Yasodai Selvakumaran is one of 50 finalists in the major Global Teacher Prize 2019.
Recognised nationally as an outstanding teacher and leader, she has achieved consistently high results and, in a career of only 8 years, she has influenced the careers of over 200 teachers.
A teacher at Rooty Hill High School in Western Sydney, she says her passion for education stems from the fact that she can transform young lives through her work. Working towards a common vision in education can create ripple effects that flow beyond individuals.
With a constant, challenging work load and as a mentor to others in the profession, Selvakumaran has learnt taking care of herself is a vital part of reaching her potential. “Well being is crucial to take on the responsibility of leading learning within and beyond the classroom,” she says in the below Q&A. “The emotional and cognitive load is immense… looking after yourself is crucial before you can look after others!”
Selvakumaran’s parents left Sri Lanka during a period of dangerous civil tensions and she grew up in Bathurst in regional Australia, before moving to Sydney to complete university.
In 2014, she won the Australian Council of Educational Leadership Mary Armstrong Award for Outstanding Young Educational Leader, and in 2018, she won a Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award. She has been recognised as 1 of 30 rising stars under the age of 35 in Australian education by the Educator Australia magazine.
One of only two Australian teachers up for the Global Teacher Prize 2019 alongside Peter Gurrier Jones, from The Hills School in Northmead, she is no doubt a young trailblazer in the profession.
Below, Yasodai Selvakumaran answers some questions for Women’s Agenda on how she plans to improve student learning at Rooty Hill High School and the importance of bridging the gap between research and practice in education.
What are you so passionate about the teaching profession?
It is a privilege to work towards a common vision – to empower students, teachers and communities be the best they can be. As a profession, we are constantly learning and adapting and this is a part of the joy of learning. Yes, it can be challenging at times but ultimately Education transforms lives. This impact goes well beyond individuals as the ripple continues further than we can immediately measure or sometimes imagine.
What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve faced (or are still facing) in your teaching career?
Adapting to the pace of change in Education and recognising that teacher voice is an issue not only in Australia but in other parts of the world.
… How did you work around it?
Collaborating for teacher professional learning, coaching and mentoring is key to be able to facilitate engaging and deep learning experiences for our students. I’m fortunate to have had and have brilliant mentors since I was a pre-service teacher. Those mentors continue to inspire me now as a mentor myself. I’ve been part of the TeachMeet NSW community that organises free informal professional learning led by Teachers. I am currently serving as an executive of the Australian Curriculum Studies Association and leading professional learning and advocacy is an opportunity to further contribute.
Collaborating with others in the profession and stakeholders is at the core of ensuring that teacher voice and expertise are valued.
This has been part of the Flip The System movement aimed at ensuring that Education is driven “from the ground up”. I am fortunate to have contributed to an Australian version of the book Flip the System released at the end of last year edited by Cameron Paterson, Jon Andrews and Deborah Netolicky.
My vignette shares how when teachers work together, there are opportunities to develop expertise, even when there are less than ideal realities.
What are you working on right now that’s got you excited?
I’m working on a project exploring the values of subject-based pedagogies with a team at Rooty Hill High School exploring how both developing dispositions and subject-based expertise are important. Often debates in Education come back to a focus on knowledge or capabilities/dispositions/” soft skills” like critical thinking or creativity. I believe the dialogue needs to acknowledge both. This is essential to share and learn about multiple approaches to facilitate this, remembering that each school and teacher need to contextualise what is right for their students.
What are some of the key things you believe need to happen to improve student learning, particularly in disadvantaged schools?
Rooty Hill High School is not a disadvantaged school but 30% of our students come from families who experience disadvantage. Designing curriculum for all students to achieve with high expectations is a must to improve student learning. This requires support from all stakeholders in Education.
What would you go back and tell yourself ten years ago?
Looking after yourself is crucial before you can look after others! A lesson I’ve learnt to be more important now as a Teacher. The emotional and cognitive load is immense. Well being is crucial to take on the responsibility of leading learning within and beyond the classroom.
If you win, do you have any particular plans for how you’ll use the honour and/or the funds?
Yes, to invest in initiatives to bridge research and practice in Education with a greater focus on recognising and developing teacher expertise.
How was your trip to the conference in Norway, any key idea or tip you’ve taken away that you’d like to share?
I just recently returned from the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement held this year in Stavanger, Norway. This was made possible by the Teaching Fellowship I won in 2018 awarded by the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards in conjunction with not-for-profit Schools Plus.
This congress was a highly participatory learning experience with symposiums, keynotes, paper presentations and workshops. I had the opportunity to contribute some of my experiences. I have come back with some invitations to follow up with researchers and other connections.
From this 5-day experience, my largest takeaway is that Australia has world-class Education happening in our schools from capabilities, curriculum, student agency and more. As a society, we need to do more to share and celebrate this!