Yasodai Selvakumaran on The Next Generation of Teachers

Thomas O'Donahoo

Co-founder & Co-CEO at Atomi


min read

2019 Global Teacher Prize Top 10 Finalist and NSW Education Ambassador Yasodai Selvakumaran joins us to discuss her journey in education from entering the teaching world to achieving some of its highest honours. She shares her unique wisdom on the nature of the challenges facing the next generation of educators and how the education community can collectively rise to meet them.

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[Music playing]

Tom: Hello and welcome to another episode of Atomi Brainwaves.  Unfortunately, your regular host Simon is away in Ireland at the moment so I’m Tom and I’m going to be temporarily stepping in to fill his shoes.  For those of you who don’t know, Simon is six foot five, so that’s both metaphorically and literally quite a hard thing to do, but I’m going to do my best.  So we’re recording today at our studios in Atomi HQ, Atomi is an online teaching and learning platform for secondary education.  We provide engaging syllabus-specific content in the form of video lessons, interactive assessment and in class activities.  We save teachers’ time as well as providing advanced data and analytics to help make it easier for teachers to personalise their classroom.  Today our topic is the next generation of teachers and to discuss this we have a very special guest, Yasodai Selvakumaran.  Welcome Yasodai.

Yasodai: Thanks Tom, it’s great to be here this morning.

Tom: To give you a little bit of back story, Yasodai is a History and Humanities Teacher and a relieving Head Teacher of Professional Practice at Rooty Hill High School in Sydney’s west, and in 2019 Yasodai was named by the Global Teachers Prize as one of the world’s top ten teachers.  What a bit of a privilege, what a bit of an honour.

Yasodai: Absolutely, it’s been a huge year and it’s been a privilege and honour to also represent the New South Wales Department of Education and the Australian Schools Plus and Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards which had a huge role in how I actually got into the top ten.

Tom: I want to dive into that in a couple of moments and sort of go through that story because I think it’s probably good to get a behind the scenes look at what happens there, but speaking of, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into teaching, how that journey sort of happened and what got you to the point of being one of the world’s best teachers.

Yasodai: Sure, it was actually the later years of high school where I considered teaching quite seriously.  I remember in Year 10 I actually did work experience as a Physiotherapist, I didn’t handle the clinical environment very well at all.  My Careers Advisor, she knew I was quite sporty, but wanted to give me a very broad experience and it was really, really fantastic in the way she wanted to set it up to give me a full experience of what that might be like, however, I realised from that experience that the clinical environment was not for me so I actually got to do a sports physio private practice which I was very excited to be at, a rehab clinic and also the hospital at Bathurst Base growing up in regional New South Wales, and I didn’t know...that’s not for me, I always thought that’s what I wanted to do.  I realised from that experience that I wanted to be working more broadly across and with more groups of people.  

In Year 12 I was elected Vice Captain and that experience in leadership and learning how to work with different groups in the community really made me realise that schools were a vibrant place to be in and to work in, and at the same time I had a deep passion for history that really emerged out of doing the Extension History Course and looking at the idea that history can be looked at from so many different angles and perspectives and it can also be deeply political, and from that realising really that so many stories are left out and the impact for belonging and inclusion and a sense of community and for people to be able to feel valued all stems from that, and I had a fantastic History teacher and English teacher, actually all my teachers were brilliant all the way throughout from pre-school as well, I had really, really fond memories of what they did and the joy that they had in being a teacher and that’s when I considered it quite seriously.

So I looked at a number of different degree programs but I was aiming to go to Sydney University and do the double degree in humanities and education and that’s where I ended up and from there it was also getting involved in extracurricular in university.  So again at university being in the double degree program, I was very much interested also in the work of a professional historian and it was being a mentor for AIM, the Australian Indigenous Mentoring experience, and I also had an opportunity to work for two Not For Profits while I was at university, YWCA Sydney as a links to learning tutor.  That was really, really cool because in my second year I was already working in high schools before I got to do my first practicum which was scheduled in third and fourth and fifth year...

Tom: Thrown in the deep end early!

Yasodai: Yeah, it was really, really great to be an Education Assistant at that point working with Year 9 girls on an At Risk Program about the employability framework and looking at different capabilities.  So essentially, our work included going in, conducting excursions and different workshops and facilitating different things as well including a Hip Hop Literacy Program, that’s what it was called at the time, not sure why it was called Hip Hop...

Tom: Sounds interesting.

Yasodai: Definitely no rapping involved from my end, but that was a great experience and again I looked at the work of Not For Profits in education, it was ultimately my PRAC when I did in Bathurst at Denistone College at Kelso High Campus, not the school I went to but the other public school, the Uni was actually really, really great in rearranging that for me because at the time my father was really, really quite unwell and I was finding it quite challenging being away from home, so it was really, really great that that worked out after initially starting out in a different PRAC in Sydney, and then I ended up at Rooty Hill High School for my second placement and absolutely loved it and went back as an Intern which led to where I am now.

Tom: It sounds like you’ve been very busy along the way and I think probably for many young teachers as well they get a fair way into their degree before they actually get some real experience of what it’s like to be in a classroom.  It sounds like you’ve had a lot more experience working with students along the way either through school...and also in the early years of university.

Yasodai: Yeah, I really encourage people to do.  Whatever profession they’re in and to actually go out and get some experience and know what if it’s what you want to do.  We say the same thing to high school students in looking at different models of work experience and there’s a big focus on entrepreneurship at the moment but recognising that, you can learn a lot from volunteer experience and various other roles and even working part-time in high school.  A lot of my students actually hold significant hours at a part-time job while they’re completing Year 11 and Year 12 which is amazing and you learn so many skills from that.

Tom: Life skills, yeah absolutely beyond the school curriculum, let alone especially if you’re going to do the investment of a degree and spend years investing in a degree, you want to be as sure as you can that you’re definitely interested in what the outcome’s going to be.

Yasodai: I think if anything, even for myself but more so for students now, I think what they face is the complexity of choice and you see a lot of students change their minds in their first year of university...

Tom: I can deeply empathise with that!

Yasodai: ...or later on, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just recognising that the nature of work and opportunities have changed and we should absolutely embrace that and the opportunities to have multiple careers and keep retraining and keep upskilling to take your work further than you might have imagined initially.

Tom: Exactly, I guess more and more these days, what learning in school is not necessarily the series of facts and information but more about the skills on how to develop yourself, how to deal with complex and unknown problems, which is ultimately...if we can’t estimate what the future of work is going to be, at least we can equip people with how to best handle the challenge of diving into that.

Yasodai: Yeah absolutely.

Tom: The other thing that I wanted to dive into your story is the Global Teacher Prize which for those of you who are unaware of what this is, it’s quite a big deal over in the UAE, I believe they present the awards.

Yasodai: Yes, for the last five years it has been.

Tom: There’s a million dollar prize at the end of it and this year the nominees were announced by Hugh Jackman, one of Australia’s treasures, so tell us about how this came about, how you got involved, and I’m guessing you had to be nominated.  Who put your name in the hat?

Yasodai: I was nominated with the support of my school and also Australian Schools Plus Commbank Teaching Awards, and if people haven’t heard of those awards, I really encourage them to keep an eye out.  They started in 2017 and the idea was to create an awards program that came with significant funding for professional learning for the teacher that won as well as significant amount of money for their school and an overseas study tour.  So in the year that I was a fellow, it was a brilliant experience as we got to learn with eleven other educators that had been recognised around Australia and actually go to Singapore for a study tour and learn from top high performing education system, and that was my first international experience as a teacher in terms of professional learning and my own PL.  That experience for me was literally life changing, it led to so many other opportunities to network and share and advocate for the profession, and through that program...and the money that got attached to the school project that I was leading was looking at, and it’s still ongoing, it’s linked to our Rooty Hill High School school plan, is looking at how can we be better teachers of our subjects with the focus on the senior school, and looking at how we can develop dispositions to ultimately improve student success in the senior years.  

With the PL money that I received from that, I was able to do some Post-Grad, initially in Education Research part-time, I have put that on hold this year because there’s been so much other things going on, but that enhanced my leadership of the work I was doing at school, co-leading with a former Principal, the project that we’re running, and also I think gave me the confidence to be able to apply for the Global Teacher Prize.  I am going to just let out a little second, it was the second year in the row that I had applied, so the previous year I was also nominated by a colleague and had a go at it and the second time around definitely I realised I had many more international experiences to add and in terms of what I ultimately wanted to advocate for, which is helping teachers really drive...having a say in how the profession works because so often we are left out unfortunately, and to try and really bridge research and practice and using the standards and being able to drive teacher professional learning is a huge passion of mine and what drives me is if we can improve teachers continuously, we can ultimately have more success on our students, but we have to constantly advocate for that time and collaboration because it’s not always there.

Tom: And I guess obviously that application worked.

Yasodai: Yes.

Tom: You went through some stages as well, but I was going to say, what do you think distinguished you from the rest of the group?  There’s many, many teachers that applications go through that, what do you think made you stand out?

Yasodai: Absolutely, it’s important to recognise that the Varkey Foundation...they started this prize as a way to spotlight issues with teacher status around the world and the $1 million US prize is ultimately what gets everybody talking and I think it’s been a phenomenal success in terms of that campaign.  So what I reflected on deeply was my involvement in various teacher professional learning networks, I’m on the executive of the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, I have been involved from the very start of my career in informal networks as well like Teach Meets and advocating beyond our own school community.  I wouldn’t have gotten there, however, if I wasn’t at a school that encouraged and fostered leadership from a very, very young age, and actually age has nothing to do with it, if you show potential...

Tom: And initiative...

Yasodai: Yeah, you will be supported and I very much have my Principal, Ms Christina Causey, and the Senior Executive and all of the staff there that really thrive in this collaborative culture that has been established by leadership to be able to go out and do different things, and that involves things from my school as well, being sent in teams to work with other schools both in rural New South Wales and interstate as well, so Rooty Hill High itself has a lot of thriving programs there.  The school is recognised as well as...2016 and 2017 was recognised as one of Australia’s most innovative schools by Educator Magazine and that reflects there’s so much going on and a lot of people really, really working on innovative projects that I have been fortunate to be a part of as well.  But if I had to sum up why I got to that stage, I actually initially thought when I applied I had too much of bits and pieces of everything from extracurricular to working with teachers to my own classroom, but definitely what stood out for other people was my work in mentoring other teachers and modelling that by having a go at various innovative approaches as well including Rooty Hill High’s focus on critical and creative thinking.

Tom: Absolutely, and in a moment, if you indulge me, I want to dive into some of the things that you’ve been doing at Rooty Hill because I think they they’re incredibly interesting.  But before we do, if we could have a really quick chat...I wanted to talk about teaching.  This decade is essentially...it’s come to a very quick close, it’s absolutely rocketed by.  I guess at this stage, I wanted to get from your perspective since you’ve started teaching, and this isn’t too long ago, a lot has changed in the world as well and also a lot has changed in the world of teaching in response, both I guess leading that change and following it.  I want to get your perspective on what is different from when you started teaching to now and for someone who is working both in your school and take the education profession leading forward, where do you think it needs to go in response to those changes?

Yasodai: I think there has been huge change in the last decade or so, so this term actually marks the start of my tenth year, I started in 2010...

Tom: Congratulations!

Yasodai: Thank you...which is scary and also exciting to think that much time has gone past.  I think that one of the huge changes that I’ve seen is that teachers are constantly being asked to adapt and I know that’s part of teaching and it always has been, but there has been a significant amount of syllabus reform, discussions about curriculum reviews, there’s one happening in New South Wales at the moment.  As soon as you get your head around something, there’s things that something changes.  This year, for example, I taught the new syllabus for Ancient History for HSC and in the time that I’ve been a teacher, I’ve taught two different versions of the Aboriginal Studies HSC, two different versions of the Society and Culture HSC Course, the History curriculum for 7-10 completely changed and the School Certificate was there when I started and then it changed to RoSA and again the senior syllabus for Maths, English, Science and Maths changed this year in New South Wales, so that’s a huge amount of change in a short period of time and I hear that from colleagues who have been in the profession for much longer and looking at why that happens, and I think that that needs to happen because curriculum needs to develop and reflect opportunities for students to be able to achieve and being able to use that creatively.  

But technology of course has played a huge part.  I remember when I first started, there was a colleague of mine driving a lot of our technology initiatives, and it was seen as a new thing to use a platform like Noodle, of course now we got a multitude of E-learning platforms which we can use, and personally at Rooty Hill High School, we use Google Classroom and BYOD has become an initiative and then there are issues with that as well when it comes to funding and what that actually looks like in a classroom if you’ve got some students who have their own device and we’ve got an equity program at Rooty Hill where students can get a device out on loan for the day and we have faculty ones as well, but being able to manage the multiple different ways of lesson designing and sharing that work is a crucial part of what we do.  But on top of that extracurricular and managing all of those things, again, has been a part of teachers’ work but I think one of the challenges has been that in order to be able to model and provide meaningful experiences for our students, the best things happen when we all work together and that’s one thing that I guess in the day-to-day of schools running, and I’m lucky to work at a school that really promotes professional learning and has a huge investment in that, is something we need to advocate for...the pace of change and just the pace of where are students are going through.  

From the time they start with us in Year 7 to what the world has looked like in the six years of high school that they’re at is significantly different and it’s being able to keep up and model and reflect that you as a teacher are open to innovation and new ideas and working differently in order to develop and install those mindsets and dispositions in the students that you teach.

Tom: And I guess if our students are stepping into an uncertain world and things that they’re going to have to develop and adapt to rapidly, then I guess teachers have to model that out to them or I guess on their behalf?

Yasodai: Absolutely, and I think some people will say that’s always been a part of teaching and time and change, especially as a history teacher, there’s always been big movements where there’s change and people adapt and that’s how we get those really great ideas and innovation, but then there’s definitely a different sort of pressure facing our students at the moment and I did mention choice and the complexity of that earlier on, but there’s a lot of students who are worried about making that right decision and knowing what to do, and then there’s others who absolutely thrive with that uncertainty, and I don’t think that’s any different to when I was at school, but the administrative demands I’ve noticed have actually increased in the time that I’ve been a teacher, and that’s a challenge about how we can actually ensure that teachers are able to be supported in the work that they need to do and to be able to share and capture those practice as well.

Tom: That’s absolutely true, and I guess as much as change, there’s some things that always stay the same no matter what, and particularly with teaching the value of relationship with students, the value of having that personal connection where you can be seen as a mentor, as a coach, and to sort of build that shared love and understanding for learning and for the subject and curriculum that you’re teaching.  But I guess in that sort of case, other than those key elements and I guess for many of the new teachers that are stepping into the teaching arena, what do you think is more challenging?  All these new technologies, tools, methods, or the age-old things of classroom management of building relationships with students, of managing behaviour, what do you think new teaches struggle with more when they’re jumping into this?

Yasodai: I think it’s actually a combination of all of them and it depends on the individual which ones I guess they find the most challenging and I’m coming at that from an angle of someone who has coordinated induction at Rooty Hill High School as well over a number of years and been part of a mentor team.  For a lot of teachers, they’re so excited to start from university and they’ve got these ideas, and I remember I was the same, and you meet your students and it might not necessarily match up to the lessons you’ve designed and constantly needing to adapt.  I think adaptability is a huge one because that impacts lesson design, classroom management and also the ability to contribute to other teams within a school as well and take on leadership roles.  One of the things I’ve noticed people are very keen to do...and I’m a huge proponent of accreditation...is they want to get stuck in that like day one and we sometimes have to say let’s focus on lesson design and classroom management first.  And thinking again about some of the things that have changed, it’s only been a couple of years now where all teachers in New South Wales have moved onto the standards and being able to prove their practice against that.  

It’s been quite a while where teachers who were graduating went straight onto that system and there was this gap where teachers pre-2004, I think, had to come onto that system as well.  So we actually find that often our new graduates are very, very family with the standards because their teacher training has included that and being able to use that they are quite confident in doing it, but linking their practice to the standards to actually complete their accreditation and with the support of their mentors is a huge, huge thing to do and it gives me so much pride when I see a first year teacher work with their mentoring and get to that status because it just reflects that they’ve been able to do all of those things...classroom management, lesson design against the professional standards for teachers.  I think developing teacher identity is probably the most challenging part for beginning teachers and I think you go through that again at various times as a leader or when you’re in a different role and developing who you are in that position.  

And for beginning teachers, and I can relate to this myself when I started, when it came to things like classroom management and someone doesn’t do what you ask them to do, or you have the opposite affect where you’ve got some students who want to hang around with you every recess and lunch because they want to have a chat and you actually have to set up those boundaries, and as a young teacher especially, sometimes students in high school want to be your friend, and being really clear about that is one of those challenging things.  It’s going between your position and your person, so to speak, even though they’re so strongly related and as a teacher you give so much of yourself to everything that you do.

Tom: I think especially where the age gap is more narrow, I guess it’s harder to define that as well and in many cases I guess where sometimes you want to give them a bit of friendly advice and also to sort of realise that’s I guess not your place as they’re a classroom leader as well.  But I guess in that sort of case as well where it’s obviously such like an immeasurably valuable thing to have incredibly passionate, highly qualified teachers, young teachers coming into the profession as well, but at the moment, especially in New South Wales and Australia more broadly, there’s a big shortage of I guess that top-tier teachers heading into education qualifications and coming into the system as well, and we’ve had discussions around having to lift the standard of which we admit teachers into university as well which is sort of I guess a bit of a crazy story in a way when as a society like we know how valuable amazing teachers are, everyone has a teacher that they can bring to mind in their education that changed their perspective on a topic or a school entirely.  So why do you think we aren’t getting that top-tier of students that’s saying “I definitely want to head into education and replicate what these people have done for me”.

Yasodai: I think in Australia it has a lot to do with teacher status, and it’s not just in Australia, it’s around the world, the Varkey Foundation have found with promoting their $1 million prize.  I was fortunate in October this year, it came from the Global Teacher Prize Office actually, an invitation to go to a Unesco Asia-Pacific Forum and it was all about attracting and retaining young teachers and the role of professional development, and what I learnt from participating in that forum, I was asked to present on the role of “Continual Professional Development” and how that really has a strong link to attracting and retaining teachers, and I think we have the issue of both.  It’s not only getting teachers into the profession, it’s actually helping them stay there.

Tom: Yeah for the first four years or so, the retention rate are really quite scary in some ways.

Yasodai: Yeah and the figures vary for that and some people are throwing around different numbers, if you look at permanent teachers they’re actually staying on but there hasn’t been as much data around casual and temporary from what I have read, and I think that’s one of the problems when we’re looking at data around at retaining teachers because those people that might start out as casual or temp don’t necessarily have job security or they might be teaching things outside their field that they studied in, and that’s not exactly motivating when you’ve spent 4 or 5 years at university working really hard to get to where you are and the vacancy for your particular subjects might not exact.  But what we’re seeing now...I’ve heard this anecdotally from a number of schools in metropolitan and rural and regional areas...that we’re struggling to get casual teachers and it’s sort of come out of nowhere I guess in terms of exceeding that change happen but it’s also...it has come out of a lot of people predicting this would happen.  I remember people talking about a teacher shortage when I left school which was in 2005 and why is it that we haven’t been able to replace or attract and retain, and I think we definitely need to be doing more to make teaching a more attractive profession.  

However, it’s almost like when you’re a teacher and you know that there’s going to be a big announcement like with PISA or NAPLAN or High Stakes Testing is sometimes you really have to filter what you read because it can be very disheartening and that is not motivating.  It also becomes a conversation when you go to...whether it’s a barbeque or other forums with other professionals...being asked to explain things like “Australia’s slipping in international standards...” but not realising and looking at the closer picture of what those numbers mean, and that’s really at the heart of it.  In Dubai, when I went for the Global Teacher Prize, the media coverage that was there also shun a light for me on teacher status in Australia.  So I was interviewed by numerous international media in the lead up to the prize, and we were there for four days as part of the formal program, who were covering the Global Teacher Prize like it was a sports event.  So the top ten were being interviewed, you couldn’t walk from one end to another, it was an emergent into being a celebrity in those four days and it was intense, and it was exciting, and it just... I know geographically we’re a long way from Dubai and that had a lot to do with it as well, a lot of the media were from the Middle East, Europe and Africa, just from where it was in the world...but seeing your name pop up in various languages online because they were covering it, and one finalist actually had a TV crew there following him for the whole time, and I got interviewed on multiple times as well.  

I do think that we need to acknowledge that the work of teachers is complex, it’s absolutely rewarding but it’s relentless at times and sometimes that’s what pushes people over, you just want to know that you’re appreciated and the work that you do is significant, and the hours that teachers work are also quite significant and people just forget that and it’s constantly that barrage of “You teachers work 9:00 to 3:00...” and you think about how many times someone in business or another profession might put into presenting like one session at a conference or in a meeting and people seem to disregard how long it actually takes to plan lessons and to do the follow up.  And another change in teaching, now that I think about it over the last 10 years, is how available I guess you’re expected to be for students on these online platforms...

Tom: Yes 24/7!

Yasodai: The immediacy of responses, and I know that’s not just in education, I know that in a lot of professions in terms of email and how contactable you’re expected to be is a different work culture impacting everybody...but making sure we set up boundaries to be sustainable as well.  I think in Australia we need to have more stories of success and this is something given the platform the Global Teacher Prize, I’ve been really, really excited to keep pointing out to people is that in this Global Teacher Prize where this year there was 10,000 nominations from 179 counties which always baffles me to think that I got in the top 10, is Australia’s had people represented every single year since these awards have started both in the top 50 and in the top 10, so in 2017, 2018 and 2019, we’ve had a top 10 finalist.  So being at these international forums has just made me realise that other people look to us all the time for the way that Australian curriculum, in particular, and the focus on capabilities and what that fosters is viewed really, really favourably.  The Australian professional standards for teachers I learnt at the Unesco Forum I went to, I was being used as a base for other countries in the Asia-Pacific to develop their own teacher standards and I also had the chance with the Commbank Teaching Awards, the personal professional learning grant, I participated in an international congress in Stavanger Norway this year...

Tom: A beautiful spot in the world!

Yasodai: Yeah, again, it’s been an amazing, amazing year and really, really exciting.  It’s called the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI), and it ran somewhere else every year and at that forum there was a number of Australian presenters both from universities and schools and I went along not knowing anyone at that time and participating in various sessions.  The great thing about it is it brings together policy, practitioners, academics, all the stakeholders, and even there I met...there was a team from an Italian media crew, they were journalists that had been sent over by their media company to learn about education for a week and to engage with practitioners so they could report responsibly on education issues back home in Italy, and I just thought “wow”, that says a lot about teacher status and understanding and creating those links and it was great to be there.  But even at ICSEI Australians had a wonderful reputation, a lot of the things that were being spoken about is what we needed to work on in terms of student agency, having students more involved in the way we design learning and co-constructing learning and feedback, looking at creativity and how we develop dispositions and capabilities and really looking at these ideas of entrepreneurship and developing the whole child, Australia was viewed very, very favourable and unfortunately a lot of the high stake testing they don’t reveal that and we need to be able to look at data that schools capture on their own about their own success and really looking at ways we measure what we value.

Tom: There’s a deep irony that education as a sector is one of Australia’s biggest exports, so clearly there’s a lot of people in the world that look at Australian and Australian education as a really valuable asset, so we’re doing some things fantastically there and I think you’re absolutely right in terms of the standardised testing and there being a bit of a gulf between just getting great scores in tests and also the ability to create post-school attainment whether that be economic success, the amount of businesses and jobs we create, the amount of value on productivity per employee that we get, whatever measure you take, it’s a very complicated  thing and it doesn’t necessarily always line up with the standardised test and many measures Australia does beat many other nations that comparatively do better on some of the standardised test like PISA.

Yasodai: And there’s a place for those and we need to take the results and the data from that in context and I think that’s where it’s really interesting where you just see the barrage of commentary that kind of follows a huge announcement like that, but to remember that in Australia we firmly need to be involving teachers and consulting teachers in more of these decisions and to be able to actually comment, and Principals as well.  I think communication about education is something that we can improve on and to be able to capture and share what is working really, really well.  Even when I was in Singapore for the Australian Teaching Fellowship Study Tour, every day on the news it was a good news story about... I remember seeing an entrepreneurship program, it was like on the headline for breakfast radio and then another day it was something else, Singapore is a country looked upon internationally as valuing teachers and for having a high performing education system.  But they do acknowledge that they were not successful if student wellbeing and mental health is not looked after.  

And so one of the things that Singapore actually has done in recent years is get rid of publishing link tables for school results and that’s something that I just saw there in Singapore, they have a long-term view on education that’s not impacted by election cycles, it’s a bipartisan approach and they’re sort of on a different situation to us where Singapore is basically one city and country with teacher training institute that’s clearly aligned with their Ministry of Education and the Teacher Professional Learning Academies as well, where we have such diversity in Australia both in terms of rural, regional, remote, we have different territory and state implementations of national syllabus, of national curriculum and national professional standards for teachers.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there are issues I guess when it comes to equity in particular and funding.

Tom: I guess in terms of pros and cons, I guess having some separation in the system gives us more opportunity to take risks in some small part without risking the whole as well, but unfortunately that also means that the education industry at large is quite risk, and you can imagine why with so many parents that want to see experimentation and change in education, just not with their kids.

Yasodai: I think one of the issues with education, and people say this all the time, people can comment on it because they went to school, not realising just how regress teacher training is when it comes to including everything from professional practice, psychology development and then your own curriculum expertise as well.  And it’s not just walking into a classroom and just going “Yeah, I can do this”, it’s very, very different being an actual teacher in charge of curriculum reporting assessment with all of the other things that go on to develop students involvement and extracurricular and working with teams to constantly revise programs and look at how we can create more exciting opportunities for our students who are ultimately going to have impact.  And I think for the most part, parents they want to have the best for their students and it just comes from an anxiety sometimes about what that would look like, but I’ve been very thankful that the parents that I’ve worked with have been very trusting and it’s an absolute joy to be able to work with their students and keep that open line of communication.

Tom: We’ve heard in some cases as well where parents are more hesitant where school doesn’t look like what they went through as well, and when you’re stepping away from that, I guess that comes down to communication as well as a school and as a teacher that you can  have a group of parents that you can have that conversation with and why you’re making changes and what those changes are and what they should expect out of that, and that obviously requires a high level of engagement from the parent community, or at least more trust and faith from our community at large in our teaching community.

Yasodai: Yeah I think the community links are crucial and whether it’s engaging with parents or...at Rooty Hill High School, we have a team really looking at how we can engage our former students as alumni and coming back into the school to work and it’s really driven by our leadership to be able to create those links, but also there is the opportunity for teachers running various projects to lead initiatives themselves, and that comes from trust in leadership as well and the support from them for you to be able to drive community links and engage new partnerships as well.

Tom: Speaking of...let’s dive into Rooty Hill a little bit and have a chat.  Rooty Hill is a school in Western Sydney, it’s a typically say blue collar part of Sydney, I think, and the families that flow into your school, they’re generally from quite a diverse backgrounds both in terms of ethnic unicity, also language backgrounds as well, and typically speaking I guess no one would have blamed Rooty Hill given all the challenges that presents for having, and I guess statistically expected results for those levels of groups.  But despite that, Rooty Hill is actually doing I guess better than expectation on quite a huge amount of measures.

Yasodai: Absolutely, we’re considered what’s called a “high equity” school, so for our area we shift students’ learning trajectories quite significantly and that’s been recognised accordingly in recent years as well.

Tom: And I guess the challenges you have there are certainly unique, there’s many schools that have similar types of issues and challenges.  I guess from your perspective, what are the types of challenges that having a community like that brings in, and also what opportunities does it create for you as teachers to sort of use and leverage that to make greater impact?

Yasodai: So one of the greatest issues that we have is literacy in terms of students coming in at Year 7.  Our Principal has spoken about how in one particular cohort, we had 80% of our Year 7 students at Grade 4/5 reading level...

Tom: Multiple years below!

Yasodai: Yes, and this was actually a time when I was at the school too, about 4 or 5 years ago, and the opportunities that it creates for teachers is to really look at “how we going to shift this” and it’s not just literacy, but it comes from really looking at each student individually and being able to have teams around each particular part of students’ growth and being able to work together.  Year to year, we face very different cohorts and being able to adapt to that includes huge collaborative effort all the way from the people who run enrolment programs, to gather the data from primary schools, to putting together personalised profiles of each student.  And as a teacher, it’s just such an amazing opportunity to get that data from another team that puts it together, so you have a picture of what your class will look like, whether it’s from Year 7 all the way to Year 12, with these class profiles which are developed from our Learning Support Team and it has a lot of data in that and anything that’s available is put in in terms of literacy clusters, their extracurricular involvement, students’ interests, and it’s such a gift to be able to have that and having a starting point to use in your classes.  

What else I guess an environment where everyone works together, because there’s a need to and it’s very collaborative, is it opens up opportunities for innovation and to think differently about how we’re going to address some of these challenges and part of the initiative that has happened with our most recent school plan is our Senior Executive set up cross-faculty teams which has always been a feature at Rooty Hill since I’ve been there, but linked explicitly to “what are the school plan projects”, and so teachers elect to be part of one that interests them, and then there’s ownership of part of the school plan and leading beyond your own classroom embedded as part of the structures in the time that is actually timetabled into what our day looks like and having set meeting times once a fortnight, or whatever it might be, and having opportunities for people all the way from their first year to be part of thinking that they’re actually part of something bigger and being able to link their teaching practice to that too in the way that goals are set up for each year too.  So it creates a real ownership that we’re all in this together.

Tom: And I guess you mentioned a couple of times now in terms of this idea of using collaboration as a great leverage point, so hopefully that is something that you can explain in a little more detail, because typically speaking, the old classroom, close the door and that becomes your own little fiefdom and I guess many teachers what goes on inside their classrooms, it’s their domain and once they let the kids out of that, the information that’s gained in that in terms of the different students other than maybe some stories that are shared around the staffroom in terms of something funny that happened in class, it’s not necessarily a highly collaborative environment.  At Rooty Hills, it seems like you’ve done a lot to sort of build cross-teacher collaboration, to build shared understanding and practice, and to sort of look at students holistically I guess across many different subjects, teachers’ classes as well, rather than sort of in that particular classroom model.  I guess for more teachers that might not necessarily be...they may not be able to set it from a leadership perspective in their school as well, what are some of the valuable things that they can do day to day to get more of that collaboration and to work more collaboratively with the other teachers to get more value out of each other, and better support students in that way?

Yasodai: It definitely comes from leadership and being able to drive it, and I think it comes from the top, so like our Principal and Senior Executive by valuing teacher professional learning time across faculties, that first of all enables it to happen, and then we take a faculty lead approach to a lot of our initiatives, so what that means is there might be a particular program in like literacy or capabilities or something like looking at values such as tenacity, or whatever it might mean, that embedded through either a faculty approach or a year-base program through the wellbeing program, so there might be a particular faculty that’s targeted to pilot a particular strategy or to lead that intensively and another faculty that takes like another approach.  So with literacy, for example, we had different strategies being modelled and led in various lessons.  What that means is not everybody is trying to do everything, but even with the capabilities taking and embedding the Australian curriculum capabilities for New South Wales where it best fits in our curriculum.  

It’s not like everybody is trying to do everything all the time, it’s actually targeting what works best in your subject area and we do embed everything from a subject level.  I know there’s lots of different approaches that schools are using, some are going cross-curricular or integrated units, but we have a number of different pedagogical approaches that are being used as suited in particular faculties and leaving that decision for subject teams to actually to make.  The collaborative programming is also part of the time that’s structured into faculty time in our school day, that’s first of all you just need to have time given to it.  But for teachers I think it’s really that idea of well “if we work together, it’s going to be easier” but also that we value each other’s approaches and opinions and having things like beginning teachers going in to observe other teachers that are more experienced, but also recognising that with things like syllabus change and various things where you might teach especially, I might teach different subjects year to year, is having faculty-based mentors, it doesn’t matter how many years of experience you have if you might be teaching something new or a new syllabus has changed and having that culture that really drives people to be open and seek feedback.  But I mentioned the school culture is driven by a Senior Executive and then that’s modelled and it flows down.

Tom: Certainly absolutely helps if it’s coming from the top as well to give it a bit of a mandate I guess for change.  But in terms of this idea of diversity in the school group as well and particularly students who come from backgrounds where there isn’t a great expectation for their initial success, there’s always the external factors that you can’t change in terms of the resources that the school has access to or financial ability to afford additional support in different ways.  But then there’s also the intrinsic factors for students as well in terms of their own self-expectation and where they see themselves going both in their school achievement during the school time and also when they leave school and gone beyond.  So how do you go about building students I guess their own estimation of where they should set their self-expectation?

Yasodai: That too comes from a school wide approach that we use at Rooty Hill for lesson planning.  So we use an approach called the “Blackboard Configuration” that people might of heard of.  It goes back to an idea by Dr Lorraine Munroe that expectations in the classroom should be visual, they should be not a secret to students what they’re going to achieve, and having a clear way that we talk about learning that’s consistent across the school.  So that doesn’t mean it takes away from teachers’ creativity or the way they want to interpret it, but the idea is that we have an introductory activity that will take 10 or 15 minutes at Rooty Hill High, we call it “The Do Now”.  If you’re late from playground duty and you’re like rushing to get your stuff on the board, students will ask “Oh what’s the do now Miss?”  They just expect it, so that’s like a clear, they know when they come in there will be an activity and it’s usually related to a previous lesson or a hook plus a learning intention and success criteria, an outline for the lesson will be made to the students in some way.  

It develops an expectation of high expectations in the class and every student is going to achieve the learning intention in some way, but also for teachers it helps keep them on track, and that’s something that our beginning teachers they may or may not have heard of making everything visual, but it’s not a secret to students like what it is they need to achieve and there’s still room to adapt and take the lesson a different way if it so happens.  But in order to really get students to think about achieving more than they think, we realised especially with our initiatives and in particular the focus on creativity is that, as the staff, we needed to model what that looked like and a lot of staff when we first like “okay we’re gonna have this focus on creativity and critical thinking”, we had a deliberate series of professional learning reflection and we still come back to this particular survey and it’s based on Dr Bill Lucas’ work at the University of Winchester on creativity, and the school developed their own creativity wheel with people ranking themselves about how creative they were based on these dispositions, but it included things like tolerating uncertainty and being able to like adapt, which people don’t often think is a trait of creativity but it involved reframing what creativity looked like...

Tom: From a typical sense of creative arts as the sole source of creativity...

Yasodai: That’s absolutely where everybody went the first time, they were like “I don’t do music”, or “I don’t paint”, “I’m not a creative person”, but recognising creativity is an important skill and being able to think differently and more broadly.  And so it involved teachers being able to have those conversations with students and to think beyond, and as a teacher when you share more of yourself in terms of challenges and setbacks and how you got through them, that sets an example to students, and I think first and foremost, teachers and leaders in schools is that we’re constant role models and everything that we do and we share and that we reflect is a huge learning experience for students.  And even for my students this year, they saw me go through being really awkward in front of media to getting more comfortable and they could tell, the media actually started last year really with the Commbank Teaching Awards.  And previously, I actually had some of my current Year 12 students who had just started, we filmed a case study, we were fortunate to be featured by the Australian Learning Lecture, the school in their work and creativity and critical thinking, I think that was the first time I had been part of a case study where my class was being filmed.  

They were in Year 9 at that time and a few of them have actually made the final cut, and some of my students have been involved consistently in various media things, and they’ve sort of become a group that were part of it, but everything from the photo shoots to posed things, they could see that I was super uncomfortable, and then recently we were on Sunrise in August to promote the Commbank Teaching Awards and I had the same students and one of them said to me “You’ve gotten really good at this Miss”, and just an offside comment and I think it’s important to be able to model that.  Students do notice when teachers are involved more broadly across the school or in other avenues and professions, and they come to you for advice, so even students I haven’t taught or I’ve led in extracurricular, they’re the ones that I’ve had the great privilege of working with for them to sort of see options and opportunities that they would never have thought of, and that starts with everything as simple as playground conversations when you’re on duty to running particular programs more formally.  I do think it’s one of the great joys of being a teacher is to be able to help students see beyond what they might have sought for themselves.

Tom: Not to just sort of say “you’ve got what you need to chase your dreams and go after it” but to set an example “I’m gonna go after mine and I’m gonna...”

Yasodai: Yeah, that’s been something I never really...I had underestimated, to put it in better words.  The impact that the Global Teacher Prize would have on our community and it was really strange originally as a teacher because I had students coming up to me saying “I’m so proud of you”, like constantly and it’s happened...it’s still going on with parents, or students I haven’t taught, they see me in the school and they’ll say “This has brought so much pride to our school community”, and that makes all of it worth it and I think with anything, this is actually something that my Principal always says and it’s advice that I remember is when things I knew they’re often like emotional or difficulty or new emotional difficult is an expectation and then you get better at everything, and that’s definitely been my experience with media.  And someone said to me “But you’ll love it by the end”, and I remember at the start being like “I don’t think I’m gonna love it by the end” and it’s something that I myself have grown in and am much more confident and really actually do enjoy and love doing now.

Tom: Well as an external observer, you’re certainly doing very well here so I would have never guessed that you were I guess a little bit hesitant at first because definitely now you’re a pro.

Yasodai: Thank you.

Tom: So that’s most of what we have time for unfortunately, but before we go, we always ask our guests for a quick story or anecdote or something that you want to share in general.  It can be related to what we have today, or completely left of field, that’s up to you.  But just something a little tip for teachers that you want to share, and in this case maybe young teachers.

Yasodai: Sure.  I think what I’ve learnt as a teacher and through all these experiences I’ve been fortunate to have is to have a go at applying for grants and scholarships because it’s actually...there’s quite a few out there, there’s like the Premier’s Teachers Scholarships, there’s different ones in different subjects and associations, but also importantly to see how you can mentor and share your expertise and don’t underestimate the impact you’ll have, whether it’s supervising a preservice teacher to engaging in broader networks is the strength of what we do is better when we’re united as a profession and social media has played a huge part in connecting teachers and other stakeholders and other groups that support education and to be able to continue to do that and sometimes it’s just making those first steps.  So it could just be setting up a Twitter account for education or joining some of the online groups in your profession or in things you might be interested in, like accreditation, is so important to the work that happens in your own school.  It will make you a stronger, confident teacher and one thing I’ve heard people say time and time again is “You can never have too many networks in education” because it’s going to improve what we do.  It doesn’t mean that you have to actively be on everything.  That can be overwhelming.  I myself go through phases of how I guess active I am on various social medias in particular based on what’s actually happening because it can be never-ending but it should be seen as a source of support and strength.

Tom: Well put yourself out there.  It sounds like a great bit of advice.  So thank you so much.  This has been a really frank conversation, we’ve covered a lot of ground and I think it’s going to be really valuable for everyone listening at home.  So thank you for coming on board and sharing that with us.

Yasodai: Thanks Tom.

Tom: And also thank you to everybody else listening for tuning in.  It’s been a pleasure to be your host, even if it’s temporary.  So hopefully Simon will catch you next time.  So from me thank you very much, and from Yasodai thanks again for joining us.

Yasodai: Thanks for having me.  It’s always great to share stories, especially with an education audience.

Tom: Thanks again.  Goodbye.

Yasodai: Bye

[Music playing]


Published on

April 1, 2020

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