Over the past year, teachers have been our inspiration. Our 2021 Teaching Fellows have gone above and beyond.
Schools Plus is pleased to announce the 12 outstanding teachers and school leaders named as this year’s Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award recipients. These inspiring educators are transforming education, particularly in some of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities.
From collaborating with scientists on the Great Barrier Reef, to combining curriculum with Indigenous knowledge systems, to setting up an after-school STEM centre in the Pilbara– these individuals have gone above and beyond to shape a brighter future for their students and community.
The 2021 recipients join 48 Fellows from our four previous cohorts, in our unique Fellowship program, designed to foster a national community of education change-makers who will inspire and influence practice in classrooms across the country.
A full recording of the Awards is available to watch here.
Meet the 2021 Teaching Fellows
- Alex Wharton
- Anna Ritzema
- Donna Harvey
- Daniel Yore
- Hayley Dureau
- Jennifer Parrett
- Jessica Chesterfield
- Lloyd Godson
- Paul Taylor
- Rebecca Godfrey
- Rebecca West
- Wendy Bode
Carinya Christian School Gunnedah, NSW
To Kill A Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies awoke a lifelong passion for literature in the teenaged Alex Wharton. Now he is applying his own love of books to collaboratively develop reading programs for student in Years 7, 8 and 9, when earlier reading habits are often abandoned.
At the low-fee independent Carinya Christian School Gunnedah, in north-western NSW, Alex has been responsible as Head of Middle School for the former primary school’s first Year 7 and 8 cohorts.
Observing that literacy results dipped after Year 6, he developed a Middle School Teaching and Learning Framework. An approach that supports students in their Year 7 transition with individually tailored programs to deeply engage and help them find their own literary groove.
“We want to shift the mindset of reading – going beyond purely an academic task to one that overflows with excitement, energy, joy,” he said.
All Year 5 to 9 students at Carinya now read 12 texts a year, selected with their teachers according to interest and difficulty, and the reading bug seems to be taking hold: there has been a 35 per cent increase in borrowing from the school library and a 40 per cent increase in male students reading beyond their assigned texts.
Tambrey Primary School Karratha, WA
At a young age, Anna Ritzema was advised that her dream of being a doctor maybe wasn’t going to be a reality. At 17 she failed a biology test and her confidence plummeted.
Now, as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) specialist teacher at Tambrey Primary School in Karratha in the Pilbara region, Anna has transformed those setbacks into her strengths, encouraging her students to make their own observations and gain confidence in their scientific skills.
Tambrey is a Pioneer School in the WA Department of Education’s STEM Enterprise program, which focuses on helping students navigate robotics, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.
But Anna’s approach to STEM is much broader. Scientific concepts are taught through partnerships, highlighting the significance of science to her students’ everyday lives. Bushfire prevention, mining, robotic exploration and the building of traditional fish traps with Elders from the community.
Twice weekly, she runs a philanthropically funded after-school science program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with an aptitude for STEM concepts. She maintains close contact with their families, driving the children home and following up if they are absent. The trust she has built is paying dividends; attendance is close to 100%.
“How I evaluate success and what I look for has changed,” Anna said. “I place less emphasis on knowledge acquired quickly and more time to building knowledge on a strong framework of experience and practice.”
Beenleigh State High School, QLD
A rigorous approach to reading, in which students at all levels receive explicit instruction to extend their comprehension, is anchoring a revolution in achievement at Beenleigh State High School in Brisbane.
Deputy principal Dr Donna Harvey’s “sharp, narrow focus” on reading saw Beenleigh named the 7th most improved school in Australia across all NAPLAN domains in 2019, as better literacy pays dividends in numeracy and other curriculum domains. And the 12% of students who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander have performed as well or better than others since the new reading regime began.
But the transformation is not limited to academic subjects. Addressing the needs of the three-quarters of Beenleigh’s 1350 students who go straight into the workforce after school, Donna has developed a “micro-credentialling” system to recognise initiative, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and self-management, and other skills and orientations highly valued by employers. She also instituted secure “digital badges”, through which students can demonstrate they have achieved a skill, and these are gaining recognition among training agencies and local businesses.
Thanks to the changes, more students are signing up for full-time school-based apprenticeships or enrolling in one or more vocational certificate modules while finishing school.
Yirrkala School, NT
Daniel Yore trained as a doctor before transitioning to teaching in order to address social injustice more directly.
At Yirrkala School, a bilingual school in North East Arnhem Land, senior secondary teacher Daniel is now demonstrating – spectacularly – how education can change life trajectories.
Twenty Yirrkala students are on track to graduate Year 12 across 2020 – 2021– more than the annual average for all remote schools in the Northern Territory combined – thanks to a “both ways” curriculum, integrating mainstream subjects with traditional knowledge, language and cultural practices of the Yolngu people.
The key, Daniel said, is respect. He has worked since 2017 with local Elders and community organisations to develop the program, which supports English learning for students whose first language is Yolngu, develops mathematical awareness through studying the natural environment, and extends conceptual skills by relating western thinking to local kinship systems and spatial aspects of Country.
The process has shown, “that the school and the senior secondary program deeply value Yolngu knowledge systems by clearly incorporating complex traditional educational processes as a central core to the successful completion of Year 12 studies.”
Four of the graduating students are applying to university – including one to study medicine.
Mount Waverley Secondary College, VIC
Under the guidance of Leading Teacher Hayley Dureau, Mount Waverley Secondary College is consulting with its student body about everything from homework to the physical environment.
And the Student Voice philosophy is not just a token nod to the 1800 students; it often results in action. During pandemic-related remote learning in 2020, students asked for – and got – a greater focus on student wellbeing while they were isolated from friends and more live online lessons rather than work modules for individual completion.
Hayley, a mathematics teacher, initiated the Mount Matters student-led forums in 2016. Presenting each term to the principal and staff, it has grown into an inclusive program fully integrated with school life, and a vehicle for change for the school’s diverse community – more than half of students come from language backgrounds other than English – to have agency in things they care about.
Hayley Dureau said the students encourage the participation of quieter peers and make space for different views. “It has a huge impact on staff and student morale,” she said. “Young people develop confidence, empathy, teamwork skills, public speaking skills, critical and creative thinking skills, and they see how powerful their voice is when they share it in a constructive way.”
James Fallon High School Albury, NSW
James Fallon High School is a microcosm of Australia’s migration history. Alongside a growing number of First Nations students in rural Albury in southern NSW are the children of successive waves of migration from Europe and central, south-east and south Asia. Increasingly, they are being joined by new arrivals from conflict-ridden regions in Africa and the Middle East, often via years in a refugee camp.
The demographic shift, said principal Jennifer Parrett, “has challenged the school community, and I have responded by initiating changes to support student wellbeing and engagement first and foremost, with standardised measures to follow.”
Her unapologetic emphasis on mental health includes putting all 60 teachers through training in trauma-informed practice, to help them understand how traumatic experiences can lead to behavioural issues, and to learn strategies to support students without escalating their distress.
Jennifer is now commissioning a Wellbeing Hub, with low-key meeting rooms and time-out spaces where students can decompress without getting a suspension.
Her motivation is straightforward: “I have made a lifelong career of improving the learning and life outcomes of rural students, especially those who need more support than others, and I am committed to creating equity for our young people.”
Hymba Yumba Independent School, QLD
It was July 2020 and students at the Hymba Yumba Independent School were returning to class after weeks of pandemic-related home learning. Stress levels were running high. Students were disengaged and conflicts were breaking out.
Visual arts teacher Jessica Chesterfield’s response was to hit the accelerator on her Rainbow Serpent mural project. The whole family of Hymba Yumba including students, teachers, Indigenous Education Workers, administration and operations staff, Elders, founder and patron Uncle Albert Holt and members of the community were asked to make a personal contribution to a vast depiction of the creation story. Positive results followed quickly – and not only in the completion of the striking artwork.
Jessica said she was “awestruck” by the willingness of older students to mentor younger ones, and by improved attendance and resolution of interpersonal issues.
At the 200-student Prep to Year 12 school in Springfield, south east Queensland, where 85% of students are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, the project tapped into the cultural purpose of art – shared with Mrs Chesterfield by supportive parents, First Nations artists and local Elders’ – as “a collaborative endeavour in which stories, knowledge, and skills were offered and respected from a variety of sources.”
Now she is working with colleagues to embed art practice and the shared learning approach across the curriculum. Local Elders and Indigenous artists have joined the Many People One Art program, which is extending to other schools and public commissions.
Hastings Secondary College, Westport Campus, Port Macquarie, NSW
Being a teacher was not in Lloyd Godson’s life plan, but he could not be happier about the mid-life career change.
His old business cards described him as an adventurer. Working with the likes of the Australian Geographic Society, and Dr Bob Ballard, who located the Titanic, he combined cutting-edge exploration science with intense physical challenges.
Now he teaches Science, STEM and Marine Studies at Hastings Secondary College in Port Macquarie, NSW, inspired by the teachers he met in his former life. “I saw the way these educators worked with young people and the amazing things their students were able to achieve when given the opportunity and mentoring,” he said.
Lloyd is passionate about getting students out of the classroom and into the community and the world. Calling on his professional networks, Lloyd runs scientific excursions to the Great Barrier Reef and guides student underwater robotics teams to win international competitions. He knocks on doors in the local business community to fund these programs, determined that no student will miss out. He has also established a social business enterprise with his students – an on-site recycling project ‘Precious Plastics’, where plastic waste is converted into usable products that his students design and sell.
With a focus on real-world learning underpinned by 21st-century skills and student-centred practice, Lloyd is attracting more students to his classes and an increasing number of his students are pursuing higher learning and careers in science and environmental fields.
“Teaching has definitely been a meaningful and fulfilling career change for me,” Lloyd says.
Banora Point Public School, NSW
Paul Taylor thinks Australian teachers should have access to the most successful education theories and practices, wherever in the world those ideas come from. He has made it his mission to bring international educational leaders to NSW, to meet local teachers face to face in a long-running series of conferences intended to inspire positive changes in teaching techniques, aligned to student needs and demographics.
The wildly popular iOnTheFuture events, which include practical masterclasses, allow Australian educators to learn directly from pioneers and experts and explore how they might deploy or modify the techniques in their own classrooms.
Paul is motivated by a “deep personal commitment to drive my own professional learning,” and to inspire others to expand their teaching toolkit.
The effectiveness of these evidence-based approaches has been demonstrated by the staff Paul is fortunate to work alongside at Banora Point Public School on the NSW North Coast. Here, there has been a whole-of-school application of Student Engaged Assessment – in which students monitor their own progress towards academic and personal goals – and Project-Based Learning, which immerses students in complex challenges.
Progress in the school’s reading performance has steamed ahead in recent years – moving the large primary school from well below the state average reading growth to significantly exceeding it.
Blackwater State High School, QLD
Special relativity and quantum mechanics were not cutting through with students studying physics for electrical and other trade apprenticeships. So Rebecca Godfrey developed her own course, more relevant to the needs and experiences of her students in the mining communities of Central Queensland, and advocated until it was recognised by the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
Working directly with the mining industry, Rebecca, now the principal of Blackwater State High School, developed an approach to physics, chemistry and maths that addressed core scientific concepts while applying them to the electrical and other trades. Students engage much better with the QSMART (QMEA Science and Maths and Related Technologies), with high pass rates and acceptance into apprenticeships.
The course, now nearly a decade old, is deeply integrated in several central Queensland schools and at a Trade Training Centre in North Queensland and provides a pipeline of employment opportunities into local industries.
Rebecca says teachers have a responsibility to advocate for students’ needs. “I passionately believe that teachers have a huge influence over students and can make all the difference for them. Being in a rural school, much of my work is in supporting beginning teachers to become good teachers, and good teachers to become the leaders of tomorrow.”
Bonnyrigg Public School, NSW
Rebecca West was just getting serious runs on the board in improving the academic performance of Bonnyrigg Public School when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
Concerned that the new gains could be lost during the period of remote learning, and armed with her individual knowledge of each of the school’s 300 students, the Deputy Principal: Instructional Leader swung into action with modified programs for the most vulnerable, and extra resources and guidance for their families.
Then she quickly created a series of handwriting videos to add to her popular Clever Pickles YouTube primary education series, some of which have more than 100,000 views. “I maintain a commitment not to let any student fall through the cracks,” Rebecca said, describing how she integrates her creative approach with rigorous teaching and assessment.
It turned out the students’ progress was more resilient than Rebecca had feared. Their performance was maintained after they returned to the western Sydney school, one of the most diverse in NSW with 80% of students from a language background other than English, while almost all the others are Aboriginal.
Bonnyrigg easily met regional achievement targets in numeracy and literacy by the end of 2020, and its improvement has boosted its local reputation, with a 20% increase in enrolment.
Thuringowa State High School, QLD
The North Queensland economy is being transformed by investments in the defence, resources and manufacturing sectors, but Wendy Bode could see her disadvantaged students were at risk of being excluded from jobs in these technology-heavy industries.
Her response: to engage employers from mining, minerals, energy and construction sectors in a collaborative science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning project for students in Years 5 to 9, focused on emerging technologies, problem-solving and critical and creative thinking.
The Deputy Principal of Thuringowa State High School in Townsville has extended the Global Tropics Future projects from its beginnings in 2017 to reach more than 558 students from 42 of the region’s public schools in 2020, via online networks and remote learning. At the same time, she has introduced industry-led study modules on microplastics and recycling, biotechnology in healthcare, and engineering for construction in the tropics.
Wendy’s approach to future challenges for her students is disrupting traditional teaching to build students’ enthusiasm for STEM and develop skills for participation in what she terms a regional “innovation ecosystem”.
The program – one of three regional STEM projects delivered under the Queensland Virtual STEM Academy – was engaging “students who are disadvantaged by distance, socioeconomic background, Indigenous culture and gender, giving these students opportunities they would not have previously received.”
Schools Plus CEO Rosemary Conn said: “2020 was a year like no other for teachers, but a reaffirming one for the Awards program. The events of the last year have brought a new level of public respect for the profession and reasserted the importance of the Awards to recognise and reward teachers who go above and beyond for their students.
I look forward to seeing how this year’s Fellows will continue to inspire and influence other educators to close the education gap caused by disadvantage and ensure every student across Australia has access to a great education.”
To find out more, visit teachingawards.com.au