Seeing is believing: What I learned from going back to school

June 8, 2017 10:07 am

Josh Farr is our Recruitment and Advocacy Manager for Victoria. Here he shares reflections from his recent school visits.

Coming from a background of Civil Engineering where I spent most of my professional life on construction sites, I’m always keen to visit classrooms and deepen my understanding of the contexts we work in. Earlier this year, I visited two Teach For Australia partner schools and saw the opportunities that the environments presented, as well as the challenges.

1. Teaching with compassion

After signing into the school office and donning the name badge, I sat in the back row of a home-room observing a Teach For Australia Alumna, Kate, in action. Kate was reminding students that payment for textbooks was required in the coming weeks, and $50 was required for purchase. Soon after, one student raised his hand. In front of his peers he showed bravery and vulnerability. He started to outline the inner workings of his family’s finances and how one parent had recently been unemployed so he could not afford the textbook. Kate quickly set the class onto other work, comforted the young man and, I learned later that day, explained to him how they could get around the issue so the school could help issue a copy.

2. A community of opportunity and tools for growth

Believing I didn’t graduate high school that long ago, I thought that the schools I was visiting would be quite similar to my own. I was the first year of graduating students to use electronic whiteboards, and iPads hadn’t been invented yet. When we went into our second class of the day, all students were sitting in front of laptops and completing their personalised science work. They each had an online portal where they were completing quizzes in the lesson and the teacher, a Teach For Australia Associate, was checking their answers in live time as they were being completed. Students were saying, “Watch me, watch me,” as they proudly answered the questions. I was surprised by the prevalence of technology but more so, I was really impressed to see how educators were embracing and utilising all the tools at their disposal to maximize students learning.

3. Active learning equals student engagement

After my first school visit – and meeting so many fantastic Associates and Alumni, as well as the wider school community – I was eager to visit another school, this time, with my team of Campus Brand Ambassadors. On a foggy Monday morning, we rose early and went to a school in Geelong and sat in on a class for a lesson on the polarization of water molecules. All with science backgrounds ourselves, this was not just a chance for us to observe, but also to assist and be teaching assistants – if only for 45 minutes. iPads were handed out around the class. After examining the students’ prior knowledge, our fearless leader (in pursuit of scientific excellence) played a video from NASA on the big screen and then started a Kahoot! quiz before teaming students up to do the supporting experiment. I was blown away by the level of preparation, the multiple checks for understanding, the narrative of the lesson and the overarching classroom control that a Teach For Australia Associate had over a young class – Joint 7/8 Science. I left feeling justifiably impressed, but also wondering, “Were my Year 7 science classes that creative and informative?”

4. Every skill you have can make an impact in the classroom

While I was excited, and expected, to see Science classes, one of the subjects I didn’t expect to sit in on was Studio Arts – Digital Photography taught by a second year Teach For Australia Associate, Bart. I got talking to him after the class and asked how he’d ended up in the western suburbs of Melbourne teaching photography. Bart told me that his undergraduate was in Visual Arts (honours) focussing on photography, but he’d also completed a post-graduate degree in Law. After applying and being accepted into the Teach For Australia Leadership Development Program as an Arts teacher, he noticed that his students were all walking around snapping photos on their iPhones. He thought, ‘What if I could offer photography as a specialist subject?”

With the principal’s permission, and some hard work on his own time, Bart put together the lesson plans to teach the syllabus and introduce a new subject, a new option, a new reason for kids to stay in school and learn more about something they use every day and already love. If that wasn’t enough, Bart’s love of the law hasn’t left his sight either. He’s staying on for at least a third year in his placement school and has negotiated opening a second Legal Studies stream to be run so he can teach another subject that’s dear to him. More than a one trick pony!

5. It’s up, up, up for our Alumni

To this point, I’d be blown away. I had seen Associates and Alumni tackle emotional and behavioral issues from lesson one; I’d seen technology and active learning tools on an unprecedented level to what I had ever experienced in my education; and seen Bart spawning new subjects for students to engage with. But, what happens next? In an environment with diverse challenges, it was incredible to see how our Alumni had developed so quickly in their careers after a few more years in the classroom. Kate, who warmly welcomed us into her first class of the day, clearly had a passion for student wellbeing. While rapidly developing within the program to become Assistant Head of English and then the Year 9 Coordinator while in her first two years of the program, she has been re-employed by her placement school and is now the Lead Teacher of Student Progress, realising an even greater impact. There’s nothing holding her back!

If making an impact in a school, rich with opportunities but also challenges, sounds like the call you’ve been waiting to receive, then reach out to me and I’d be happy to tell you more about the Leadership Development Program. I’d love to speak with you, and thanks for reading.

Please reach out at any time via email at josh.farr@teachforaustralia.org.