Students count on PM’s Teacher of Year

Macquarie University’s John Croucher stands out by making math and statistics relevant and fun. By Dallas Bastian.
Becoming a teacher was the last thing professor John Croucher wanted to do, thanks to a bad stammer that kept him from speaking in front of the class as a schoolboy. Now, he is the latest recipient of the Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year award.
After gaining confidence and receiving positive feedback from his first few lecturing experiences, with full classes and good attendance, Croucher, professor of management at Macquarie University’s graduate school of management (MGSM), decided that it was going to be his career.
“The award is really great vindication for all the work that everybody [puts into] their learning and teaching,” Croucher said. “It’s a culmination of all that hard work that you’re finally recognised for it all.”
Winning the premier university teaching award in Australia highlights that teaching subjects such as statistics and maths, which people often think may be boring and almost impossible to teach, can indeed be made engaging, he said.
“You can make it interesting and you can have students really like a subject that they might otherwise not have enjoyed at all.”
Croucher said he has always been fascinated by numbers and mathematics was his favourite subject at school. He was able to blend his love of sports into his work, conducting research in the area, and even presented a rugby league telecast with Ray Warren in the ’80s and ’90s, bringing statistics to the public at large.
He also wrote a popular column for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘Number Crunch’ for 12 years, published more than 120 papers and penned 24 books that have racked up more than $3 million in sales in Australia ­– many are internationally used textbooks.
Learning was instilled in Croucher from a young age through his parents, despite the fact both left school during the depression at the age of 12.
“They understood the value of an education and they made sure that I got the best education that I could and for that I’ve always been very grateful,” Croucher said.
When he left Parramatta High School at the age of 16, he couldn’t afford to attend university despite being accepted, so he worked for three years in order to save enough money to put himself through.
He ended up being Macquarie University’s first honours graduate and won several scholarships that enabled him to attend the University of Minnesota and complete a master’s of science and a PhD in mathematics in less than the usual minimum time.
After that, Croucher gained a position as a lecturer in statistics at Macquarie and never looked back. “I have been there ever since and absolutely love my job there, as it has enabled me to do everything I could hope for.”
Macquarie was also the institution where Croucher completed his second PhD, in history.
Macquarie vice-chancellor Bruce Dowton said, “Over the course of his career he has won in each category of these awards, and it is wonderful to see such an excellent teacher recognised with the highest award this year.
“He is a great asset to MGSM and our university.”
Croucher said he has a lot of determination and has always wanted to do the best that he possibly could.
“You have your favourite subjects and you’re inspired by the good teachers and lecturers that you have at university along the way,” he said.
He was lucky enough to have good teachers and lecturers who spurred him on, even back in Year 3, where the teacher made mathematics appealing. “I looked at the way they did things and they made subjects interesting and relevant … and I sort of tried to emulate that in a way.”
In winning the award, Croucher gives credit to his colleagues and students. “It’s no good being a good teacher if you haven’t got students to respond and react to you.”
Dean of the MGSM, professor Alex Frino, said Croucher’s strength lies in his ability to take complex ideas and statistics and present them in a way that the lay person can easily understand.
He said the award winner’s forte is making statistics applicable. “He’s really good at explaining why it’s important and how it can be used,” Frino said.
Croucher tries to bring relevant examples into his lessons. “[Students] really want something that they can take back to their work tomorrow and sort of use in their job and for the most part we can do that to make it challenging and relevant and interesting.”
His approach has won praise from students. Frino said Croucher is one of the top performers in terms of student ratings, always one of the top three teachers in the school. Clarity of explanation is a quality Croucher has noticed correlates most closely with being regarded as a good teacher by students.
“I say to myself, ‘If I was sitting in the classroom and I just heard that for the first time, would I have understood it?’ ” And if he decides his description is vague, he finds a new way of presenting the idea.
“He just really puts the time and effort into teaching and into delivery of message in the classroom,” Frino said, adding this includes meeting students one on one. “Students recognise that and his teaching ratings demonstrate that.”
Beyond lessons, Frino said there were further reasons for Croucher’s success as a teacher. “He really cares about the students and he gets to know them; he really gets under their skin.”
After four decades at the university, Croucher still engages with students from his first year. “That’s the reward from being a great teacher, from having a continued, ongoing dialogue and engagement with your students,” he said.
In the days following his win, Croucher received a number of emails from people he taught decades ago. He said it’s wonderful that people can still remember what he does and are glad to have been under his tutelage.
He said loving your subject is key to being a good teacher. “[Students] see the passion that you have for your field.”
For his efforts, he has won four National Teaching Awards, more than anyone else in the country, but he explains it’s not just what is done in the classroom that’s important.
“Being a good classroom teacher is sort of the minimum requirement, but I think it’s what you contribute to your profession and to education at large,” he said.
Croucher’s television and literary work are a part of his contribution, and he’s also led a community outreach program in Papua New Guinea, receiving an honorary doctorate for his contribution to the “development of humanity”. He described the PNG work as one of the highlights of his career.
In 2009, he set up an MBA program for Divine Word University in Madang after speaking to people who would play a role, rounding up lecturers from around the globe and designing a program of possible subjects.
“I still teach in that program over there,” he said. “It’s all voluntary. We don’t charge for our time to go over there but it’s something that we like to do.
Croucher also gives keynote speeches, after dinner talks, and presentations to disadvantaged schools. “You have to have a wide breadth in what you do,” he said. It’s all part of lifelong learning. “Inspire other people to do similar things to you – that’s really what my best advice would be.
“I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. Just to talk about my subject and bring the power of mathematics and statistics to the general public.”
He said he has no plans to do anything else other than that. 

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