Last year was a big one for Rooty Hill High’s Yasodai Selvakumaran, as a finalist in the Global Teacher Prize, the History and Humanities teacher was thrown into the spotlight and the opportunities and accolades that flowed from that made for a lot of changes in her professional life.
Her path to the Global Teacher Prize, which carries a million dollar award for the winner, was the end result of involvement in the Commonwealth Bank and Schools Plus Teaching awards. While she didn’t win, the global interchange that followed gave Selvakumaran insight as to how high functioning school systems did things and access to an international community of educators.
Recognition of her teaching ability made her a natural to take on mentorship roles at Rooty Hill High, that has evolved her teaching and lent weight to her opinions on curriculum which were voiced during her three years on the executive of The Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA) from October 2017 to October 2020.
She says, “My teaching has evolved over the decade to develop expertise, access more subjects and to really consider and embed the role of general capabilities from the Australian Curriculum. I graduated as an English and History teacher but have taught more broadly across the Humanities faculty. This has included Geography, Commerce and HSC Aboriginal Studies and Society and Culture.
“In 2015, I was successful in a scholarship with the Department of Education to complete a Graduate Certificate in Teaching Asia and this furthered my expertise as a Society and Culture Teacher. Working as a mentor has been my largest influence as each person and team I’ve worked with bring new ideas and prompted me to reflect deeply on my practice. I work in teacher professional learning and in leading beginning teachers and sharing the journey has been enriching for me as I continue to learn from those I work with.
“Using technology in the classroom has also been a huge influence and of course, this year has prompted a lot of change. It has made me think of how teachers are continually upskilling themselves and this is part of the joy of being a teacher.
Underpinning her success in enlivening Humanities for her students is Selvakumaran’s focus on the idea of teaching students about their backgrounds.
“I believe creating opportunities to teach students about their backgrounds will always be relevant. Empathy is crucial and this one of the dispositions I strive to embed in students in my work as a Humanities teacher. I believe that it is learning about ourselves and each other that leads to self-awareness, tolerance and acceptance.
“There are so many untold stories in Australian history and global history. In particular, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories is a part of the curriculum that is mandatory in the Year 10 History syllabus in NSW, and as a cross curriculum priority area. There are however, so many diverse stories and case studies we are still learning about. Histories of human rights have so much uncover at the intersections of various layers of discrimination that help advocacy and awareness to the present day. Some of my most successful teaching has come from working with colleagues to offer choice in case studies and opportunities for students to complete historical inquiries,” she says.
“I’ve been fortunate to be part of Rooty Hill High School’s team in exploring Critical and Creative Thinking and capabilities. It’s been a pivotal part of my success in teaching as it’s become a core part of my teaching philosophy and I continue to see first-hand the difference it makes.
“We had the opportunity to work with Dr Bill Lucas from the University of Winchester and it my first time being a part of a school team working directly with an internationally renowned educator.”
Three years on the executive of (ACSA) have let her bring her perspective to the way Humanities and History are taught and how curriculum looks.
“It was an amazing opportunity to be part of a leadership team of an association that advocates broadly on issues of curriculum. I have been on teams that have designed extensive professional learning including ACSA’s webinar and conference programs that also recognise awards in curriculum leadership and contributed to advocacy as part of the executive.
“This year, we led a special ‘Curriculum in a Crisis’ series to share voices from experts and learnings in April and May as educators rapidly adapted to the pandemic. It was so inspiring to see educators, in a time of immense pressure, giving up time to share expertise. There were significant registrations from participants keen to better support their students, staff and communities and this too reflected the relentless commitment of educators with COVID-19. Curriculum leadership by educators is an essential part of the work teachers and education researchers do and ACSA unites experts and members to share learnings on this.”
International exposure has brought with it wide experience of the way teaching is done in other countries and exposure to Singapore’s top notch education system has informed her own practice.
“My first immersion into an international school system was as a Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards fellow in 2018 where a study tour to Singapore was included. This opened up my eyes to the focus Singapore has on developing teacher expertise, leadership pathways and system leadership.
“I was fortunate to be part of a group of fellows that year from the NSW Department of Education. We were invited to present our findings and reflections to our senior executive at head office. That was incredibly exciting and enriching for me to be invited into head office for the first time and share our learning. This helped me develop my professional development plan from the fellows grant to seek more international opportunities.
“At a similar time, I was working on my application for the Global Teacher Prize. I was not expecting at all to make it through as a finalist and the top 50 were announced in December 2018. This snowballed my international network as I was proud to join the Global Teacher Prize ambassadors that the top 50 join. The $1 million prize was first announced in 2015. There are now 300 in this network. In February 2019, I was honoured to be announced as a Top Ten finalist in the Global Teacher Prize and was invited to Dubai for the Global Teacher Prize ceremony.
“Here, we were also a part of the Global Education Skills Forum. As part of the top ten, we participated in a panel discussions, had a breakfast meeting with representatives from The World Bank and presented a masterclass each showcasing our work and why we had achieved our place there. I participated in the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement in Stavanger Norway in 2019 and was fortunate to make some great connections.”
Later in 2019 she connected with Dr Rachel Lofthouse from Leeds Beckett University in the UK when she came to Australia. Rooty Hill High School hosted her and shared practices from its Professional Practice Mentor team.
“I found myself co-presenting with Dr Rachel Lofthouse for a session at ICSEI in Marrakech, Morocco this year and on another panel. In October last year, I was invited by UNESCO-Asia Pacific to present on school based professional learning n Bangkok for a World Teacher’s Day forum. These are all opportunities I could not have imagined and am very thankful for.”
The publicity that has come with Selvakumaran’s success has generally been a positive, it isn’t an entirely new thing for Rooty Hill High as the school has had a lot of media exposure through its innovations in teaching a very diverse student body.
“The impact of the publicity on students, parents and community was something beyond what I could have imagined. Students and parents congratulated me saying how proud they were, especially with The Global Teacher Prize. This is not something as a teacher I was used to, as we are the ones saying that to our students! It was fantastic to be able to include students in many of the media engagements and see how excited they were to be a part of it.”
See Cultivating critical and creative thinking by Yasodai Selvakumaran in FutureEdge quarterly (https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/education-for-a-changing-world/future-edge/future-edge-issue-1).