Darren Smyth reflects on his role as a learning steward
Having accepted a teaching position at Cornish College towards the end of 2020, I was excited by the challenge of a new school. Cornish represented a new culture and a new way of doing things and its reputation certainly preceded it. Whoever I spoke with gushed – it is a school which is going places – a school determined to challenge the norms – a school setting itself apart, seeking to do things differently.
I had decided, after 27 years in leadership and management I wanted to focus again on being in the classroom, to be a better teacher and I wanted to be the best educator I can be.
Mathematics is a constant, so there is nothing in my teaching which would take me outside my comfort zone. I’d resolved that being a better teacher would see me simply find the ‘best’ way to teach each concept. I would then turn this into better resources which, in turn, would translate into better videos for my YouTube channel.
Life changed with the ping of a text message from Nicola Forrest, who asked if I would like to be part of a new idea called Design Futures. I rushed to the VCAA website (that font of all knowledge and guidance) to see what I could find about this new subject – there was nothing. So I did what any new teacher would do and said, ‘Sure – not a problem’, then quietly panicked until January!
Design Futures would see my beliefs and the understandings about myself as a teacher, and an educator, shaken to the very core and, for the record, they still are as I write this six months into my first year.
I have been privileged to be a part of this ground-breaking idea which has taught me that you need think about the skills and ideals the world is going to need. You look at what isn’t working now and find ways to sustainably change it. You trust yourself to design something which will actually prepare students for the fast-changing world they are going to join. You provide opportunities and support to allow them to find their own strengths, their own unique attributes and to follow their own passions. You occasionally fly by the seat of your pants knowing you’re going to need to adapt, change, listen, empathise and challenge the thinking which has gone before.
You help students grow as real learners and provide them the forum to research and learn without limits. You take away a curriculum and let them flourish. You provide support and guidance and give them a purpose and a voice. You give them the time away from traditional (broken?) pedagogies and provide chances for them to learn interesting and relevant content, whilst removing the ceiling to learning.
And what impact is this having?
Each time I walk into the room (not classroom and certainly not lesson), I have to shed all my ideas about education and everything I have previously believed and held true. I enter as an equal and a student. I am there to guide and to learn. I am there to listen more than I talk. I am there to find ways to support a range of projects I may not have any real understanding of myself. I am there to provide the time to make a difference.
I leave each session in awe. Each session has led to the falling of another pillar of my educational beliefs. My training dictates that I am the ‘sage with the page’ – in Design Futures I am learning much more from the students than they are possibly learning from me. My training dictates that students should be assessed against a rubric of defined criteria to demonstrate understanding at a time I dictate – here, the students choose what and when they want to be assessed and what their own success criteria is.
I learn something new each day and am ready to be challenged and to find a better way. I am growing with the students and learning from them – I am humbled.
What does this mean to my own classroom teaching? I now have a new personal challenge – but how do I provide the same experience and opportunity to the students in my classroom? Is that even possible? Am I too indoctrinated by all my years of experience?
What I do know is that I’ll never have the opportunity if I don’t give it a shot now. And, of all the schools where real change is possible, Cornish is going to be the one to make it happen.