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Alumni Stories

Five Decades of Education: Less traditional, more engaging

Kate Woods always knew she wanted to be a teacher – even when she was the class clown in her own schooling years.

The University of Canberra alumna has turned that passion into a successful career, which now sees her as the principal of Margaret Hendry School in Taylor, ACT.

“I remember thinking in Years 5 and 6 that I was either going to be a clown or a teacher. I always loved drama in school and realised I could probably combine all of my skills into teaching,” she said.

“As a teacher you get to be a bit of a clown sometimes and interact with people in different ways, so I focused all of those passions into one goal.”

After graduating, Kate started her career as an Indonesian language teacher, where she begun her journey to excel in inclusive education.

In her early roles across Turner School and Weetangera Primary School, Kate had the opportunity to work with children with complex needs and find innovative ways of delivering their learning.

“I found areas of the curriculum that didn’t seem to correlate into language programs, so I went to Melbourne and worked with someone who was using digital technology to catch their assessment in different ways,” she said.

“It gave me the opportunity to think about how we use teaching partnerships, and skills and passions in the staff to engage children in different ways.”

This experience – along with a resume full of others just like it – made Kate the perfect fit when she came on board to lead Margaret Hendry School.

The school follows an inquiry-based learning model and opened in 2019 alongside the launch of the ACT Education Directorate’s Future of Education Strategy.

“At the forefront of our mind was not only the footprint of the build itself, but the concept of how we were bringing people together to engage children and be an inclusive model for all,” Kate says.

“The Future of Education Strategy is a ten-year journey and opening as a new school gives us the opportunity to embed that from the get-go, rather than having to undo old patterns or ways of being to meet future needs.”

The unique design of the school enables children to access specialist teaching spaces within each learning community.  Each of the learning communities operate as K-6 sub-schools where staff are empowered to work collaboratively, drawing on their personal talents and skills to deliver learning experiences to all children within the community, not just their own home learning group. This means that all children are engaged with multiple adults across the day and get to follow their own areas of interest and passion to grow and showcase their understanding and development of key concepts.

When it comes to arriving at school of a morning, children attend their learning community with a home learning coach but then break off into personalised workshops designed to meet the learner at point of need.

Kate says the students aren’t broken into these workshops solely based on skill, like you might see in a more traditional learning environment. Children at Margaret Hendry are empowered to have voice and choice in their learning after developing some of the core learner assets and dispositions.

“We are conscious of not breaking off into groups and workshops where you have a high, middle and low level,” she says.

“It’s about a child’s level of comprehension and understanding, as well as their level of passion for that topic, personal connection and who will be a good learning partner who can stretch their thinking.”

The learning communities aim to see children interacting in different ways, with many different learners and educators to cater for different learning styles.

Kate explains that while the traditional ‘explicit teaching and taking notes’ hasn’t been thrown out the door, they have just included other strategies, such as collaboration across age groups to achieve a nurturing environment to authentically foster the development of social and emotional skills in addition to the core academic knowledge.

“When I was at school and staff had different approaches, I remember being either incredibly engaged as a teacher’s pet, or someone who was incredibly disruptive and in trouble because I found it so boring,” she said.

“I had a teacher who saw that in me and put me in a collaborative group here and saw a passion there so assigned me a project I could work on and thrive in, and we can do that in those community hubs.”

As students’ progress through their primary school years, their learning because more passion-based and autonomous – meaning they can tailor their learning towards their skills and interests.

They are encouraged to approach this concept as independent thinkers, self-managers and with the school’s four pillars –grow, collaborate, connect and love – in mind.

However, the slightly different approach is not to say there is anytime for slacking off.

“There is opportunities for those who need, want and are ready for more autonomous and engaged learning, but there is still that same sense of tradition around ‘I am your educator and I will provide you with info to take you to the next steps’,” Kate says.

“People are always talking about preparing for kindergarten or preparing for Year 7, but we are just preparing our students for the next day.

“We know all contexts are different in life and there won’t be the same expectations or people you will be working alongside so it’s about being able to teach them to be resilient and adaptable to work in any area.”

Words by Danielle Meddemmen, multimedia by Tyler Cherry.

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