate to have someone of his stature shaping my future. Apart from teaching and mentoring in surgery, Professor Navsaria in the only senior staff member [who] has made an effort to get to know me on a personal level, always asking after my family and my well-being as a foreigner in South Africa. The open-door approach has made me feel comfortable to turn to him for advice, both in [the] clinical set-up as well as in my personal life, on numerous occasions.”

Colleague and friend:

“Professor Navsaria takes great pride in teaching trauma surgery in the operating room and has been responsible for ensuring a whole new generation of general surgeons are adequately equipped with the necessary surgical skills.”

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.

Distinguished Teacher Award


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.

Read more about the award.



‘Teaching swept me off my feet’ Despite the challenges, Anneliese Schauerte – a recipient of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award for 2018 – says she’s right where she’s meant to be. 19 Jun 2019
‘No stupid questions’ in Distinguished Teacher’s classes Curiosity, responding to change, technology and empathy are what 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award recipient Jeff Murugan says make an excellent teacher. 19 Jun 2019


Discovering purpose and potential Trauma surgeon Professor Pradeep Navsaria, one of four 2017 Distinguished Teacher awardees, describes himself as ʻan accidental or incidental teacherʼ. 08 Jun 2018
Top teaching honour for celebrated surgeon Lead from the front, support from behind, says acclaimed teacher and spinal surgeon Professor Robert Dunn, who was recently honoured with a Distinguished Teacher Award. 08 Jun 2018
Distinguished physics teacher leaves his mark Relaxed, irreverent, interactive, engaging. That’s how physics lecturer Gregor Leigh describes his teaching style. Leigh is one of four new Distinguished Teacher awardees. 05 Jun 2018
Voting creativity and engagement into law Distinguished Teacher awardee Associate Professor Jacqueline Yeats didn’t plan to become a teacher, but almost 13 years later she wouldn’t have it any other way. 04 Jun 2018


Put students at the heart of pedagogy Distinguished Teacher Awardee Dr Janice McMillan's work is not discipline-specific; rather it's about transformative teaching and how we engage the wider world beyond the university. This community-based learning encourages students to think about themselves simultaneously as students, emerging professionals and active citizens. 30 Mar 2017
Number's up for scary statistics Senior lecturer Dr Miguel Lacerda teaches statistics with an artful combination of precision and creativity. 27 Mar 2017
Tax time made easier Associate Professor Ryan Kruger has taught on every finance course offered at an undergraduate level, which he says has allowed him an understanding of the development that students undergo over the course of their academic careers. 24 Mar 2017
Winfield teaches ethical accounting Associate Professor Jimmy Winfield, an accounting scholar at UCT, runs a course called Business Ethics which aims to open his students’ minds a little 24 Mar 2017
The formula to make maths fun Dr David Erwin’s philosophy of creating a comfortable classroom, keeping students focused, and developing the structures they need to succeed is visible in his teaching. 22 Mar 2017
Taking the shock out of teaching maths Dr Jonathan Shock, who convenes a dreaded first-year mathematics course, was one of six DTA awardees for 2016. 15 Mar 2017


'A good teacher? Someone who teaches to learn' Dr Joanne Hardman of the School of Education gives us a peek into her classroom and talks about her teaching style, what makes a good teacher and her five top tips for teachers 30 Nov 2015
'If learning is not engaging it is not happening' Associate Professor Jacqui Kew from the College of Accounting engages her students by asking questions in the classroom. 30 Nov 2015
Find the 'amazing' in all you study and teach Dr Azila (Tzili) Reisenberger, Head of Hebrew in the School of Languages and Literature, says that her classes are like communities and she's always on the lookout for that amazing bit of information to impart when she's teaching. 30 Nov 2015
Knowledge is not fixed in textbooks Dr Adam West of the Department of Biological Sciences says that a teacher’s job is to help students realise that the creation of scientific knowledge is on-going and dynamic, and that they have a role to play in that. 30 Nov 2015


Dr Spencer Wheaton – Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics Dr Spencer Wheaton creates multi-dimensional, active experiences for students by making connections with the real world and linking physics to their major subjects. 01 Dec 2014
Assoc Prof James Gain – Deputy Head of the Department of Computer Science Assoc Prof James Gain believes that it is important to create the type of environment where students are not afraid to ask questions. 01 Dec 2014
Prof Delawir Kahn – Head of the Department of Surgery For Prof Delawir Kahn, being a surgeon and being a teacher are intricately intertwined. 01 Dec 2014
Dr Linda Ronnie – Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Business Dr Linda Ronnie believes that an eagerness to learn is vital to being a great teacher. 01 Dec 2014


Dr Helen Macdonald – Anthropology Dr Helen Macdonald's teaching portfolio and her students' and colleagues' comments all indicate clearly that she is as passionate about her teaching as she is about her discipline, anthropology. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Hedley Twidle – English language & literature Dr Hedley Twidle believes that teaching literature in English should be a fluid and evolving thing. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk – Film and Media Studies Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk is described as an inspirational teacher of film studies, film production and screen-writing whose energy, enthusiasm, deep generosity and passion for cinema have captivated a generation of students. 09 Dec 2013
Paul Maughan – Accounting Paul Maughan’s teaching philosophy is underpinned by a fundamental insight: Ken Bain’s view that effective teaching results in deep learning that is best achieved through the disruption of existing mental models. 09 Dec 2013


Professor John Higgins – English Literature Professor John Higgins believes that what counts is the question of identity, in a view of teaching as process and not transmission. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Jeremy Wanderer – Department of Philosophy Dr Jeremy Wanderer believes that it is possible for academic life to be set up in a way that does not lead academics to experience a tension between teaching and research. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Zenda Woodman – Department of Molecular and Cell Biology Students working under the tutelage of Dr Zenda Woodman have remarked on her use of humour to create a safe environment for learning. 12 Dec 2012


Quartet of outstanding teachers féted On the 30th anniversary of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA), four recipients joined the ranks. 12 Dec 2011


Medical teachers grab 2010 awards Professor Roland Eastman and Professor Zephne van der Spuy, both of the Faculty of Health Sciences, have been named the recipients of UCT’s 2010 Distinguished Teacher Awards. 15 Dec 2010