Podcast special: Yasodai Selvakumaran on teaching Humanities

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Hello, and thank you for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I'm Rebecca Vukovic.

Imagine knowing you have a one in 10 chance of winning US $1 million. Well, that's the reality for Rooty Hill High School teacher Yasodai Selvakumaran. Yasodai has been an educator for the past nine years and has won a slew of awards throughout her career. But this year, she has found herself amongst the top 10 finalists for the 2019 Global Teacher Prize, an award that recognises one exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the teaching profession.

Yasodai is a Humanities teacher and a Leader in Professional Practice at her western Sydney school. She's passionate about her job and the students she works with. She joins me today to talk about her interest in social justice, how she connects with students from different backgrounds and how she uses her lessons to help students to understand the world around them and their place in it. We also discuss her approach to personalised learning plans and how to go about building confidence in students. To kick things off though, I ask Yasodai to give listeners an overview of Rooty High School and its context.

Yasodai Selvakumaran: So Rooty Hill High School is in Sydney's western suburbs and it has 50 per cent of students come from a non-English speaking background. And one of the greatest challenges that we have at this school is we have 80 per cent of students starting Year 7 below grade average. So that's something that as a staff, we work together to be able to respond to and provide the best opportunities for students to be able to make significant progress from the time they come to us at high school.

Rebecca Vukovic: And I know you were a migrant yourself – your family is originally from Sri Lanka and they moved to Australia when you were a baby. At Rooty Hill, you now work with many students who come from refugee and migrant backgrounds. So how does your own experience help you to understand and relate to the students you work with now?

YS: Well I think it's not just relating to the students if they're from refugee or migrant backgrounds, it's being able to I guess use my own experience to relate to all students and for me, as much as Sri Lanka and being from there is a part of that, equally and perhaps even stronger in many ways, I am Australian and growing up in two different regional and rural towns has shaped who I am as well. And then moving to the city. So I think when it comes to culture, it's not just in terms of like cultural background, often people think of country or race or religion, but I guess it's that idea of there's different sets of social norms and expectations and rituals and as a teacher, it's just being able to come in and being able to connect with all the students that are in front of you, in whatever way your own experience can help you do that.

RV: And you've said before that social justice has always been a big part of your teaching philosophy. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

YS: I think that especially being a History teacher and training as a historian as well at Sydney University, to me social justice has always been linked to human rights and I guess even going into education to be a teacher, it was that firm belief that I believe that education was one of the rights that everybody should have access to and we need to work continuously to make sure that when there are barriers – so students to even able to come to school at times or to be able to achieve, we need to be able to see what they are and be able to respond to that. And I guess that's where equity comes in and being able to recognise that not all students start off with the same opportunities and throughout high school as well, I guess it's a really difficult time for a lot of teenagers and being able to just come out with that empathy and understanding and I think that's where that strong link is, just being able to understand the situation and do what is necessary to be able to ensure that that student is happy and successful at school.

RV: And I've always thought as a Humanities teacher you're trying to help your students to understand themselves and the world around them. And so we've talked about this already, a lot of your students come from many different backgrounds and of course they all have their own range of unique experiences. Do you find having students share those personal experiences in the classroom helps them to understand the world and their place in it?

YS: Yeah absolutely. And I think sometimes, contrary to what some people think, sometimes there's students in classes that will say, ‘I don't have a culture' when they're comparing themselves to other students who might have come from overseas or their families are from migrant or refugee backgrounds. And I think the key is to actually be able to work with students and say, you know, ‘your values and where you come from and what you're aspiring to is just as valuable as anybody else's life experiences'. And how when they feel comfortable enough to even explore that, and as teenagers they're often learning to figure out who they are and their own identity and I think it's a real privilege to be able to work with young people during such a transitional time in their lives.

…I've found that when I have been able to model that in class in terms of what that would look like, that's where I mentioned before that I do draw upon my experiences, even being in a country town in New South Wales and moving to a regional centre and moving Sydney and having absolutely no idea how to even work out public transport. My kids just laugh at me because that's part of their normal world being in metropolitan Sydney and living right near a train station. So I guess, it's really a part of responding to all of our experiences and sometimes it can be a little bit hard for students to be able to talk about them and if they're not comfortable, like that's fine as well and finding other ways for them to be able to engage perhaps in smaller groups and even with somebody else in the class to help build rapport, not just with me as their teacher but to be able to build relationships with other peers in their classes as well.

RV: And I want to talk a little about your classroom practice now because I read that you give your students personalised learning plans and I'm really interested in hearing more about this. So how does it work and what does it look like in a humanities classroom to give students personalised learning plans?

YS: Sure, so I guess there's two different things when we're talking about personalised learning with students. As a whole school, Rooty Hill High School has been recognised for the program that we have in implementing personalised learning plans. So as a teacher, what that looks like for me is in terms of the work that other people have led at the school, especially the welfare team, that every student, twice a year, is interviewed about their goals, how they've gone in their subjects and reflecting. They have an opportunity to be able to set goals.

So that's separate to my work as a classroom teacher where what I advocate for in terms of assessment and the way that I give students choice in terms of their learning, really comes from being a History teacher and taking an inquiry approach where students are given opportunities to explore transnational history and case studies that link to their interests, compared to the ones that I might model as a class and we'll work together as well to be able to look at some big themes and the big concepts in history and offering choice.

RV: And so has this proved to be an effective approach for your students?

YS: Yes, it has. In terms of engagement and just really getting them to see links as well between History and other disciplines within the school. And taking an approach that really, I guess, asks them to be inquisitive and be imaginative and these are the two dispositions that Rooty Hill High School focuses on as part of a creativity wheel that we have developed working with Dr Bill Lucas. So they're two key components but that also includes being collaborative, being persistent, also being disciplined as well to be able to finish a product and share a product and all those sorts of things. And when students are engaged but they have a task that is also challenging and full of rigour, I think when we can offer choice and we can embed what student feedback we receive in terms of the way we teach, to be able to refine and make it better for them, and for the cohort it's just this continuous cycle and I think the more that we are able to offer students choice – the more they respond in terms of making learning fun but also meaningful.

RV: And Yasodai, I know throughout your career you've worked with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Could you tell me a little bit about that experience?

YS: Yes, I was the coordinator of Aboriginal education here at Rooty Hill from 2013 to 2015 and I was on the team soon after I arrived here as well. And in that time I worked with the school to establish our first partnership with the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) and I also coordinated a program that was already existing in the school called the AFL Indigenous Academy and so they were sort of two key extracurricular programs that helped not only our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, but they also came in to support us at the school's NAIDOC celebrations and Harmony Day and were always a sense of support that we could go to.

Working with also, of course, our local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group who were the first – it's the first group that we make sure we go to in terms of advice and community consultation. So a part of that was I guess establishing AIME in the school and that's since transitioned to other coordinators and that really enabled me to get to know the community. I was also teaching Aboriginal Studies in New South Wales which is a HSC course and so it just helps with teaching that as a teacher as well and being able to promote reconciliation in the school through a number of other initiatives as well.

RV: And it's clear to me that you have a range of different experiences and so I was wondering then as an educator, where do you turn to for support? Do you have a specific mentor or are you part of a network?

YS: Yes, I've got various mentors in various roles and … when you're a teacher you have an opportunity to work in different roles and part of that is developing capacity when you move onto the other roles like I have now. Aboriginal Education is led by other people in the school and being able to know when you've taken on a new role, you know who it is you need to go for. So I have some fantastic mentors in my supervisors including my Head Teachers and of course, my Principal and Deputy Principals. But I also do have some other I guess networks including people who I've met through the TeachMeet New South Wales network who I've been going to or met since my first year of teaching. I'm also on the executive of the Australian Curriculum Studies Association and through that association, that alliance I guess now, I have mentors that are also academics working in education and teachers in other schools as we work to really advocate for curriculum issues at a national level and to design professional learning around that too. So I guess there's quite a number of different networks that have come through.

Renaissance Women's Leadership Network is another one that I've been a part of since it started and I get to those events when I can. And I think there is absolutely brilliant power in networks and sometimes … you can't go to everything, but there are people that you meet that you can rely on. And I actually wouldn't have gotten even through my degree if it wasn't for the network that I met at Sydney University when I was studying the double degree to become a teacher. That's still a strong network and an awesome sense of professional support, as well as friendship.

RV: Fantastic. And I guess finally then, it seems clear to me that a lot of your work as an educator is about building students' confidence in themselves and breaking down barriers at the same time. Is that your experience?

YS: Yeah so I think in any classroom, you know, if you don't actually engage students and make them feel comfortable, then the learning is not going to happen. So I think part of that is just responding to how students are in your classroom and there might be something else going on or something's happened at home, and being able to adapt. And actually just show that you care about them as a person and sometimes that can mean that you don't actually talk to them about what they're learning about in a class and it's really just about actually making sure that they're okay in the first instance and referring them to other support where appropriate. And I think that's where the role of teachers, when people talk about that emotional load, can be quite tough. But it's also what ultimately helps make those connections that enable us to make the impact on students that we do.

That's all for this episode. To keep listening or to download any of the podcasts in our archive, just visit acer.ac/teacheritunes or soundcloud.com/teacher-acer. The full transcript of this podcast is available at teachermagazine.com.au. That's where you'll also find links to subscribe to our podcast channels, or to our email bulletin, so you never miss a story.

You've been listening to a podcast supported by the new Australian Student Wellbeing Framework. This national framework captures the holistic nature of what contributes to students feeling safe, connected, supported and engaged in their learning. Visit www.studentwellbeinghub.edu.au to discover the Framework, resources and more.

The overall winner of the 2019 Global Teacher Prize will be announced at the Global Skills Forum in Dubai on Sunday 25 March, 2019. Visit globalteacherprize.org/ for more information.

Yasodai Selvakumaran discusses the importance of mentors and professional networks. As an educator, who do you turn to for support? Do you have a formal mentorship in place to assist you in your work?

In what ways do you use your own personal experiences or background to relate to students and build relationships?