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From migrant to mentor: a journey in learning

Yasodai Selvakumaran has hit the world stage with her focus on innovative teaching informed by evidence.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

Yasodai Selvakumaran ... “Education is about changing lives beyond what we see in the classroom”.

For humanities teacher Yasodai Selvakumaran education is about more than teaching – it is about inspiring students to find their voice in the world.

This passion has its roots in her upbringing as the daughter of Tamil migrants, who moved to regional NSW when she was 10 months old.

Her teaching practice has been honed at Rooty Hill High School – where she completed her final student teacher practice before joining the school’s staff in the last term of 2010.

Ms Selvakumaran explained to the department’s Secretary, Mark Scott, in the new Every Student Podcast how leadership came early to her, due to the encouragement of her principal, Christine Cawsey.

“I think what makes Chris unique is that when people start there as a new teacher there is a sense that you can contribute as a leader from the very moment that you walk in,” she said.

“In that first year we are mentored really closely and then, from the second year onwards, every teacher is encouraged to take on a leadership role in a cross-faculty team or an extracurricular role ... there is this idea that it is expertise, not experience.”

At a school where more than half the students come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Ms Selvakumaran said inclusive teaching was vital.

“As a school community we are constantly telling our students it’s not where they come from, it’s where they are going to go. When something is too hard it is our job to see where those barriers are and how we can break them down,” she said.

In a career of just eight years, she has directly influenced more than 200 teachers through her mentorship of practicum, early career and new teachers.

She won the 2014 Australian Council of Educational Leadership Mary Armstrong Award for Outstanding Young Educational Leader, and a Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award in 2018. This year she was named in the top 10 in the Global Teacher Prize.

Ms Selvakumaran’s current innovative focus is expanding what students and staff understand by the term “creativity”.

“Students associate creativity with something to do with the creative arts and they think if they aren’t good at those then they aren’t creative,” she said.

“But creative traits are also about tolerating uncertainty and about having adaptable thinking.”

Ms Selvakumaran and a colleague have developed this work on creativity in learning into the school’s Creative Inquiry Cycle, with the project trialled across 500 students studying history and geography.

“The Creative Inquiry Cycle helps teachers to design programs which allow students to develop their creative and critical thinking,” she said.

She cites a Year 10 project to design a ‘super park’ that catered to the needs of the local community. Survey data revealed that students’ perception of their own creativity grew by more than 40 per cent by the end of the unit.

“In particular, students recognised that they had developed the dispositions of persistence and inquisitiveness – being able to challenge assumptions, being able to wonder and question,” she said.

Ms Selvakumaran is also leading a team looking at subject-based learning, which is the idea of educating students for a profession and working backwards from that.

"So one example is in the Music department. Typically in music your assessment or project would be to perform music.  Now they are working to create and perform music but then also do the work to make an album and market it,” she said.

Although Ms Selvakumaran has already made a huge impact as a teacher, she is determined to keep striving to excel.

“I absolutely love my job as a teacher ... education is about changing lives beyond what we see in the classroom; whole communities and ultimately the world can be transformed by the way we do things every day.”

Listen to the full podcast:

Read the transcript of Every Student Podcast: Yasodai Selvakumaran.

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