The idea that you can change somebody’s life for the better is powerful. It looms, in particular, over the debate about teachers. Good teachers are known to have inspired children to look beyond textbooks and think for themselves. They play a pivotal role in opening up a student’s mind to different, sometimes unknown horizons.

Nothing compares to the immensely gratifying feeling of seeing your students go on to scale the heights you know they’re capable of reaching. Though teaching is an extremely difficult but rewarding profession, teachers are often considered as the unsung heroes in our lives. The Global Teacher Prize has been introduced as a means of filling this void where an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her profession will be felicitated each year.

Nationally recognized in Australia as an outstanding teacher and leader, Tamil Sri Lankan-born Australian, Yasodai Selvakumaran was named as a finalist for the $1 million Global Teacher Prize.

This year’s Global Teacher Prize 2019 was bagged by Kenyan science teacher and Franciscan friar Peter Tabichi in Dubai on March 24. He won the prize from 10 finalists from across the world. Selvakumaran was the only Australian teacher among them. The competition received 10,000 nominations from 179 countries.

“I believe that I am the first of Sri Lankan origin to make it to the final 10. It was an honour to represent Australia and I was and am still so thankful for the support from the Sri Lankan community both in Sri Lanka and around the world. Australia has had finalists in the top 50 each year since the award started and I was really proud to follow two other Australians in the top 10 in recent years. They were Maths teacher Eddie Woo who was in the top 10 in 2018 and Science teacher Ken Silburn who made it to the top 10 in 2017. Both also work for the New South Wales Department of Education and I was thrilled to follow in their tradition and represent Public Education,” Selvakumaran said. She and the other none finalists took part in the Global Education Skills Forum which was held in Dubai from March 22 to 24.

Teacher status is an issue around the world today. The Varkey Foundation, through The Global Education Skills Forum and The Global Teacher Prize, are providing a platform for leaders in education and the work of educator everyday to be given a spotlight and to be celebrated.

“I also learnt that Australian Education is looked upon quite highly at this international forum and that in Australia, we can be advocating more for the outstanding work that is happening and to share this further,” she revealed.

Unraveling her experiences at the Global Education Skills Forum Selvakumaran noted that she and the others had been allocated mentors from a previous top 50 finalists.

With the other top 10 finalists
Taking part in the Global Education Skills Forum

“I was thrilled that mine was Ken Silburn - a top ten finalist from Australia from 2017. We both live in Sydney so it’s exciting that we can continue to learn from each other face to face. As part of the forum, the top 10 had numerous interviews with international press that were at the event and by correspondence with international media around the world. I have learnt many new skills, especially with media interviews from this experience. It is fantastic that press from all around the world are celebrating the work of teachers,” she enthused.

Another highlight of the event was meeting Australian born globally acclaimed actor Hugh Jackman of ‘Wolverine’ fame. They had first met when he paid a surprise visit backstage at the Global Teacher Prize concert. Little Mix, Rita Ora and Liam Payne performed at Dubai Amphitheatre for the event. The top 10 were introduced by Jackman to a crowd of 8000 in two groups of five. We came out again as a group of 10 and everyone was cheering for teachers! I could never have imagined an event like this until it happened. It was amazing!” she recalled with a smile.

Selvakumaran also delivered a top ten MasterClass as part of Global Education Skills Forum. She showcased Rooty Hill High School’s approach to Creativity and Critical Thinking with a snapshot activity of a strategy she used in her classroom as a History teacher.

“I have been lucky to work at a school that encourages leadership from the very beginning and celebrates success as a whole community. I was celebrated with an impromptu morning tea on the day of the announcement and our Principal Christine Cawsey announced it to the staff. Everyone was really excited and I had so much support from the staff personally and professionally. Many helped with the media announcements and footage around our usual schedules of teaching classes, extracurricular and leadership duties. We also had the CEO of Australian Schools (who nominated me) Plus Rosemary Conn and Awards Manager visit the school and I had congratulations sent from The Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards. (Both of these organisations run the Australian Teaching Fellowship I won as part of a group of 12 Educators in 2018). Even at Parent-Teacher Night after returning from Dubai, I had parents tell me that they were so proud of me,” she said adding that the strangest thing as a teacher was having not only her students say how proud they were of her, but also many other students from a school of just over 1000 say the same too.

On stage at the Global Teacher Prize concert
At the Global Teacher Prize awards night

“As teachers, we are the ones to say how proud we are of our students and having the reverse here was very special,” she expressed.

Teaching has become a passion for Selvakumaran because it differs every day. She also believes that teachers can have an impact on entire communities.

“The Global Teacher Prize journey has taught me that we never know where we might have impact. I am looking forward to continuing the connections I made in Dubai and seeing how we can share ideas and work together more broadly to improve education beyond our own contexts. I did not really think about teaching as a profession until I was about 17. I see the impact teachers had, especially as I worked closely with the Principal and Deputy Principals and teachers as vice-captain on the leadership team,” she opined.

Selvakumaran was educated in country towns in New South Wales where her family lived at various times. She attended Hay Public School and West Bathurst Public School. before winning a 50 percent scholarship to All Saints College for High School. Later she moved to Sydney and completed a five year double degree in B.Arts/ (History) / B.Education ( Secondary: Humanities and Social Sciences). She completed her post-graduate studies in Education through Australian National University and Deakin University.

Queried on the importance of research as a tool of education Selvakumaran says that she believes that they need make decisions appropriate to their particular school contexts.

“It is not about a one size fits all approach but also advocating for teachers to lead research from the classroom and connect with academic and specialists to capture what works and publish both in formal academic settings but also in sharing through partnerships and conferences and professional learning to highlight outstanding practice. As a Humanities teacher, I teach students how to think critically to create their own inquiry questions for research and to work collaboratively. I believe this is essential to succeed in many aspects of life and although it may be challenging, students feel a great sense of achievement,” she elaborated.

She dubs Global Teacher Prize 2019 winner Tabichi as ‘very humble’ and ‘an outstanding educator’.

“I was thrilled for him when he was announced as the winner. Congratulations to Peter! I am following the work that he is already doing since the prize and it’s a testament to his wonderful character and determination,” she said.

She names her parents as her constant source of strength as she learns from their experiences.

“They took chances that have given me opportunities I am so thankful for,” she said.

After returning from Dubai Selvakumaran had been recognised with an Australian Tamil Achiever Award by the New South Wales Tamil Arts and Culture Association. She has been approached by Community Language Schools for Tamil and Sinhala to offer advice and to work with staff and students.

“I cannot read or write Tamil but I am excited to contribute what I can, especially as I lead Teacher Professional Learning on lesson and learning design in my own school and at conferences interstate. This term, I have been successful in a relieving Head Teacher position as Head Teacher Professional Practice at Rooty Hill High School. This is all about leading Teachers and professional learning for us to continually improve what we do to improve student outcomes. I am excited and enjoying the challenge so far. I still teach four classes and I am very much learning how to thrive in this new leadership role,” she elaborated.

“Keep learning throughout life and see how you can encourage others to do so too. Not all learning needs to happen in a classroom but as adults, we can seek out new learning experiences for us too! Keep applying for scholarships and awards and see where you can make an impact in the communities you are part of and beyond. I applied for some when I was going to university and was not successful for the ones I applied for in teaching at that time. Keep trying. Every time I wrote another application, I knew I was learning how to write a better application and be better at highlighting my strengths. I never imagined when I got those first rejection letters for scholarships or even job applications, that I would end up being recognised on a global scale with a group of outstanding Educators a decade or so later!” are her words of wisdom for other youth.


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