In a career that spans almost 42 years, Professor Andrew Argent, the head of paediatrics and child health at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, remains inspired by those who manage to achieve “remarkable things” despite the countless odds stacked against them.
Added to that, he is inspired by his students, who ask the difficult questions, and his colleagues, who “keep on caring, who keep on giving and endlessly seek the best for their patients”.
The Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital is the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) paediatric teaching hospital. For Argent, it is his home away from home.
“I am incredibly privileged to work with so many children who have an almost unbelievable capacity to keep living life to its fullest.”
“I am incredibly privileged to work with so many children who have an almost unbelievable capacity to keep living life to its fullest despite some extremely difficult illnesses and situations,” he said. “And I admire their families at their bedsides and in the wings cheering them on.”
For his contribution to teaching and learning, UCT acknowledged Argent with a 2019 Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA) – the university’s highest teaching accolade. He is one of four recipients to receive this award.
Niémah Davids (ND): What do you teach and to whom?
Andrew Argent (AA): My teaching has primarily been in the area of clinical paediatrics, particularly as it relates to the care of children and infants with life-threatening illnesses, injuries or following major planned surgical procedures.
ND: Why paediatrics and child health, and what are some of the challenges in this area?
AA: I got involved with paediatrics very soon after I qualified [as a doctor] and have found the work to be incredibly satisfying. It helps that the paediatric community is filled with caring and extremely committed people.
The environment is perhaps gentler than the other fields of adult medicine. The implications of appropriate diagnosis and treatment are so much easier to see, even though the children and their families are very vulnerable.
ND: How large are your classes?
AA: Most of my teaching has been at patients’ bedsides with groups of about two to six students. We focus on individual patients.
In the past, I have taught bigger groups (15 to 20 students), but where possible we’ve always divided bigger groups into smaller units to ensure students get involved with the practical, hands-on interaction with patients.
At various conferences, I’ve also been involved with teaching groups of more than 150 people as part of interactive workshop sessions.
ND: What got you into teaching and how long have you been doing it?
AA: In clinical paediatrics you’re pulled into teaching from early on in your career. And in the academic setting, you’re always asked to teach new groups of students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.
“I love finding honest ways of understanding and explaining the clinical signs I see in patients to my students.”
I love finding honest ways of understanding and explaining the clinical signs I see in patients to my students. I am fascinated by the work I have been privileged to do and find it incredibly exciting when others share that fascination.
ND: What do you love most (and least) about working with students?
AA: It’s always exciting to meet people who are interested in learning, who have been faced with practical challenges in their day-to-day [lives] yet are keen to learn more and understand more. They have a wonderful energy and a capacity to ask challenging questions. That makes it even more fun to explore a range of topics.
ND: What, in your view, makes a good teacher?
AA: I think it really helps if people are passionate about the subject they are teaching. In clinical practice it shows if teachers are grappling with challenges on a day-to-day basis. It’s essential that the teacher cares about the student and is committed to ensuring that they get the best support possible. Providing them with a fair assessment as they pass through various courses is important too.
ND: How would you describe your teaching style?
AA: With smaller groups, I much prefer to be interactive. This helps provide students with basic tools for understanding situations, and challenges them to keep thinking deeper and to keep searching for a deeper understanding of what’s happening in the field.
I also try to constantly encourage my students. And I believe that having a sense of humour, especially in clinical situations, [makes] it … so much easier to learn, to interact and to have students enjoy these interactions.
ND: How has your relationship with your students, teaching style or subject matter changed over time?
AA: I think I’ve definitely become more confident with my interactive teaching style. Over the years I’ve really appreciated students’ interest and their support, and the fact that they keep asking such amazing questions that continue to challenge me.
ND: What are some of the main challenges associated with teaching at university level?
AA: Universities often have rather large classes and that may be challenging. Fortunately, much of my teaching has been with smaller groups of students and that makes it much easier to make contact and interact with them.
“It really is affirmation that teaching is important and that a really important part of university life is providing an environment where everyone is learning and developing.”
ND: What is the importance of this kind of recognition (DTA) to teaching staff?
AA: It really is affirmation that teaching is important and that a really important part of university life is providing an environment where everyone is learning and developing. Many of the premier academic accolades are for research, but these awards are a way of highlighting the importance of teaching.
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On Wednesday, 2 December, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng hosted the UCT Annual Awards 2020, which serve to honour and celebrate exceptional individuals at UCT for their contributions through excellence and dedication in research, teaching and service.
The celebration acknowledged 225 staff receiving Long Service Awards and the recipients of the Distinguished Teacher Award, the Alan Pifer Research Award and the Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence. The evening also recognised those staff members who have received ad hominem promotions this year.
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.
This award is the vice-chancellor’s annual prize in recognition of outstanding welfare-related research. It highlights UCT's strategic goal of promoting socially responsive research, and honours a UCT researcher whose outreach work has contributed to the advancement and welfare of South Africa’s disadvantaged people.