Eric Woodward recently completed his Master of Education focusing on progressive education from the University of Melbourne. As part of the Leadership Development Program, Eric taught at Gold Creek School in the ACT until 2017 when he returned to Melbourne to work part time at Parkville College. Eric is currently teaching at Lalor North Secondary School with a group of at-risk students and also devotes his time to founding an alternative school in Victoria with a team of people passionate about education called the “Global Village School.”
Tell us about your initiative.
“Global Village School” is the mission of myself and a team of teachers who believe we can create an educational model where a student’s background does not have a negative influence on their achievement. Our vision is to become a school that leads the way in creating a more humane and globally-focused educational system. We do that by using best practices in therapeutic and trauma-informed education, combined with best practice in progressive education such as interdisciplinary learning, inclusive access and looking at students’ progress based on competency rather than age.
What inspired you and the other committee members to drive this initiative?
For me, it began while I was studying my education degree. I was able to meet like-minded teachers, and a particularly inspiring lecturer confronted us with the reality of how inequitable Australian’s education system is. It was really eye-opening to see how the current education system perpetuates inequity. I remember really feeling disheartened initially – however, my group of university friends collectively came to the conclusion that it actually takes a village to raise a child. That’s where the name “Global Village School” comes from. From that point on, the idea lay dormant in my mind during my first few years as a teacher. Then, I made a decision whilst studying my Master’s degree that the time was right to turn the idea into action. I had some great discussions with a few mentors of mine and decided to hold a community forum to share my idea with the public. I experienced a positive response and the community forum was attended by teachers, principals, members of the community and many people whom I’d never met before but all of whom were interested in the vision and what we could achieve together.
During your first few years as a teacher, did you ever think that you would start your own school?
Well, it was something that was always in the back of my mind, and my frustration with the status quo combined with my growing optimism from visiting various progressive schools strengthened my resolve. I remember I would say to my colleagues, as a joke,“We should start our own school!” It wasn’t until I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who told me, “You’re not going to start a school, you’re just going to talk about it” – that was when I decided to go all in.
You decided to accept the challenge!
Pretty much! At first I kept finding reasons why I shouldn’t follow through on the idea: I haven’t been teaching long enough, I don’t have enough experience, I haven’t been a principal and many more excuses. Eventually I came to the realisation that if the idea is strong enough and the vision is clear enough other people will come on board. I don’t need to know everything there is to know but I can bring together a team that will have the skills and capabilities needed to make this work.
Do you think that the Australian education system is hesitant when it comes to being innovative with education?
One thing that I’ve realised since starting my studies is that there are so many schools that are doing innovative things. It’s easy to say that the government doesn’t support innovation or that the culture to be innovative doesn’t exist. Yet there are many progressive public and private schools that are doing really interesting things already. The federal and state government may not have the political will to take educational risks themselves, but I don’t think their goal is to hinder innovation. I actually think that we can no longer blame the system, we need to think creatively at a school systems level while consolidating our teaching practices in a logical way, and showing the evidence behind decisions.I’ve had some inspiring conversations with principals of progressive schools and I’ve come away feeling incredibly encouraged, knowing that the support network does exist and that people will get behind you.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced?
Two of the biggest hurdles I am finding are securing a location for the school and obtaining funding. It hasn’t been easy to find a good balance between a “school” space and a location where the students can also feel integrated into the community. I’m going into unchartered waters but at the same time there is something really exciting about it. And I’ve learned that if one person isn’t prepared to work with you, look for someone that will.
What’s the urgency in driving the project forward now?
Why not spend a few more years teaching at a progressive school and build your experience? That’s a question that I ask myself too. It does seem like I’ve taken on a pretty big challenge but I hope that I have the humility to listen to those around me and heed their advice. I’ve received positive feedback from people with far more experience than me and if there’s anything I’ve learnt from them it’s this: there’s never going to be a “right” time. I am working with an amazing team and we are making every effort to make sure the whole community is involved. We are consulting with young people for whom the school is designed as well as getting input from teachers who may be teaching at the school in future and finally, making an effort to involve the wider community. Who better to start a school than the teachers, students and community who will populate it?
This story was originally published in Stories From Our Community (Winter 2018). View the entire magazine online here.