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Meet the expert, Leigh Sperka

Meet the expert: exploring health, sport and physical education with Dr Leigh Sperka

UQ people
Published 21 Mar, 2022  ·  4-minute read

A lifelong love of learning led Dr Leigh Sperka to a career in health, sport and physical education teaching and research. Driven by a desire to provide engaging pedagogical experiences, she hopes to inspire students and ignite in them the same passion she has.

From a high school visit to a PhD

Leigh was in high school when she realised she wanted to be a health and physical education (HPE) teacher. But it was a visit to the UQ School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences (HMNS) for a Year 12 physical education lesson that cemented her decision.

“We had just visited The University of Queensland to complete some fitness tests; I enjoyed my time on the St Lucia campus so much that I decided to enrol in the Bachelor of Health, Sport and Physical Education (Honours) program,” she says.

“During that degree, I fell in love with teaching through my many placements, but I also developed a strong passion for research through the embedded honours component.”

After graduating, Leigh received the opportunity to complete a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) through HMNS.

“Throughout my PhD, I was a contract HPE and science teacher in schools, as well as a tutor in the BHSPE(Hons) program,” she says.

“The combination of teaching and researching was amazing, so when I completed my PhD, I was thrilled to accept a position as an Associate Lecturer in the BHSPE(Hons) program.”

Creating a mutually responsible approach to education

Dr Leigh Sperka

In my teaching, I emphasise the importance of creating an inclusive environment in HPE that allows all students to participate and experience success.

Dr Leigh Sperka
Lecturer, UQ School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences

Although Leigh’s role has changed from teacher to lecturer, her desire remains the same.

“In my role, I learn a lot every day. I believe teachers and students are mutually responsible for the educative experience, so I learn from my wonderful undergraduate, postgraduate, and higher degree by research students who share their unique experiences, knowledge, and skills with me,” she says.

“I also work with nationally and internationally renowned and award-winning scholars, who teach me how to be the best academic I can be.”

Through both her teaching and research, Leigh focuses on the experiences and perspectives of her participants and wants to ultimately discover how her work can positively influence their lives.

“I hope to positively impact HPE in schools. My research currently involves creating evidence-informed resources and guidelines for outsourcing,” she says.

“In my teaching, I emphasise the importance of creating an inclusive environment in HPE that allows all students to participate and experience success.”

Leigh’s career highlights

While Leigh finds it difficult to determine what are the most rewarding parts of what she does, she has been fortunate to be recognised for both her teaching and research.

Teaching highlights in the last few years include undertaking two student-staff partnership projects with Grace Clive and Jacinta Cross (both 2020 BHSPE(Hons) graduates) to inform her 2nd year BHSPE(Hons) course, and creating an ‘Escape Box’ activity to engage students in her very first workshop.

Two photos side by side of Leigh's 'Escape Box Activity', with questions cards, a scoring chart and crossword puzzle

A snapshot of Leigh's award-winning 'Escape Box' activity

She has also received:

  • Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2020)
  • The Faculty Health and Behavioural Sciences Award for Teaching Excellence (2020)
  • a University of Queensland Commendation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning (2020)
  • U21 Health Sciences Teaching Excellence Award (2021)
  • Fellow of the Tsukuba Summer Institute (2019).
Several teachers including Leigh Sperka stand on a stage holding certificates while physically distancing at the 2020 Teaching Excellence Awards

Leigh (pictured right) won a 2020 UQ Commendation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning

But winning awards isn't what really drives Leigh.

“While I am really honoured to receive this recognition, I find it just as, and if not more, rewarding when I hear that the work I’m doing is making a difference to the people I engage with.”

What the future holds for health, sport, and physical education

There have been four recently identified developments in education, which Leigh states graduates of the program are well-placed to handle.

These include:

  • the introduction of a new Queensland Certificate of Education system and, with it, redeveloped senior syllabuses for Health, Physical Education, and Biology
  • renewed advocacy to teach about Respectful Relationships in schools
  • increased emphasis on data-informed practice
  • more support services being offered in schools (e.g., GPs in Schools Pilot) that connect with the work of HPE teachers.

“We offer a balanced initial teacher education curriculum where students can build a strong foundation of discipline-specific knowledge to help them teach their three senior subject areas,” says Leigh.

“They also learn how to teach about contemporary and emerging health issues, develop data literacy to inform their practice and enhance their appreciation of how health professionals work together.”

Leigh’s advice to BHSPE(Hons) graduates is that they should recognise all they have to offer schools and other industries.

“They are in a strong position to be leaders in their fields.”

Today’s graduates, tomorrow’s Olympians

One fast-approaching event where BHSPE(Hons) graduates can showcase these skills is the Brisbane 2032 Olympics. Leigh believes the role that HPE teachers play in developing healthy, safe and active citizens is fundamental to the legacy of these Games.

“Students being taught by BHSPE(Hons) graduates today are the Olympians of tomorrow, as well as the citizens who will be using the upgraded and new facilities and infrastructure and engaging in the health, sport and physical activity programs introduced as part of the Games,” she says.

“HPE teachers can play a significant role in shaping these developments.”

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