Everyone remembers their favourite teacher. Rebecca West still can’t bring herself to call hers by his first name, even though, 20 years on, she’s friends with Paul on Facebook. But she’ll never forget the example that her geography and legal studies teacher Mr Fields set her as a student, before teaching was even on her radar as a career.
“He let kids have honest opinions,” West says. “We felt comfortable to air a conflicting argument in the classroom because he would let us have those conversations. It was very inspirational to have someone treat us like young adults.”
West is now deputy principal at Bonnyrigg public school in Sydney’s south-west and she’s just been named as one of 10 finalists in the prestigious global teacher prize, putting her in the running to win US$1m (A$1.3m).
Fundamental to her approach is actually listening to kids. “I remember how it made me feel to be heard. I want kids to know that’s absolutely fine if you disagree with me, but you’ve got to tell me why.” For West, openness, honesty and authenticity are vital.
Teaching was only ever meant to be West’s plan B. As a high-achieving year 12 student, her plan was to study law. Military law, to be exact. “I think my mum and I watched too many episodes of JAG.”
She was devastated when she missed out on the required entry score by a mere fraction, and her parents suggested teaching as a safety net. West agreed, but with a firm plan to transfer.
But just four weeks into university, she walked into a kindergarten classroom. “Something in me just clicked that day and I’ve never looked back. I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.”
Established by the Varkey Foundation in 2014, the annual global teacher prize recognises the impact that great teachers have around the world – not only on their students, but on their communities. The award attracted entrants from 121 countries and West’s fellow finalists include teachers from countries including Ghana, Mexico and the Philippines. It’s the competition that brought viral YouTube teaching sensation Eddie Woo to international prominence in 2018.
West has taught at Bonnyrigg in Sydney’s south-west since 2016. About 70% of the school’s students, from kindergarten to grade 6, speak English as a second language, and many are from low socio-economic backgrounds.
For West, her first priority is to understand the needs of each individual student. “I can’t just go in and say – here’s the curriculum. We need to ask where the kids are at and what are their barriers to successfully engaging with the curriculum, and then we start to reduce those barriers.”
In her role, West works across grades and has collaborated with students, teachers and parents to create social, behavioural and academic interventions to ensure students have a safe and engaging place to learn. She helped to refine the school’s learning structure to create a method for teachers to collect and analyse student data, where inclusive practices are key.
“Building relationships is always first and foremost – with the students, the teachers, and the parents and community,” West says.
But West has also been recognised for her creative approach to teaching (for example, turning writing tasks into role-playing exercises based on the game Dungeons and Dragons), and her inexhaustible desire to support students and colleagues – and not just her own. In 2017, long before teachers were dragged in front of the camera during the pandemic, West started making instructional videos and posting them on YouTube, at first as a teaching aid for her own students.
“When kids are highly engaged and having fun, they’ll absorb more and they’ll want to do more of it,” West says. “It really helped in terms of their mathematical understanding and improved results over the year.”
Suddenly teachers were grappling with challenges like using Google Classroom for the first time, and learning how to engage students online and keep them interested. West knew she could help.
“I just stayed up at night making more videos – about how you can record attendance, what it looks like for students to see things, how to make videos,” she says. “Not a lot of people like being in front of the camera. I made videos about how to record lessons where your face is not on camera.”
West filmed videos late into the night in the first few weeks of lockdown, despite it being “a scary time” as she and her husband grappled with home learning themselves as parents of a preschooler and two primary school-aged children.
“My sons are both diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. So the change in routine was a bit hard – hard for my daughter too but she still got to go to preschool,” she says. “The hardest part for them was just being away from their friends, not having that socialising. That was such a big gap for them.”
West was also struck by the new set of barriers that home learning presented for many of her students, including internet access. Some people still go to the library to access the internet. I think that needs to be a very significant conversation – how do we move our students forward into the future of technology when they don’t even have access to it at home?”
Lockdown also reaffirmed West’s admiration for her colleagues. “It just showed how creative and resilient our teachers can be,” she says. “There’s still that myth out there that teachers work 9 to 3 and have 12 weeks’ holidays a year. I watched just how dedicated teachers are to the wellbeing of their kids.”