10 Lessons From My First Year Teaching

Despite my upbeat posts on social media, the past twelve months have been incredibly challenging and full of personal lessons that come from my many failings as a first-year teacher. I have often felt like Han Solo, trying to escape sticky situations in a beat up Millennium Falcon with a malfunctioning hyperdrive. Fortunately, the students in my classes were as forgiving of me as I was of them.

As the year draws to close, I wanted to reflect on my ten greatest lessons from this year. While I thought that some of these were true, I now know they are.

  1. Every student has the capacity to do whatever they want to do, but their mindset is key to unlocking this potential. The students I observed who are positive with a ‘can-do’ attitude and ‘growth mindset’ are the ones who consistently achieve. It’s not rocket science, but developing this before students enter the school gates must be a priority for parents.
  2. Cultivating a desire to gain knowledge and giving kids the skills to acquire it is far more important than teaching facts. While there are some students I have met who know many things, the students with the desire and ability to seek out new information themselves are the ones who are the most dynamic.
  3. Being too nice is killing education. I love positivity and try to make it permeate my classroom. Unfortunately, teachers often seem unable to ‘tell it like it is’. From politically correct reports to the ‘softly softly’ approach of behaviour management, ‘real talk’ appears to be missing from education. While unconditional positive regard is important, we need to be more honest with children and parents.
  4. Our systems let kids down.We don’t expect children to run when they are struggling to crawl. We give them support. We help them. I am constantly baffled as to why our systems allow students to remain disengaged in a school, ‘fail’ an entire year, then move them onto the next year without support. Schools must be enabled to provide the assistance each child needs to succeed.
  5. Providing kids with choice is a must, but basic skills are too. Most of my students loved the amount of freedom I gave them in tasks. For many, I wish I could have provided more. However, it is important to acknowledge that while most students can embrace and learn in an environment of choice, they must have basic skills to do this. Ensuring all students have these should be a priority for all schools.
  6. Differentiation is necessary, tough and takes time. Adjusting tasks, activities and assessment to help students learn more is one of the most rewarding parts of teaching. However, to do this well is genuinely difficult and means you must plan effectively. I hope to improve this next year.
  7. Apathy is the most challenging element in a classroom. It eats passion, kills creativity and reduces talented students to zombies. Building my ability to structurally combat apathy is my big challenge in 2016.
  8. Nothing should be taught without a good reason. Students hate, hate, hate! learning things they believe are useless and without meaning. Teachers must constantly ask themselves if what they are teaching really is useful.
  9. Forming strong relationships is the best way to get things done.The only reason I have been able to achieve anything this year is due to relationships. Like politics, sales, or staff management, relationships are the foundation of convincing students to learn, parents to engage or staff to change.
  10. Saying hello, thanks and sorry are three of the most powerful words in education. These words are not said enough in schools, I hope I can continue to work to change this.

These lessons and more will help me to improve next year.

As I said goodbye and ‘merry Christmas’ to students at Melrose High School yesterday, a student gave me a card that reminded me what a magical experience I have had in 2015.

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Time to discuss disrespect with our kids

When I started teaching this year, I was unprepared for the consistent disrespect of women that I heard from kids in my classroom. Comments like ‘you’re such a little girl’, ‘that stupid bitch’ or ‘shes’s such a slut’, were casually hurled around the school by boys and girls alike.

For me, my Year 7 class of 30 boys was the main challenge, but regular comments from the Year 10 girls about each other were not much better. Across the school, there were regular examples of how our society disrespects women.

I quickly made the choice to actively ‘shut down’ these comments in my classroom. Each time I heard them I would stop the class and explain what had happened. I revealed exactly why those comments were so ‘bad’. It wasn’t simply the swearing or the insults, it was the inherently derogatory nature of the comments towards women. It was the disrespect.

We discussed why disliking a Prime Minister’s policy, had nothing to do with their gender. We attempted to unpack what ‘victim blaming’ is and talked about the notion of ‘slut shaming’. We work-shopped why relationships and sexuality are matters of personal own choice, and nobody else’s business.

With these small ‘side lessons’ and regular conversations, attitudes began to change and the comments slowly stopped in my classroom. Unfortunately, a genuine understanding still wasn’t there. In the wild ride that is first year teaching, I had felt that I wasn’t able to really address this issue in a way that made an impact.

This week, I wanted to try again to do something about it. With White Ribbon Day, I decided to hold a lesson on ‘respect’ with my Year 7’s and 10s.

I began with a quote from our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull:

“Disrespecting women doesn’t always lead to violence but all violence against women begins with disrespect.”

We watched a series of videos from the White Ribbon campaign, unpacked key terms and then held a discussion lead by students. I wanted to hear their ideas for solving this issue, starting in our own school.

I was blown away by the calm and respectful way the Year 7 boys approached the topic. Gone were the days of giggling about the man on YouTube ‘joking’ about hitting a woman. They were engaged, focused and serious.

Mindful of the dark and emotional aspects of the topic, I made sure that they knew that I was not saying the violence against women in Australia was their fault. I simply explained why they have a responsibility to change the cultural attitudes in Australia that leads to it.

The Year 10’s were different. Their initial discussion was music to my ears. Comments were on point and the discussion lead to ideas that the school could implement to improve respect, particularly towards women. Unfortunately, this ended with derogatory remarks about the sexual lives of girls in their year.

To me, this was absolutely unacceptable. I wasn’t getting through to them. They didn’t understand the damage of those types of ‘whispers’ and the disrespect it showed to women more generally.

To get through to all students, we need to share with them the truth. They don’t just need sugar-coated stories and discussions. They don’t just need friendly videos. They need real stories from real people about what disrespect can ultimately lead to.

Our Prime Minister is right, it all starts with disrespect and my school isn’t the only one with these challenges.  All schools have a responsibility to be part of a cultural shift that empowers young girls and boys to both believe in themselves and respect each other.

Raising Future Peacemakers

With recent global tragedies in Beirut, Paris and Bamako highlighting the darker side of the world, it is important for teachers to show their students the light.

Over the past few years I have been excited to ‘cheer from the sidelines’ as my good friend Francis Ventura worked to establish The Peshawar School for Peace (PSP), in Pakistan. With funding and support from Australia, Francis collaborated with a group from the Peshawar Youth Organisation to develop and create the school.

The raw passion, energy and resilience required to make this dream a reality was remarkable. In a region where education for girls is minimal, I have been amazed by what has already been achieved by the team in Pakistan.

Now in its first year of operations, PSP has over twenty young students aged three and four in their beautiful school. Their Principal, Madame Sohail, works with teachers to provide an education that will nurture future ‘peacemakers’. Their aim is to improve gender equality, peace and social cohesion.

Building empathy and intercultural understanding are two important goals for any educator. While there are many opportunities to build that within the school walls, there are also new possibilities for teachers to enable their students to connect with the world.

As SRC Coordinator of Melrose High in Canberra, I have been working with the PSP to provide an opportunity for our SRC students to lead a school wide connection from Canberra to Peshawar. This week we were able to make this a reality. With a group of students and teachers, we held a Friday afternoon ‘Skype Class’ introducing students in Peshawar and Canberra to each other.

It was touching to see my students connecting, sharing their experience of high school in Australia, and listening to the Pakistani children sining songs they have been taught. We were able to introduce teachers and Principals to each other, and meet some parents of the PSP students.

Students were also educated about the challenges faced in another part of the world. They are beginning to understand the difficulties for women in particular, where education is often not available.

This experience moved many of my students, one of whom promptly emailed me after school and asked what more we could do to support PSP and other schools like it. The genuine empathy on display from our students reminded me why I got into teaching.

The students and staff of both Melrose and Peshawar are excited to collaborate more in 2016. From additional Skype Classrooms and meetings to fundraising possibilities or sending postcards, the children will feel a deep and empathetic connection to somewhere over 11,000km away.

I look forward to 2016 and the new opportunities it will bring to put more smiles on the faces of students and raise future peacemakers.

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” – Albus Dumbledore

Melrose High School Principal and student during our Skype Classroom

10 Books That Improved My Teaching

A wise man once said “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” This lovely Dr Seuss quote adorns my classroom wall and is just as true for me as it is for my students.

This time last year I was beginning my teaching career with the Teach for Australia program. Reading widely has helped me to both prepare for and improve my teaching.

Next weekend, 130 other Australians who are passionate about addressing educational inequity will start the same journey with TFA. With a few friends joining the program, I thought I’d take the time to highlight the top ten books that have helped me most.

I hope this list will help new teachers looking for advice before and during their first year of teaching. I’ve separated them into books I found useful to read before teaching, and those for while I was in the classroom.

Before you enter the school gates…

  • 1) Mindset – Dr Carol Dweck. While I didn’t specifically read this to prepare for teaching, I found the content important for my classroom. The mindset of each of my students genuinely impacts on their ability to engage and succeed in class. 
  • 2) How Children Succeed – Paul Tough. A must read! Tough argues that the qualities of grit, perseverance, and curiosity help shape our children’s future more than ‘intelligence’. Highly recommend listening to this piece from This American Life too. 
  • 3) Emotional Intelligence – Dr Daniel Goleman. A look into the ’emotional’ side of intelligence, something important for all teachers to actively develop in their students. 
  • 4) Learned Optimism – Dr Martin Seligman. Linking with Mindset and Emotional Intelligence, this one highlights the importance of building optimism in our students. I’ve worked with parents to create a number of simple homework tasks for Year 7 boys on this with positive results.

While you’re in the classroom… 

  • 5) Teach Like A Champion – Doug Lemov // Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire – Rafe Esquith. I included these together as I found them remarkably helpful with small and practical tips throughout the year. I wasn’t ready for them in week one, but regularly reviewing these books helped my practice develop.
  • 6) You Know The Fair Rule – Dr Bill Rogers. For classroom management strategies, Rogers work is an essential read.  
  • 7) Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design – Tomlinson & McTighe. A helpful and practical guide for two of the most important concepts for new educators. 
  • 8) Cultivating Judgement: Teaching Critical Thinking – John Nelson.A great book full of practical strategies to teach critical thinking in all classrooms. Has a range of relevant subject specific ideas. 
  • 9) How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk – Faber & Mazlish. Learning how to effectively speak with students is one of the finer arts of teaching, this one definitely helped!
  • 10)Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – JK Rowling. I highly recommend reading books you fell in love with as a child while teaching. It’s important to remember there should be a little magic in every classroom.

And an online companion for the whole journey..

  • Edutopia (George Lucas Education Foundation) – An incredible online resource full of ideas for new teachers to improve their practice.

Along with Edutopia, this selection of books have helped shape my teaching and build my understanding of what is required to become a truly ‘great’ teacher. While I’m a long way off, I’d be much further away without the wise words of these authors.

Creating ‘Asia Literate’ Classrooms

This week my Year 7 Geography class had the pleasure of hosting Andrea Myles, CEO of the China Australia Millennial Project (CAMP). Andrea and I studied together a few years ago and my students were very lucky to hear about her experiences living in China and of her work with CAMP.

When discussing Andrea’s presentation with my class, I was struck by my students lack of cultural knowledge and understanding of China. This shouldn’t have surprised me. For a population of over 1.35 billion and with the second largest economy in the world, Australians’ (myself included) know a surprisingly little amount about China. Reflecting on my visits to other schools and conversations with colleagues, it struck me how little we are doing to prepare our students for the so-called ‘Asian century’.

I feel that Australia has consistently missed educational opportunities to strengthen our cultural understanding of China and other Asian nations. While curriculum development is one issue, it’s also a cultural one. As former Prime Minister Keating said in his 1992 ‘Knowing Who We Are’ address, Australia’s destiny is as an Asia-Pacific nation. He argued that to achieve this we needed a cultural reform to change our ‘outlook’ as a nation. Nearly 25 years later, that cultural reform is still slowly taking place, but our students are ready to shift their focus towards Asia.

Many of the students in my classes are already beginning to be ‘Asia literate’. Our school runs student exchange programs with Taiwan and has multiple sister-school arrangements. Some students have visited or lived in an Asian nation, others have and share their Asian family heritage and many are studying Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian within our Languages Faculty. I enjoyed watching my Year 7 students sharing with Andrea some of the Chinese words they knew, and the facts they have learned in their studies.

While this is a good beginning, all teachers need to take a more active role in shaping students cultural understanding of and appreciation for Asian nations. While I was pleased to be able to integrate some study of China into both my Ancient History and Place and Liveability units, I know that many students will leave high school without a sound cultural literacy of China, or other Asian nations.

A former ANU Alum Sue-Lin Wong wrote this 2012 New York Times article on ‘Asia literacy’ in 2013. She writes about the need to think more broadly than just China, or just a language when it comes to understanding Asia.

For me, ‘Asia literacy’ in the classroom about ensuring my students have a high level of respect for and understanding of the opportunities within Asian nations. It’s not simply about knowing a few facts or words, it’s about embracing Keating’s notion of a ‘cultural shift’. We must continue to shake of the shackles of colonialism and see Australia as a confident nation within the Asia Pacific and value the opportunities to be had within Asian neighbours in particular.

To support students to embrace this attitude, I will do a number of things:

  • ensure that my classroom displays cultural images from Asian nations;
  • actively use and promote the use of words from languages that children are studying at our school (Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian);
  • incorporate more information on and conversations about Asian nations into lessons;
  • work with the ANU to bring Asian international students into my classroom; and
  • ensure my assignments incorporate components where students are required to complete research into Asian nations.

I naturally do these things for United States and Europe, it is about time I more actively integrated Asia into my teaching. While these are only small measures, they will help ensure my students begin to see Asian nations as places where they may want to travel, work or even live in the future.

8 Ideas for University Student Leaders

Today I had the opportunity to address 300 incoming student leaders of residences at the Australian National University (ANU). As an ANU alumnus, I was asked to return to speak about my experience establishing Raising Hope Education Foundation and provide the students with advice for 2016.

After sharing the incredible academic journeys friends Helen Baxendale and Josiah Khor, I provided the following ideas for those present to reflect on.

1) Actively consider how you live you life.

The most successful people I have met are those who know their values and have have deliberately chosen to live their life in a certain way. Many go to the gym, regularly read new books, volunteer and attend events that give them new ideas or challenge their perceptions. While everyone is different, understanding who you are and actively choosing to live your life in accordance with your values is an important part of being prepared for leadership.

2) Look for your next step today.

By establishing plans and goals for the future, students can give themselves concrete reasons to be at university. If you can’t find one, it might be time to genuinely think about why you are at university and if it’s the right place for you to be.

3) Be conscious of your time – it is precious.

One of my former bosses once told me ‘time is our most precious commodity, you can’t buy it. Even the richest person alive craves more time.’ By being aware of this and using the time we have more effectively, all people can improve their leadership.

4) Complete your readings and attend lectures, but don’t be afraid of skipping a few.

Something I struggled with at university was attending lectures and ensuring I read required articles before attending tutorials. While some of the opportunities I had meant it was ‘worth it’ to skip the occasional lecture, I should have been far more diligent. Because of this, I didn’t get the most out of the academic side of ANU. A first class university requires students to be well-read and ready to engage in high-level dialogue. Unless you’ve done the readings and attended lectures, it’s difficult to make this happen.

5) Seek out ideas you disagree with.

One of my favourite memories of time at ANU is the discussions I had with those I disagreed with. From political issues to religion, having an open and respectful dialogue with people who held different opinions made me a much better person.

6) Be an active contributor to campus life.

Universities are inspiring places where students can take part in a diverse range of  extra-curricular opportunities and give back to their community. Actively participating in campus activities ensures a better university experience for yourself and others around you.

7) Get to know the awesome that is Canberra.

Living in the bubble of on-campus accommodation at ANU can limit your contact with the ‘real’ Canberra. While some students venture out into the deep South or North, many miss out on the local magic. From walks around Lake Burley Griffin, hikes in our local national parks, or visit the great local bookshops, exploring Canberra is a must for any ANU student.

8) Build relationships for life. 

Students should seek out real and long-lasting friendships. ANU is an incredible place full of opportunities to meet genuinely passionate and inspiring young people. Utilising this time to meet ‘your people’ who share a similar passion for life should be number one on this list, but left to last so that it was hopefully the most memorable part of my presentation.

Finally, similar to friendships, university is an incredible time to search for love. While many students, including myself, tried and failed to find love while at ANU, it is a noble goal nonetheless.

I hope that all students of ANU continue to share in the incredible journeys it has to offer, both now and well into the future.

Preparing Students is Crucial for Equity

This week I was talking to one of my younger students about the game ‘Clash of Clans’ that they were sneakily trying to play during our class. It could see that he had become quite frustrated and wanted to work out what was affecting him.

After class we spoke about how distracted he has been recently and how important learning was. He shared with me that he found it frustrating to see all his mates at much higher levels in this game. He appeared to feel inadequate.

I was initially surprised that this engaged and confident Year 7 student was ‘so far behind’ and asked him why he thought it was the case. “I hardly get to play at home like the others do. I am so far behind them because it takes so long to train and level up. I hate it!”

I could absolutely understand his frustrations; however, I also see how much his parents care about his education and supporting him to have access to more opportunities. This seemed to be understood, but the frustration was still there.

During my next class I had a group of Year 10 students. For this, their last term of ‘high school’ in the ACT, I have decided to heavily focus on making sure they are ready for college (Years 11 and 12).

The nature of continuous assessment in the ACT means they must be prepared to perform well from day one in Year 11, 2016. From building their essay writing, note taking, research and referencing skills, to the development of discussion techniques and confidence, I’m trying to help them prepare both at school and at home.

I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of the conversation I had just had with the Year 7 student, and the ones I was having with some of my Year 10’s. Many of them feel unprepared and have been frustrated at how far behind some of their friends they were.

After numerous conversations with students and parents around Canberra, it is apparent to me that many kids in the ACT don’t place a focus on preparing for college. While many will find the transition manageable, numerous students are likely to have a very difficult time.

It is also clear from talking with college teachers that many students are not ready to engage with Year 10 work. Many take on the challenge and do incredibly well. Others can find the experience incredibly frustrating, sometimes feeling like they won’t be able to achieve their dreams.

We know that that there are many pathways to student success and that ‘college isn’t everything’. However, equity in our current education system relies on the ability of our community to adequately prepare all students to do well at college.

Being surrounded by students who are better prepared, better supported and with less barriers to engagement is the experience of disadvantage in our education system nationally. It’s like playing a Nintendo game where your difficulty level is perpetually set higher than everyone else. That Australian ‘fair go’ is illusive.

Yes, supportive parenting, excellent teaching and a positive school community create a platform for success. Unfortunately, we must acknowledge that there is an ever-present complacency and disengagement amongst many students throughout high school. Without addressing this and providing more opportunities for students to catch up to where they should be, we are ensuring students will continue to feel that frustration and hopelessness of my Year 7 student.

We, as a community, must do more to help these students. While not all will accept support, the provision of additional opportunities to prepare for college is crucial to helping more students succeed.

This term I have started working on a new initiative called ‘College Ready’. It aims to provide support opportunities for students in Canberra to prepare for their college experience in Year 10 and during the summer break in the lead up to Year 11. While it is no ‘silver bullet’ the myriad of issues preventing equity, I hope it helps more students to have the skills needed to succeed.

While not all students will desire an academic pathway or enjoy essay writing and high level maths, I firmly believe that we must ensure students have a more equal opportunity to succeed in our current system. I hope that by working with other teachers, parents, community members and students in the ACT, we will be able to support more students to both achieve their best, and prepare them for success into the future.

Authentic learning helps kids succeed

As someone who found the academic side of school appealing, I am mindful of the need to understand my students who find it difficult to engage in school.

One of the opportunities I have found most rewarding this year has been hearing the insights of students who generally haven’t enjoyed their education. Students I have spoken with have offered a range of insightful perspectives on the education system and what does and doesn’t work for them.

One of the key challenges often laid down by students is for their teachers to make learning ‘relevant’ and ‘authentic’. If they can’t connect with and see the relevance of what they are learning they find it difficult to get motivated. While some students enjoy debating or learning about abstract concepts, others need a direct and tangible reason for them to get on board with a lesson.

Providing students with opportunities to learn in a context that resembles real world situations helps to engage kids who find the more abstract parts of school frustrating. This was clearly on display for me over the past week in my own school.

At Melrose High our SOSE Faculty (humanities) coordinate an Australian Business Week (ABW) Enterprise Education Program. The ABW program is run over a week for Year 10 students at the end of our third term. Students are placed into teams of 12 and participate in a range of activities acting as a company. They elect a CEO and each student is assigned a particular responsibility.

During ABW, each team takes ownership of a a simulated manufacturing company over a period of two years. Students make important decisions at each financial quarter that determine the fate of their company and it’s share price. The team also work together to design and pitch a product and video advertisement, develop and present a company report and participate in a trade display night with parents. This is almost as close to an authentic business situation as a school can provide.

It was incredible to see students supported by over a dozen local volunteers from businesses, universities and community groups. In particular it was great to have former-students come back to help the program. The advice provided by founders of start-ups, marketing coordinators for major retailers, bank managers and not-for-profit leaders helped provide all students with inspiration. This was combined with one-on-one mentoring for groups throughout the week.

I often witnessed our most disengaged students asking our guests for career advice, questioning what their jobs were really like and looking for hints and tips for their ideas.

As I watched students grapple with deadlines, decisions and designs I saw incredible learning happening in each team. Without working together, teams would fall apart and at times emotions were high. Despite this, students all pulled together to meet each target throughout the week.

While the ABW program is impressive, it’s core learning ideas are transferrable to other subjects and school settings.

1) Students thrive in learning tasks that resemble the real world.
2) Collaboration between classmates that wouldn’t normally work with helps to build teamwork skills.
3) Learning spaces with different types of competition enable students with various passions to thrive in their own way.
4) Students enjoy developing soft skills that they can see are relevant for their future.
5) Mentors from outside school help to promote stronger learning.
6) Engaging parents and displaying student work helps to create positive learning experiences.

At the final awards presentation on the Friday afternoon, I was amazed at the level of engagement and buzz in our school library. Both our most academically engaged and disengaged students were on stage receiving awards for the best video design, company pitch or report. The acknowledgement of their success was clearly meaningful and valued by the students.

When talking with these students I was amazed by how excited they were about school that week. Many remarked that this was the most stimulating learning experience they had ever participated in.

While this was a one-off week of learning, I hope that I can continue to embed similar ‘authentic’ opportunities into my own lessons. It is crucial that teachers support all students to have a reason to be in their classroom. Without that, learning may never happen.

Kids need real opportunities to innovate

As a child, I was constantly reading my way into the worlds of Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl or Alex Rider. I searched for a place with endless possibilities and freedom. Literature was my method of escape from the confines of our world. Like most kids, I was full of inventive energy and needed somewhere to let my mind wander.

Today, children around the world build their own clocks, design new apps or create their own Iron Man suit. Young people in Australia are also full of entrepreneurial energy.

With a new Prime Minister talking up ‘innovation’, we have to ask ourselves if the current education system is preparing our students to take part in this ‘most exciting time to be an Australian’?

Children seem to have a near-unrivalled ability to develop creative solutions to complex problems. However, they crave authenticity and the chance to live out their fantasies in the real world. With technology comes the possibility of helping make kids dreams a reality, while they are still young and free from the confines of a world that usually says ‘no’.

A few days ago I read this article about a Canberra primary student Will who had been selected as a finalist for Origin’s ‘littleBIGidea Competition’. The development of his idea – a blood test strip disposal unit – highlights the endless possibilities of student-lead innovation.

Online education platforms like the Khan Academy and Code.org provide incredible opportunities for students around the globe to learn modern STEM skills online. Unfortunately, without embedding the development of these skills within our curriculum, our students will struggle to compete with kids in countries that do. To really make this work we also need local grass-roots organisations that build excitement and passion in these areas.

The student designer Will and hundreds of other students have participated in events run by local Canberra company HACT. I have recently seen the passion of local HACT cofounder Matt Stimson, specifically designing a company to help young people get excited about the possibilities of technology. HACT runs events for kids aimed at developing their STEM skills like coding and enabling them to create their own tech from the ground up.

Children will only be inspired through opportunities where they can get their hands dirty and be inventive. Witnessing their ideas come to life and having an opportunity to pitch for real finance or support helps make this authentic. Mentoring and advice from those who have done it themselves is also crucial to develop our students.

Governments should consider working with organisations like HACT to incorporate this style of learning within schools. The example of Will and others highlight the importance of providing students real opportunities to develop their ideas. Either by partnering with local organisations or embedding an authentic style of tech-learning within curriculums, schools need to get in on the action.

The new Prime Minister is right, is is an exciting time to be an Australian. However, without the right investment in education and support for our students, the dream of a more innovative Australia will not materialise.

Teaching empathy through letters

The ability of some children to appear truly devoid of empathy astounds me. Fortunately, with a few choice questions, this illusion generally fades and their compassion and understanding rises to the surface. I’ve found that students can quickly go from hurling abuse to understanding and apologetic tears, if only they are asked the right questions.

‘I don’t have to listen to what they think, they are stupid!’ … ‘Who cares about the ‘dumb’ kids?’ … ‘Why should I care about them?’ … ‘I’m never going to understand, they are too weird!’

These are just some of the comments students have made in conversation with me over the past few weeks. In so many interactions, I have noticed a distinct lack of understanding, compassion or care being given from one student to another.

Empathy can be defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. This ability seems fundamental to good relationships and a strong community, yet is often sparse in schools. From the lack of a reciprocated ‘hello’ or ‘how was your weekend’, to intense bullying, the absence of empathy concerns me.

A few years ago someone told me that if I felt like something was wrong, I should do something about it. I decided I needed to at the very least help the students in my classes to build their empathy. The challenge for me was how to incorporate this into my history and business curriculum.

While thinking about this, I had also noticed that a few teachers at the school were going through a tough time. This gave me an idea.

I decided I would get all of my students to write a thank you letter to one teacher.

For my Year 9 class, I created a lesson focused on World War I and the letters that Australian soldiers sent home to their loved ones. For Year 10, their lesson was on how to build customer relationships and understand their clients. Each student was then given a piece of paper and asked to write a one page letter to a teacher.

Many were confused, unsure of why they were being asked to write to a teacher. It was as if teachers were strange monsters to them. ‘But why do we have to write to a teacher!?’ some asked. However, after some coaxing they were on board.

I asked students to spend time thinking about how their teachers feel. What might they be thinking about at this time of year? What have they done for the students? What would they want to hear about? We did a brief ‘think-pair-share’ then students got writing.

I gave each student an envelope to seal then dropped the letters off to teachers. The smiles, tears and laughter spoke for themselves.

Students in the following week remarked at how thankful teachers were, how they really appreciated their letters. They were surprised at how happy it made them.

I was then able to have a discussion with the students about empathy, giving thanks and how purposeful action can help build relationships. It was a great way to discuss this with the students in a way they really understood and felt connected to.

At the end of our discussion, I shared with the students two of my favourite quotes on empathy and asked them to write a short reflection. I was impressed with the shift in many of their attitudes and their understanding of empathy.

Next term I hope to trial this again in a few different formats that other teachers have suggested to me for my Year 7 students. If you have any advice, please let me know!

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far. – Daniel Goleman 

Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. – Daniel Pink