11 April 2016

ASG Teacher of the Year Award

In June last year I was made aware that I'd been nominated for a teaching award (AGS National Excellence in Teaching Award) by a member of my school community. While this honour was gratifying enough in itself, the judging process was as equally rewarding, as it helped me identify my teaching philosophy and determine what I'm most passionate about. 

Upon being named a state finalist, I was asked to produce a short film and answer a series of questions addressing some current concerns relating to Australia’s education system. The below video titled Challenges Teachers Face in the 21stCentury was my submission.

The judges' decision to select me as one of 12 national NEiTA awardees was based on the video as well as a series of written Q&A style submissions. Below you can read some of my answers and gain insight into my personal teaching philosophy. 

What inspired you to enter the teaching profession, and what maintains your enthusiasm for teaching?

During and after high school I worked in retail. I always volunteered to train new staff or take on roles that allowed me to get to know customers. Responding to the needs of others seemed relatively effortless to me, however, I came to realise that my ability to interact and quickly build rapport with anyone (no matter their age, race, background) was not a skill everyone possessed. This initially spurred me to consider a teaching career.

Learning new things, particularly about people, has the potential to excite, challenge and change me. All of which I find fascinating. Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am to get paid for such heart-warming, rewarding work. Having the ability to really listen and support each individual through their learning journey can change one’s whole attitude towards learning; essentially altering their future choices. Who said super powers weren’t real?

My enthusiasm is naturally maintained because I love what I do and the learner in me always finds new challenges. I’ve chosen a profession that’s never stagnant because technology and human behaviour is ever changing. Great teachers are dedicated life-long learners because they’re continually adapting to society’s developing needs.

On any given day, my students make me laugh, divert from the plan, test my knowledge and my patience. Having the ability to inspire them to change their ideas/abilities is exciting and life-gratifying. Seeing positive change and witnessing the power I have on others motivates me to seek out my next challenge.

How do you inspire your students to be resilient and achieve to the best of their abilities?

My last full-time teaching role was in remote Northern Territory. I loved that my students come from all over. I taught many local Indigenous students and students who’ve lived in every state/territory in Australia due to their parents’ work. With a mine operating in town where I taught (Alyangula), there was a high turn-over of families, therefore we were frequently welcoming new faces and trying our best to help them settle in. Everyone brought their own quirky talent and personality and we all learnt from each other. With such a diverse range of backgrounds, cultures and religions, acceptance of others and embracing difference was discussed regularly to ensure everyone felt valued.

I made my students feel comfortable by showing them that I’m not a mystical being with a hard drive full of knowledge stored in my belly, nor do I have a hidden confidence button or the super power to replicate the skills of a professional just by watching them. Part of my role is to expose students to what learning looks like, sounds like and feels like. They need to recognise that attempting to complete difficult work, practising and making mistakes are all part of the learning process. As this is the case whenever someone is learning something new, no matter the age or experience level, it doesn’t make sense for teachers to always represent the polished end result. Beyond simply reassuring students that ‘it’s OK to make mistakes’, I model the behaviours of a vulnerable learner and allow my students to witness my errors and discuss what that feels like. My genuineness underpinned how I managed to build strong relationships with all my students and create an inclusive, inviting learning environment. 

I saw a quote on Pinterest saying ‘The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.’ This is something I believe whole-heartedly because I think being told what to see was what led to my disengagement in class as a student. I’d always put my hand up to share my answer but it was never the one in the teacher’s head.

In the twenty-first century everyone has information at their fingertips. The teacher is not expected to have all the answers; nor should she/he. A modern teacher’s focus should be to inspire children to develop a curious mind—and that’s what I aspire to do. I believe that if I can motivate students to set goals they really want to achieve, the hardest part is done. The power of self-belief helps us battle through the greatest of challenges.

What strategies do you use to get disengaged students to stay focused and make progress?

During my teacher career I’ve worked with a number of disengaged students who’ve struggled to adapt to the mainstream learning environment. I believe this often occurs when individuals have difficulty making purposefully connections to conceptual concepts taught within the classroom. By providing students with real life experiences, they are more likely to become engaged because the learning activity holds purpose within their life.

During my time teaching at Alyangula Area School (A.A.S), I organised a number of excursions which allowed students to learn ‘on country’, therefore enabling them to make meaningful connections to their home lives, often resulting in increased participation. I eagerly welcomed the presence and support of local community members to familiarise the students with the culture of the Anindilyakwan people. When coordinating such activities and overseeing their delivery, I believe my reassuring attitude and mindfulness towards cultural difference was imperative in making the environment comfortable and enjoyable for both students and the presenters. I explicitly taught students how to positively interact with presenters, formulate appropriate questions based on responses and identify what sorts of questions were going to provide them with answers that satisfy their interests.

Asking questions can a be powerful way to persuade students to participate in class. Aside from allowing us to gather information, questions can help us bond; often through determining similarities and trying to find common ground.

In recent years I’ve become interested in learning how to pose more meaningful questions to satisfy my own curiosities. When I began reflecting on the types of questions I would ask, majority fell into either of two categories: for personal interest or in an attempt to see things from another’s perspective. Whilst I do this without much thought, students haven’t had the same amount of experience or opportunity to critically assess whether they’re asking questions that will satisfy their interests. It may seem like a simple concept, but I figured that if I taught students how to identify what they really want to know regarding any given topic, with coaching and practise, they could become facilitators of their own learning in the most natural, meaningful way.

In my classroom I attempt to promote the sharing of ideas, stories, traditions, spaces and predominately respect for personal difference. One of the best ways to do this is to help the students develop their ability to learn from one another by asking questions in a respectful way.

My ultimate goal as a teacher is to inspire and support as many people as I can along the course of their learning journey. Whether the individual is off to a bumpy start or has already acquired an innate desire to build on their knowledge, my aim is to form a relationship that will allow me to have maximum impact in helping them achieve their goals (determined or undetermined). By giving students plenty of opportunities to practise asking questions and truly listening to what others have to say, they can be assisted in formulating their own answers to life’s toughest questions; What interests me? What do I want to know? What is my ultimate goal?

What are the benefits of working in a remote school setting?

Remote schools tend to draw students from all over with diverse living circumstances. Therefore, their family background, culture and school experience can greatly vary. The teachers are required to plan for a vast spectrum of abilities and learning styles and are often faced with challenging behaviours. With such challenges comes great personal growth as a teacher which is why I strongly advocate that all pre-service and/or graduate teachers gain teaching experience in a remote setting.

Upon having such positive experiences working in such a unique setting, I felt compelled to give others the opportunity to experience it for themselves. This thought propelled me to contact the education department at Monash University in Melbourne to recommend and offer teaching placements for forth year student teachers. With the help of one of the university’s professors, three students were given the opportunity to engage in a 2-week placement, observing lessons at three schools and undergoing cross-cultural training with a traditional land owner. 

The award I received was in recognition for Community Engagement on a remote island called Groote Eylandt; situation in the Gulf of Carpenteria. Read more: http://www.asg.com.au/neita

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