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Medal-winning lecturer weaves love of sport and community into teaching

06 November 2023

Not many university lecturers have a portacot in their office or wear a New Zealand Warriors cap to work, but Dr Phillip Borell believes in bringing real life into his work life.


A Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) Senior Lecturer in the School of Māori and Indigenous Studies, Dr Borell (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) is a huge rugby league fan, dedicated league coach and proud dad to two boys, including a two-year-old who sometimes spends time in the office.

Dr Borell is passionate about making teaching interactive and inclusive, and his approach is to inspire in his students the same enthusiasm he feels for his areas of research, which include indigenous masculinity, the politics of sport, and sport and education.

“My approach is to just keep loving teaching, because if students see someone up the front loving what they do and having fun, then they’ll engage with the lectures and want to be there and learn. I just try to be authentically me and give students as much of myself as I comfortably can,” he says.

SDG 4 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 - Quality Education.

Dr Borell has just been awarded a 2023 UC Teaching Medal, the University’s highest award for teaching excellence.

He had never planned on being a career academic but researching and becoming a lecturer in the School of Māori and Indigenous Studies and within the Bachelor of Sport Coaching, has been an opportunity to integrate all of his interests, including sport, community, family and culture.

“I’m able to be the same person at work that I am outside of work. At the start of a lecture, I might talk about how the Warriors played on the weekend and engage in a way that’s not just reading off a slide. If I’m excited about something, I’m not going to hide that. I feel like I can synergise everything I do and all my interests align with my work.”

He is part of the coaching staff with the Eastern Eagles premier men’s rugby league team and his research has focused on Māori contributions to rugby league as well as Polynesian experiences of the sport. His next topic of research will explore the experiences of family members of rugby league athletes who travel overseas to play.

He says he is grateful to be able to study what he loves. “Everything is serendipitous; rugby league and academia aren’t exactly known to be good friends, but it’s really cool that I can bring them together and we’re seeing more focus on rugby league in the learning space.”

Dr Borell is currently developing a new, tailor-made Māori sporting practices paper that will be part of a te ao Māori-focused major for the Bachelor of Sport degree being introduced from 2025, which he describes as an exciting development. “It’s such a huge part of the lifestyle these kids lead so it makes sense to reflect that in the course content.” 

He started studying at UC in 2002 and began teaching there in 2008, 15 years ago. He graduated with a master’s degree in 2013 and achieved his PhD in 2022. He feels so much a part of the institution that he even got married on the campus, on a lawn that’s a stone’s throw away from his office. “It’s been such a home for me,” he says.

Dr Borell is a previous winner in the University of Canterbury Students’ Association Student Choice Lecturer of the Year awards, scooping the Faculty of Arts Lecturer of the Year and Overall Lecturer of the Year in 2021 and 2022. He felt quite emotional at the awards ceremony, he says. “For someone who teaches the way that I teach - it’s always student focused - having that recognition is huge.”

His goal is to encourage critical thinking and develop students’ ability to engage with whakaaro Māori (Māori perspectives).

“If I’m lecturing about racism, privilege or diversity, I’m doing that in a way that’s sensitive while still being engaging, and if I can chuck in a few jokes, that helps as well,” he says.

He is strong on community engagement and theory being backed by practical experience and often invites key contacts into the classroom to talk to students about their real-world experiences. It’s something he is also committed to outside of UC, as the co-founder of The Kutt Kollective in Wainoni, Christchurch, which provides leadership and fitness-focused courses for high school students using kaupapa Māori models. Kutt Kollective places groups of young people into kī o rahi (a Māori ball sport) teams and helps them build hauora (wellbeing), fitness and life skills.

While Dr Borell prefers not to think of himself as a role model, he is delighted to be a mentor to others. “I was a bit of a mischief kid at school. If me being a lecturer shows young people coming from high school who have that little sneaky gleam in their eye, that they can thrive in this space, they can take the weird and curvy roads and still end up here, then I’m just so stoked.”

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