The US $1 million Global Teacher Prize, now in its fifth year, acknowledges one exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the teaching profession. It also seeks to shine a spotlight on the important role teachers play in society. In 2019, there are two Australian educators in the Top 50 shortlist and in today's article we catch up with one of the finalists, Rooty Hill High School teacher Yasodai Selvakumaran.
Yasodai Selvakumaran has achieved a lot in her nine years as an educator, including winning a number of awards in recognition of her work inside the classroom and beyond. But this year may be her most successful to date, after being recognised in the top 50 finalists for the $1 million Global Teacher Prize.
As one of two Australian finalists for the Varkey Foundation award, Selvakumaran was selected from over 10 000 nominations and applications from 179 countries around the world.
She says she sees the prize as an opportunity to represent teachers on a global stage and to work towards ensuring that the system is doing its best for students.
‘I see any recognition that I've received as a responsibility to do more and to use that voice that you're given to be able to represent on the matters that teachers want you to be able to represent,' Selvakumaran says. ‘So that's been something that I've taken really as a huge honour but also as a responsibility that I would like to be able to use that to represent teachers.'
Teaching at Rooty Hill High School
As a Humanities teacher at Rooty Hill High School, a comprehensive public school in Western Sydney, Selvakumaran works with students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
‘I love teaching the humanities because I think it's critical to understanding each other and the world that we live in. I love that it's about teaching students to empathise with perspectives other than their own and also be activists in the things that they are passionate about and what they would like to contribute to the world as well.'
Throughout her nine years at Rooty Hill, Selvakumaran has taught Ancient History, Society and Culture, Geography, Commerce, Aboriginal Studies and more. She was originally drawn to the profession by an inspiring History teacher when she was a student in regional New South Wales.
‘I was really inspired by my History teacher in particular and so I looked at different options of what I could do at university and I was drawn to the double degree at [The University of Sydney] where you could do Education and the Arts degree at the same time because it had different options.
‘And at that point, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go into a school setting but I knew I wanted to work with people and young people in particular because of the impact my own teachers had on me.'
Professional learning and leadership
Besides her work in the classroom, Selvakumaran also works with staff, co-leading a team looking at the concept of signature and subject-based pedagogy at Rooty Hill.
The project seeks to identify the dispositions that matter most when teaching in particular subject areas. It's linked to the wider school plan and its focus on capabilities.
‘Our role is within our team, to be working with the executive and with teachers to really drive professional learning around disciplinary expertise – what makes each subject unique?
‘…What we've found is a lot of teacher professional learning, when it's about subjects, is done at a professional association type level. And a lot of schoolwide professional learning is often done in terms of broader approaches, whether it's with literacy or capabilities. One of the challenges that teachers face sometimes is “where do I fit in everything?” And we've just sparked this professional conversation around really, what does it mean to be experts in our discipline?'
Selvakumaran says it's been really exciting to have professional conversations and to be contributing to something aligned to the school plan and wider vision.
Inspiring the next generation
While the Global Teacher Prize Top 50 is Selvakumaran's most high profile honour, she is no stranger to awards and accolades for her work in the classroom.
In 2014 she won the Australian Council of Educational Leadership Mary Armstrong Award for Outstanding Young Educational Leader, and a Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award in 2018, which saw her embark on a fellowship journey with 12 other educators. Through this fellowship, Selvakumaran was afforded the opportunity to travel to Singapore for a study tour. Upon her return, she was invited to visit the New South Wales Department of Education to share the things she'd learned. The award, which is presented in partnership with the Varkey Foundation and Schools Plus, was also won by Peter Gurrier-Jones, the other Australian educator who has made the top 50 shortlist in the Global Teacher Prize this year.
Closer to home, in 2018 Selvakumaran received the Learning for Leadership award at Rooty Hill High School. The award recognises the spirit of leading and working with colleagues and draws on ideas from the book written by her Principal Christine Cawsey with Dr Michelle Anderson.
‘It's recognised every year and so I got that award last February and even though I've received some other accolades, that's one that meant a lot to me because it's from the school community,' Selvakumaran says.
Selvakumaran has also been awarded two scholarships from the Department of Education; one for leadership development and one to do a Graduate Certificate of Teaching Asia.
Since finding out she made the Global Teacher Prize top 50 Selvakumaran says she's been enjoying the enthusiasm and support she's received from her community. As a Tamil-Sri Lankan-born Australian, Selvakumaran says she's received a huge amount of support from the Tamil community, as well as from her colleagues in education.
‘Within education, people are just really excited and I see that it's an opportunity to be able to represent all teachers and really, especially in Australian education, drive us towards what matters and how we can make sure that our system is doing the best for our students.'
Selvakumaran hopes her success can demonstrate to her school of 1200 students that they can achieve anything, despite their circumstances.
‘As a staff and as a community, we are always promoting the message that it doesn't matter where you come from, it's what you've come to achieve. …[we're a] a high equity school because we do have such a diverse range of needs and 30 per cent of our students do experience significant disadvantage in their lives and being able to work with that range of background is what makes it really rich as well,' she says.
Update: Yasodai Selvakumaran has been named in the top 10 finalists for the prize.
The overall winner will be announced in March at the award ceremony in Dubai. To view the top 50 nominees and read their bios visit the website.