Kiwi Indian teacher Renu Sikka comes from a family of educators who have spent their entire life imparting knowledge to others and spread the value of education to the community.

Ms Sikka's persistent approach to improve the way education is imparted to school students and her passion driving the same over the year has earned her the prestigious ASG National Excellence in Teaching Award for 2019 earlier last month.

The Australian Scholarships Group (ASG) is a member-owned organisation, helping to create educational opportunities for children. ASG has established a number of community initiatives, including a partnership with the ASG NEiTA Teaching Awards.

The ASG National Excellence in Teaching Awards started in Australia in 1994 and in New Zealand in 1996. More than 40,000 teachers have been nominated by the community in the two countries.

Ms Sikka is a Rangatira/Team Leader at the Henderson Primary School in West Auckland and has been associated with the teaching profession for the last 16 years in New Zealand. She started her teaching career in New Zealand in 2004 in one school in South Auckland and has been on the move to different schools teaching in primary, intermediate and secondary levels.

Ms Sikka says that choosing the teaching profession was a tough call for her as she was pursuing her Masters in Science and Masters of Philosophy with Genetics and Immunology followed by a PhD. As she got married while completing her studies, she was forced to get into teaching as it was the most female-friendly job back then.

But, Ms Sikka considers getting into the profession of teaching as a happy accident as she has since never looked back. Eventually, she found teaching to be the most satisfying, rewarding and fruitful career option as it allowed her to impart knowledge and give back to the community, one of the core values inculcated by her family.

In a brief conversation with The Indian Weekender, Ms Sikka speaks more about her career into teaching, innovative approaches and practices in a rapidly changing and globalising classroom environment and what to do next to prepare students for upcoming new work environments.

IWK: What has been your focus in the last few years, especially in primary education?

Renu Sikka: My focus has been primarily on being a Culturally Responsive Teacher and fostering and cultivating a culture of inclusion for all within the school system. I am currently studying for my doctorate (PhD) and looking at the role of digital technology in exploring culturally responsive teaching practices at schools at a global level.

I have also been working on how I can engage our parent community at our school with their child's learning in my teams through an initiative called 'Whanau Fridays', where parents come in every Friday and share their talents through culturally responsive workshops aligning with our STEAM Inquiry topic for every term with our Tamariki. This has helped us raise our student achievement levels for our Tamariki in all curriculum areas with an increase in their attendance rate.

IWK: According to you, what is the state of education in New Zealand, and what’s the room for improvement that you see?

Renu Sikka: I think the world around us is changing fast and we need to consider how the current education system in NZ is preparing our Tamariki to become active global citizens who can use their key competencies of participating and contributing in a strong and sustainable NZ. I respect the bicultural nature of our country and treasure the Treaty of Waitangi. However, we have to be mindful of the diverse nature of Aotearoa and multicultural ethnicities that reside in this country due to immigration at a global level. The challenge is, how do we cater for those learning needs, and how do we welcome the various diverse cultures to enter into our classrooms?

IWK: What do you think are the challenges that educators face with this evolving dynamics?

Renu Sikka: We, as educators, are currently facing issues such as homelessness, mental health, immigration and climate change. I strongly believe that schools are successful when they can engage parents in their child’s learning and are consistent in their practice by building strong relationships and having home-school partnerships  based on mutual trust, respect and a commitment to improving student learning outcomes in a more positive way.  It is a two-way street!

IWK: Tell us about the 2019 National Excellence in Teaching Award?

Renu Sikka: I am grateful to ASG for this prestigious award and for recognising my efforts, and I strongly believe that a good teacher is passionate about what they do, loves learning and understands that teaching is a journey, not a destination.

For me, teaching means becoming a student with a student and sharing a learning journey, working together for their positive learning outcomes, and helping each child reach their potential. I want to thank my fellow teachers, my current school principal- Mr Tony Biddick, and all my past school principals and mentors, particularly- Joanne Hardwidge (Principal -Avondale Intermediate)  for being a constant pillar of support and a great mentor...She’s been me from the start of my career in 2004 - -Supernanny! as my students and me back then called her, Derek Linington (Principal- Papakura Normal), Ravi Naidoo ( Principal- Robertson Road Mangere ), Rebecca Kaukau ( Ex-Principal- Royal Oak  Intermediate), Roween Higgie (Educational Consultant-The Education Group),  Pam Hook ( Educational Consultant- SOLO Taxonomy) , Mike Webber ( Assistant Principal -Royal Oak Intermediate), Mehar Nabi ( Ex- Team Leader, Royal Oak Intermediate), Rebekah Watts (Principal -Panmure District School), Wendy Kofoed(New Market School)  and Charlie Clark ( Deputy Principal-Henderson Primary School) for their contributions in my journey to reach here. I am grateful to my own kids -my daughter and and my son for their constant support, love and encouragement as they have been my main pillars of strength throughout this journey.

IWK: What is the eligibility and process of nomination for NEiTA?

Renu Sikka: For being eligible to be nominated for the National Excellence in Teaching Award (NEiTA), any qualified and registered educators, directors of early childhood centres, teachers and principals of primary, special and secondary schools with a minimum of two years of teaching experience in New Zealand can be nominated.

The nominees are invited to complete an online Self Portrait Form highlighting their aspects of teaching/leadership, background, experience and accomplishments. In stage 2, shortlisted nominees are asked to submit an essay and a video that addresses excellence in education in more detail. Once the winners are decided, they are notified by the hosts, and an official award ceremony is held to award them and names announced to the public.

A Certificate of Nomination is also provided to nominated teachers/leaders whose candidature for the awards is approved after verification by NEiTA Foundation.

IWK: What has been the driving force behind your work that earned you the award this year?

Renu Sikka: I feel overwhelmed with pride and joy after winning this prestigious award, and it will motivate me for years to come to do better and give back more to the community.

Well, when it comes to my passion for teaching, I don't care what the circumstances the students are in, where they are from, their home life. I believe that we as educators have to see the success in them and envision excellence in them.  We cannot afford to have any deficit thinking as far as our tamariki is concerned. Every child deserves the best! That goal of excellence drives everything I say, I think, and I do as an educational leader.

I must add that I have had great mentors such as my current Principal, Tony Biddick and all WAPA (West Auckland Principals Association) cluster principals, all my past school principals who as educational leaders have been a constant source of inspiration.  I am also grateful to our Henderson Primary Board of Trustees and  my colleagues for their ongoing support in furthering  my professional development as an Educator.

Besides teaching, what other enterprises are you working on?

Renu Sikka: I have started my own non-profit social enterprise called 'Our Stories On Plate’ to empower migrant /refugee girls and women through cooking and creative writing and other creative platforms.  I also tutor migrant and refugee children outside the school on weekends to support them and their families.

IWK: What is next for you?

Renu Sikka: I have just started my doctorate study at AUT, and I am also looking forward to taking the next step in my career and become a principal of a school. I envision an ethnically diverse, culturally responsive, community-minded creative school with free meals and more meaningful, authentic hands-on learning experiences.  A school where a child decides to pick and choose his /her teacher that he would like to learn from, with a more innovative, flexible, and vocational learning pathway.