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Every Student Podcast: Yasodai Selvakumaran

Meet one of NSW’s most exciting young educators, a high school teacher at Rooty Hill in Sydney’s west, and one of the world’s top 10 teachers for 2019.

Transcript

Mark Scott

Hi, I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today I am in conversation with Yasodai Selvakumaran, one of our most exciting young educators. She is a humanities teacher at Rooty Hill High School in western Sydney and has been named as one of the world’s top 10 teachers in the Global Teacher Prize. Yasodai joined me as she was preparing to head to the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai where the winner would be announced. We are going to talk about being recognised as the top 10 teacher in the world and talk about that process Yaso but before we do that tell me how you got into teaching.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

I got into teaching towards the end of my high school career when I was tossing up various professions of what I thought I might go into. I was interested in everything from law to history to economics and Asian studies and I really wanted to pursue teaching when I realised that the impact that my high school teachers had on me especially in the upper years of high school was really significant in building my confidence and my character and pushing me further than I thought I could go. I went to an open day with my mum halfway through, came to Sydney Uni and really was drawn to the double degree at Sydney University to do Arts and Education it is a five year combined program and when I got into that I was like “that is my degree, I am going there”.

Mark Scott

Was there a sense of parental expectation of things other than education? You had educators in the family?

Yasodai Selvakumaran

I did not from my parents, my parents were thrilled that I was going to go into teaching. My mother’s parents were teachers in Sri Lanka but they encouraged me to look at anything that I was interested in and because I had taken 3 units of English and 3 units of history at school and really had a focus on Humanities in my HSC it wasn’t any surprise to my parents that I told them that I was going to go into Humanities teaching.

Mark Scott

Tell us about the progress of your teaching career once you graduated from Sydney.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

I graduated from Sydney at the end of 2010 and I was offered initially a temporary one year contract at Rooty Hill High School replacing one of my mentor teachers that I had been on prac with and so that turned into another contract later down the year in terms of another year and eventually led to a permanent position so I have been at Rooty Hill High School since.

Mark Scott

If we go to Rooty High School it is one of our more famous high schools here in NSW just describe to us what Rooty Hill is like.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

Rooty Hill – I got the culture of Rooty Hill even when I walked in there as a prac student for four weeks in 2009 and I can see that there was really strong leadership, a focus on professional learning and a real sense of belonging and that we are all in this together to do the best for our students and so I did not hesitate when I got offered the temporary contract. I actually returned as an intern in 2010 and my head teacher at the time just pulled me aside and said “have you thought about whether or not you would want to do this position”, I was just stoked to be even asked and I didn’t look anywhere else I took that position when I graduated.

Mark Scott

Tell me about the principal there.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

The principal is Ms Christine Cawsey and she is a fantastic leader, mentor and innovator and I have had many opportunities to work really closely with her and with various leadership teams as well in the school. I think what makes Chris unique is that even from the start 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. We are very much in the first year we are mentored really 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 whatever that might be and there is this idea that it is expertise, not experience. The idea that it is not necessarily a teacher that has been teaching for so many years that is an expert but it is the idea that expertise can be developed with a strong focus on where that teacher wants to go and where their skills and their strengths are and if it wasn’t for me starting at that school I don’t think I would be where I am now.

Mark Scott

It is a pretty unusual career progression. I was startled to hear what year you finished university in because you have been teaching for less than a decade and in Chris Cawsey you have got one of our most experienced principals but she has clearly created an environment where it is a meritocracy in a way in that she is really encouraging people, notwithstanding in a sense their lack of experience, to take on big new challenges.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

Absolutely and Christine has talked about this in terms of some of the challenges even when I started at Rooty Hill High School is that there was a large amount of beginning teachers that was starting every year and as the leadership in the school they looked at how is it that we can prepare our teachers to develop expertise quickly because they would need it in leadership roles and needed to be that sense of achievement and confidence for teachers to be able to develop their expertise in the classroom and also then be able to contribute at whole school level as well.

Mark Scott

Tell me about the collaborative culture that exists amongst teachers at Rooty Hill.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

The collaborative culture is not just confined to a faculty context one of the structures that make it so successful is that in the time that I have been there that there has always been cross-faculty professional learning teams which means that every teacher has an opportunity to contribute to something broader and also link their personal goals to that as well. Last year we developed that Professional Learning Team idea even further and the school executive they renamed it Professional Learning and Leadership Teams so really it was about an opportunity not just to learn in a cross-faculty context but to lead and every single professional learning and leadership team since the start of last year has been linked to a component of our 2018 to 2020 school plan and I am co-leading one section of that on subject and signature-based pedagogies.

Mark Scott

Tell us a bit more about subject-based learning.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

Subject-based learning, I am not sure if that is the right term or in terms of how people might view it outside the school, but we are looking at basically how do we develop disciplinary expertise at an ongoing level for teachers in Year 10, 11 and 12 to ultimately improve student results. There is an idea that there are a lot of schools taking different approaches but we are really looking at how can we embed dispositions and looking at new ways of knowing, doing and being through a subject lens.

Mark Scott

To what extent does that mean that you are really focused and thinking through what the workforce requirements are going to be like or what students are going to be expected to do once they have left school and finished school?

Yasodai Selvakumaran

It is a bit of both, the original reading that we have looked at is the work of Professor Lee Shulman who writes about signature pedagogies in the professions and how there is particular ways of educating for the professions and also how knowledge is decided and agreed upon. The idea of what is it that counts as knowledge in a field will change over time. Shulman talks about how we need to educate equally for intellectual or knowledge components or ways of knowing, technical components or ways of doing and skills and moral components and ways of being and that idea that it is about ultimately thinking about what we want our students to be and at Rooty Hill we talk about want do we want to see in an educated nineteen year old and that links in with our work with Professor Bill Lucas and working backwards from that.

Mark Scott

As a big curriculum review taking place in NSW at the moment and there can also be a false dichotomy that can exist between knowledge-based subjects and the general capabilities as well. With the approach that you have got, you talk at Rooty Hill about dispositions.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

We do.

Mark Scott

Explain that to us and what does that mean.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

At Rooty Hill, we are actually talking about dispositions being what we want our students to ultimately be and we are using that language deliberately with Year 10, 11 and 12 and we are using the language of capabilities for Year 7, 8 and 9. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably and other people might call them soft skills or 21st century skills even though we are a fifth of the way through which I always find interesting that it is still popping up here and there but ultimately it is about trying to embed the things that we want students to be able to leave with that sometimes the challenge for teachers is how do they do both in terms of developing disciplinary expertise or the subject content and especially in the senior school sometimes teachers are really worried about educating for the high stakes HSC at the end but how is it that we can embed new forms of assessment and engage students in new ways to be able to push their thinking further and improve student results.

Mark Scott

One of the interesting things that I think about this curriculum debate and certainly with innovative school leaders, teachers and principals that I have spoken to is that there is a desire for curriculum reform and a belief that perhaps that we haven’t got the curriculum structured in the right way but at the same time they can find deep ways of innovating within the existing framework.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

Absolutely and that is the approach that we have been taking at Rooty Hill High School and even the working subject-based learning and dispositions it is built upon even the previous school plan where we had a strong focus on the capabilities and embedding a capabilities-driven curriculum. It is important to note that we didn’t start here we have built upon this work from previous years and a lot of professional learning initially around what even the capabilities were and what critical and creative thinking looked like and being able to take teachers with us as part of that too. Initially, when we started talking about creativity with teachers they did not think they were creative and it has been our work with Professor Bill Lucas that has really helped us provide a framework for that. Some people may be familiar with the Rooty Hill High School creativity wheel and that is drawn upon Bill Lucas’ work and it has been featured in one of his books with Ellen Spencer and it is looking at creativity through the lens of five domains including being inquisitive, being imaginative, being collaborative, persistent and disciplined and using that language to be able to then link it to ways that teachers can be creative by linking into visible thinking routines from Harvard, it is like a framework and a whole school learning platform that teachers can refer to and students as well are familiar with because it is actually hanging in every classroom.

Mark Scott

Does this mean when we say look at the HSC which still is pretty strongly knowledge based in some respects certainly around the examination elements of the HSC that you still find that you can have this approach that you have developed at the school without sacrificing students’ potential at the HSC? Your argument is that they still do better in that very traditional HSC framework having taken the approach that you are taking at the school?

Yasodai Selvakumaran

It is really about developing students’ thinking skills and the idea and research in other contexts as well that say if we can teach students how to think and respond that they will do better. We have measured our results in terms of Year 10 science and VALID with the focus on the capabilities and in terms of looking at HSC results as well in various faculties there has been some significant success in particular teams that have been trialling these approaches but it is important to note as well that Rooty Hill High School one of the challenges that we have is 80% of our students start below grade average in Year 7. That is why we look at Year 10 and looking at VALID that is considered to be able to assess more broadly in terms of dispositions and the progress that is made by students in that time that they are with us is really celebrated.

Mark Scott

When you think about what you are presented within Year 7 do you think about transition from 6 to 7 and at times think that we don’t take advantage of the opportunities we have in public education that we run the primary schools that they come from what kind of connections do you have back with the primary schools?

Yasodai Selvakumaran

We have a connected program with our primary schools and that includes students coming in for various lessons and demonstrations and students working like last week we had a visit with Year 6 students coming into the school but also we have a program called “Kindy comes to High School”. But I do definitely think there is more that we can do to bridge partnerships between feeder schools and high schools. Even though we have got that program going sometimes as high school teachers we don’t quite realise exactly what students have done in their primary setting and how to be able to build on from that.

Mark Scott

I think that is right. I sometimes think when a young student that is in Year 6 they are like king and queen of it all and they are in great leadership positions, they are running assemblies, they have great leadership thrust upon them and they relish that role and then I sometimes feel that we make them children again in Year 7 we put them right at the bottom of the pecking order and they have to take a long time to rise their way through the school and sometimes wonder if we underestimate what kids can do.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

With Year 7 we have an ambassador program so students will have to apply and have ambassador training and then they are used at various school events and even it is Year 7’s responsibility to be the office runners and that is something that they love but there are deliberate leadership opportunities that are created for Year 7 for them to feel like they are contributing as well as part of a large comprehensive high school.

Mark Scott

Go back to what we were talking about earlier about Chris Cawsey and the work that she has done at the school to really recognise young talent coming through, recognising that she has got a lot of young teachers. It is an atypical experience and this is a big bureaucracy and there would be many people who in their careers would be ten years in and they would just be beginning to think about the leadership opportunities you have had a lot of leadership put on you.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

I have, I wouldn’t say it has been put on me but it is a choice that I have taken in terms of things and it started off even in my first couple of years as being a staff representative on school council and taking on a role as aboriginal education coordinator in my third year, joining our mentor team in my third year. In my fourth year, I had an opportunity to relieve as relieving head teacher teaching and learning in a mentor position and that too was because I had those opportunities to be able to work with staff and lead at various levels. It is not just the beginning teachers or early career teachers there is a belief at Rooty Hill High School that all teachers and head teachers and the SASS staff as well have deep professional learning to be able to continually reflect and see where we can do better in teams and as individuals.

Mark Scott

Invariably you would think that you might find resistance particularly when you are trying to lead those who are that much more experienced than you, they have spent a lot more time in front of the class how do you deal with people who think that your young, idealistic but you are not seasoned with experience the way that they are because that is quite a common experience I would think in schools?

Yasodai Selvakumaran

It is actually not something that I have really experienced at Rooty Hill High School because of the culture that exists for people to lead and to take opportunities and the idea that it is expertise not necessarily experience which is embedded. It does depend on the school culture and when people are given that opportunity to lead and everyone is given that opportunity I think it equalizes that and that comes from the way for us that we have had those opportunities presented to us.

Mark Scott

Tell me how you balance almost the intrinsic rewards that come with different elements of your job. Part of your leadership role at the school now is working with other staff members and working in a leadership position and part of the challenge of that is helping them be the best that they can be in front of a class but you still teach yourself and engage with students yourself. Tell me what you get out of both of those experiences.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

Start with my classes and my students; they are the passion and they are the huge reason why I initially went into the classroom but the more that I have been given opportunities to lead equally I am passionate in working with staff because ultimately if we can improve other people to practice we are making more of an impact on students so I think for me it is actually my students that I make other decisions around. It does mean saying no to certain things that might come our way because I need to be on class and need to manage that time around my students. Working with teachers for example even last Thursday I got asked to present on “critical and creative thinking” to our induction group, we have got a large beginning teacher cohort this year and I had turned up after teaching for most of the day and I asked for a breather because I was also responding to multiple media requests and I delivered the session and then the day after I had a teacher email me saying “because of your session this is how I am thinking about creativity differently and have come up with these four things that I am going to try” and that just made my day on Friday and I was worried because I had so much other things going on that I didn’t quite deliver the session as well as I could have. And I thought that is brilliant this is a first year teacher who has taken on those ideas and there was a lot of questions and that is absolutely what we are trying to do and when you are working with teachers it is really rewarding for me to be able to hear that I have made an impact on the way that someone is thinking because it is ultimately shifting thinking around certain areas or things that we are trying to do in a school that ultimately brings all of us on that journey and to be able to make an impact overall.

Mark Scott

You won the Commonwealth Bank Teachers Prize, one of ten educational leaders.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

One of twelve.

Mark Scott

Interesting to me when I was there at the ceremony very few of them weren’t principals, in the main.

Yasodai Selvakumaran

There were three that weren’t last year.

Mark Scott

What does that prize entail?

Yasodai Selvakumaran

That prize last year definitely gave me a lot of other opportunities that have led to the Global Teaching prize as well but that prize came with a $45,000 fellowship that included $30,000 for the school, $10,000 for each individual teacher or principal and $5,000 that went towards a study tour to an overseas education system and for us that was Singapore and that experience to be able to go and learn with another eleven educators from across Australia in different contexts has given me another network. I was initially really nervous when I found out that I was one of three teachers and it turns out that I was the youngest teacher, just by a little bit, in this network we were all equal and I have had the most amazing professional experience and now personal connections as well, with educators.

Mark Scott

What have you learnt from Singapore when you were there?

Yasodai Selvakumaran

In Singapore what has really stuck with me is that they have deliberate career pathways that enable teachers to work in research and practice and move between roles in their ministry of education and working curriculum and policy and for those teachers that want to stay in the classroom they are supported to become mentor teachers and then they are encouraged to work in groups of schools and share that expertise. I just came back with the conviction that I really wanted to be part of trying to help bridge research and practice and with the opportunity I got given by the Commonwealth Bank teaching awards given with schools plus I used part of my $10,000 grant to do a postgraduate subject at Deakin part-time last year, my first one on research methods, and that came about because I was also seeking out academic partners to potentially support our work at a school level in looking at subject-based pedagogies and I contacted Doctor Linda Hobbs about working with us and she is going to be coming out to work with us later this year and she suggested why don’t you actually do this research as well for yourself. I think I needed someone to suggest that to me at that point and I got a lot out of it even in terms of understanding the use of data and how to work within different subject domains and using that research to help inform how I led and co-lead this project even now. Depending on what else comes about with the Global Teacher Prize I am currently enrolled to continue on that journey. In Singapore I realised that teachers were doing postgraduate study, they were then publishing papers and then going back into the classroom and all of that adds to the literature that Singapore is a high performing system and there are teachers also contributing to teacher education and I have had a strong passion for working with pre-service teachers even since I have started as a teacher, been a practicum coordinator at Rooty Hill for four years and then I have mentored quite a number of pre-service teachers myself and contribute to different networks because I find that we always learn. I have got a student at the moment that I am co-supervising and that is part of the job of working with teachers and in classes as well because you are exposed to new ideas and an opportunity to collaborate within your classroom at a very direct level.

Mark Scott

One of the things that comes out of Singapore and we often talk about is how valid are the dual career pathways if you really just want to be an expert teacher in a wonderful research base versus going into school leadership and eventually leading a school and being a principal or sometimes leaving schools altogether and joining the department in a support role. As you think about this and you think about career which is really only just beginning despite all you have achieved, do you think about this? Do you think about whether there are career paths for you outside say becoming a principal and running a school or running groups of schools? Where do your ambitions lie?

Yasodai Selvakumaran

I am quite open at this stage to various things but right now I think if I reflect on how I have got to this point and to be considered a top 10 finalist in the Global Teacher Prize, especially it is because the opportunities I have had to lead have been because of the work that I have done in my classroom which I have then been able to collaborate and share and reflect with colleagues and work on various projects to be able to share that work. I do believe that there is a really strong place for teachers to lead from the classroom and that is something that needs to be encouraged more broadly and sometimes I think people think that they can’t lead unless they are in a formal position like a head teacher or even if they are going for the higher standards and that is one of my current goals at the moment as well is to seek accreditation at lead level. Initially I was part of the department's leadership development initiative to go for highly accomplished and then I was told to consider lead in terms of the project that I was leading and that too is a pathway, not necessarily in terms of an endpoint, but something that I see as being really valuable professionally in order to be able to reflect on my practice but also in working with the standards. Rooty Hill really encourages teachers to be able to work beyond proficient and lead at highly accomplished and set their goals for their PDP at that if they are actually leading and working with colleagues and I think that the standards provide a fantastic reference point for all of us to be able to lead and reflect on the work that we do.

Mark Scott

Tell me what it was like dealing with the reactions to being nominated in the top 10 for that Global Teacher Prize?

Yasodai Selvakumaran

It was overwhelming but really exciting as well on the actual day so I was teaching Year 7 my support class actually and I knew the announcement was being made and I didn’t know who was going to be saying the announcement and when I realised it was Hugh Jackman I was like “oh my gosh”. I didn’t actually get a chance to watch it until we called a morning tea with our staff and we got to share that news at that point I just thanked all of the staff because I said “I hope that you see that this recognition is not just my achievement, everything I have done is with other people”. And I think that is the nature of a lot of work in schools, we do it in teams, and it reflects the opportunities as well especially from leadership to have been given the opportunities to do things and to work outside my own school community that has ultimately been recognised and that is thanks ultimately to my principal Christine Cawsey.

Mark Scott

She is an amazing principal but you are a remarkable teacher and you are having a remarkable start to your career with us here in the Department of Education. Thanks for your commitment, thanks for all you are doing and thanks for the way you are sharing your insight and your expertise not just with your school but with the broader educational community here in Australia and now around the world. Yaso thanks very much for your time with us today.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter @NSWEducation, on Facebook or email everystudentpodcast@det.nsw.edu.au.

Thanks again and I will catch you next time.

End of transcript.

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Mark Scott

About the Secretary

Mark Scott is Secretary of the Department of Education. He has worked as a teacher, in public administration and as a journalist and media executive. He is committed to public education and learning environments where every child can flourish.

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