National recognition for fabulous five

NSW public school teachers are in the spotlight at the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards

Image: Driving force: Ian Preston has helped lift interest and participation in STEM across the Murrumbidgee.

FIVE NSW public education teachers have been recognised in a prestigious national teaching award for their commitment to students and mentoring colleagues.

At today’s Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards, Murrumbidgee Regional High School deputy principal Ian Preston and John Purchase Public School assistant principal Stephanie Salazar were named Teaching Fellows.

The fellowships – two of 10 awarded nationally - are valued at $45,000, including $10,000 for their professional development, a group study tour and $25,000 for their school to develop a strategic project.

Three NSW public school educators were also named in the inaugural Early Career Teachers category, which is open to teachers who have been in the profession for less than five years and have made a significant contribution to improved student outcomes.

The three teachers were:

  • Kathleen O’Rourke, Cootamundra Public School
  • Holly Millican, South Grafton High School
  • Stella Ding, The Ponds High School

NSW Department of Education Secretary Georgina Harrisson congratulated the recipients on their awards.

Ms Harrison said the awards highlighted some of the outstanding teaching and leadership in NSW public schools.

She acknowledged in particular the work of 2022 Teaching Fellows Ian Preston from Murrumbidgee Regional High School and Stephanie Salazar from John Purchase Public School.

“It is wonderful to see that breadth of quality teaching highlighted by these awards – from Murrumbidgee in the south to Grafton in the north and our metro schools in between – these award winners show the impact innovative educators have not just on student outcomes, but also in inspiring their peers,” Ms Harrisson said.

She said it was also fantastic to see early career teachers included in the awards for the first time.

“Giving early career teachers a higher profile and celebrating the passion they have for the profession helps position teaching as a rewarding career.”

STEM champion

Mr Preston said he started working at Griffith High School in 2000 and went through the merger with Wade High School in 2019 to see the school become Murrumbidgee Regional High School.

“I am very honoured and humbled to receive this fellowship and look forward to continuing to educate kids in regional, rural and remote communities in the STEM field,” he said.

Mr Preston has championed STEM education and established himself as a leading teacher in this field.

Mr Preston started the Murrumbidgee Academy of STEM Excellence, linking the high school with 19 partner primary schools in a collaborative venture to enhance STEM learning opportunities.

Some of his achievements include a 320 per cent increase in students studying physics at his school and similar increases in engagement in mathematics, software design and engineering subjects.

Mr Preston has a background as an industrial arts teacher and has a passion for getting more girls and Aboriginal students into STEM education.

“In 2021 I started the NSW Virtual STEM Academy to deliver lessons out to the best and brightest kids in regional rural and remote communities, this was to about four schools,” he said.

“This year we have an intake of about 350 kids across 13 schools and definitely looking to expand.”

In 2020, Mr Preston was instrumental in initiating the Australia New Zealand STEM Education Alliance, his next project is working to introduce and implement the Australian Virtual STEM Academy in 2022.

Image: Call me coach: Stephanie Salazar.

A masterclass in teaching

A change in career from accounting to education paid off for Ms Salazar whose work at John Purchase Public School has helped transform student learning and teaching.

Ms Salazar manages an instructional coaching program at the school and leads executive coaching.

In response to the COVID pandemic, Ms Salazar led a series of Parent Masterclasses to boost parent confidence in helping their children at home. The Cherrybrook school has more than 75 per cent of parents with a language background other than English.

More than 120 parents took part in the most recent Spelling Masterclass that received glowing feedback from those who participated.

John Purchase Public principal Leonie Black said Ms Salazar had made a real difference at the school through her collaborative approach.

“She has been a coach here and even though the program we started was for beginning teachers, it has been so effective other teachers have asked to be part of the program,” Ms Black said.

Ms Black said surveys in 2020 gave the school’s teaching strategies the highest rating since 2014.

Ms Salazar is also making her impact felt beyond the school gates as the founder of the New Teacher Tribe, an initiative to support early career teachers by connecting them with more experienced counterparts.

The project has already connected more than 900 teachers across Australia.

Image: Data driven: Kathleen O'Rourke.

A rural love affair

In just her third year of teaching, Ms O’Rourke has fallen in love with rural teaching at Cootamundra Public School with no plans to move back to Sydney where she originally comes from.

“I can’t see myself ever going back to the city to be honest, I just love rural teaching and I am incredibly lucky to work with such a generous and talented team,” she said.

The year 3/4 classroom teacher often noticed students struggled to follow instructions when learning new tasks, so she developed new data and research-informed teaching in her classroom.

This is where her love of being data informed began.

Ms O’Rourke implemented practices informed by cognitive load theory that incorporated direct instruction and noticed a marked improvement in student understanding and confidence in grappling with new material.

She established new methods using visual prompts aimed at reducing students’ cognitive load which has helped to reduce disruptive behaviour and increase engagement.

Ms O’Rourke is also using her data-driven approach to drive professional development at Cootamundra Public School.

The Early Career Teachers receive an award valued at $10,000, including $5,000 for their professional development and participation in a mentoring and professional learning program. 

Ms O’Rourke said she hasn’t decided what courses she will put that money towards but has plenty on her list.

“I am excited to learn more so I can do better, it is as simple as that,” Ms O’Rourke said.

Ms O’Rourke’s next goal is to complete a Master of Education with a focus on language and reading to gain new insights into literacy education.

Image: Adding up the successes: Holly Millican.

Olympian effort

A mathematics teacher and acting head teacher, Ms Millican founded the annual Mathematic Olympiad, which runs in five schools in the Coffs Harbour and Clarence Valley regions and has shared its digital resources with more than 30 schools across the State.

Student engagement and confidence have shown consistent improvement after the competition, which is now in its third year

Within her school, Ms Millican has also developed digital resources for all junior programs in her faculty as Acting Head Teacher; helped to transform professional development as a founding member of the school’s Lesson Improvement Team, and led the school’s Tech Help Team across the 2020-21 online learning period.

She is a founding member and current Chairperson of the Mathematics Association of NSW

Beginner Teacher group that provides development opportunities for over 200 early career teachers and has worked with Eddie Woo’s Mathematics Growth Team to develop modules for teachers across NSW.

South Grafton High School principal Greg Wilson said Ms Millican had made an enormous difference in the lives of current and former students with her teaching.

“Enthusing all students in mathematics matters because maths is the basis of many trades and areas of employment,” the Mr Wilson said.

“Developing an interest or even a love of maths is important not just for their HSC but future careers.”

Image: Game for new approaches: Stella Ding.

The bee’s knees

In just four years of teaching at The Ponds High School, Ms Ding has designed new and innovative STEM opportunities for her students and made impressive contributions to student wellbeing.

She founded an after-school STEM Club, which now attracts more than 50 students each week – the latest project saw the club launching native beehives to help educate

the entire school about the important role of bees in our ecology.

During lockdown, Ms Ding built several innovative online courses to maintain student engagement.

For her Year 9 class, she developed a gamified unit of work called Project Medical School, where students role-played as medical students and then applied their newfound skills to solve mock scenarios in online clinics.

Her work is having an increasing impact – she has delivered workshops on gamified learning and this year she founded the Science Faculty Skills Team to improve the consistency of STEM teaching across all year levels.

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