Extraordinary Educator

Tony Cairns is a name that I heard upon arrival from my host family that moved from Sydney seven months prior. When they were researching schools for their own children, they discovered this incredible science teacher at Wellington High School (WHS). There is a wonderful video of him on YouTube describing why he is a teacher and his pedagogy.

video of Tony Cairns

I was instantly hooked listening to him in the video and finally got the chance to not only meet him, but see him in action at WHS! Amusingly, the first time I went to WHS, it was on accident when I was supposed to be at Wellington College! I knew there was a difference between the two schools, but had it in my mind that I was going to WHS because I really wanted to meet Tony. Fortunately, I was early for the Wellington College appointment and was able to trek over to Wellington College from WHS! When I mentioned there was a science teacher I wanted to meet at WHS, the receptionist immediately said, “Tony Cairns.” When I also mentioned his name to my advisor at Victoria University, she also started gushing about all the great classroom techniques he uses. His reputation obviously precedes him! He was super receptive to my visit and responded to my first email immediately with an invitation.

Visiting his classes did not disappoint! His relationship with his students is super evident. They love him and he loves them. Throughout the lesson introduction, he is gaining their attention with his energy, knowledge of the subject and his props. Bursting water balloons, water heating in a kettle, and bags of ice all to display phases of matter. Then the fun part – students getting to conduct their own experiment. And with little instruction from Tony besides the safety protocol, to which he was very attentive, they jumped into their work. I could tell straightaway that his students were well versed on using the lab equipment with bunsen burners, gas, beakers, thermometers and heating stages. He also had a very great system with their working together in groups for collecting data. It didn’t take any time for them to organize themselves and get going. LOTS of activity, lots of movement from the students getting to the task! We even laughed together that many teachers do not tolerate this much activity – but then Tony is not your typical teacher! Turning them loose with a great deal of trust (obviously based on previous instruction!) and faith for them getting to work! And they did! They got to work, collected data, and then when he gave the word, they started to wrap up and used the data in their lab books to write up conclusions. Meanwhile, when there were different situations going on with all the activity in the room during the lab, Tony had his finely tuned eyes and ears on each and every group. Constantly checking on them, working on one side of the room with a group while concurrently talking to a group across the room to help them with their set up.

Oh, and did I mention that all of this is also being filmed?! Tony had several cameras that the students picked up at their seats upon entrance and started filming his set up. This was for students that may miss the lesson and also for “others to learn from his instruction.” He is a proponent of technology and has written extensive reports on the technology use in their classes and at WHS. Tony also publishes tons of his class videos online. Being able to reflect on his teaching methods and continue to learn is something else that he values. I am not sure how he has the time to do it all, but he is also a member of several teacher groups that share resources that he shared with me! His background is as diverse as his teaching skills – museum curator, teaching from K-university level, Maori genealogy work on 15 million people, author of a book on nuclear war, and on and on! An incredible resource and supported more of my research fully! Truly an exceptional educator!


4 thoughts on “Extraordinary Educator

  1. Megan, an idea from my younger daughter’s recent non-profits State Department-sponsored exchange program with Morroco. Wonder if Tony Cairns might come over here to visit your classroom? Does the Fulbright do such things? It will be interesting to learn what changes you might make in your teaching based upon what you have learned in New Zealand!


    • OH, Absolutely, I have learned heaps and will be implementing as well! Stay tuned for my final report! Fulbright does have the equivalent teaching program and application for teachers applying to come to the U.S. I hope that Tony will do it someday for sure! There are two awesome teachers that came last year that I met during our orientation in D.C. – one that hosted me at his school, Northcote College, in Auckland and the other is moving from Christchurch to Wellington for a new job she accepted! The ones for this coming year have already been selected and the applications for 2017 are out now!


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