Celebrating change in the classroom

Lilydale High School Learning Specialist Tony Vallance was named Teacher of the Year at the Australian Education Awards

STEAM Learning Specialist Tony turned his passion for teaching into spaces and curriculum where students can thrive and take ownership of their learning. He didn't expect anything more than the enthusiasm of his students at Lilydale High School.

In fact, when his name was read out at the Australian Education Awards, he was so surprised that he had to be called twice to the stage.

Tony won Teacher of the Year for his outstanding contributions in his time as an educator and championing the school's STEAMworks learning space.

'This is a huge personal and professional achievement,' Tony says. 'I think it's something to be collectively celebrated at our school - and for our state education system for giving us the opportunities we've had to make change.

'It was so cool to celebrate all the change makers in the industry, who have had the support of their school leaders, to really take a chance and throw the textbook out sometimes to make learning more student-owned and student-led.'

Change that started with technology

Tony's change making inspiration came after a visit to the Yarra Ranges Tech School and seeing the opportunities on offer to students. Seeing the way technology could be used to bridge the gap between theory and practice was something Tony wanted to see at his own school.

'Teaching students to work with technology is not an exercise in ticking boxes,' Tony says. 'Sometimes technology use can be as simple as Lego and cardboard.'

'Because if learning is rooted in the real world and if it has some practical application, the opportunities are endless.'

This idea was the starting point for the STEAMworks learning space. Tony brought robotics, 3D printing, virtual reality, drones and more together, put them in the hands of students and helped them apply it to real world problems.

'Now every day I see a student get something, their eyes light up and you see them making these connections to the real world.'

'Since it's been so successful, I've also developed a new learning space, the CAVE – collaborative advanced virtual environment,' Tony said. '[It's] a huge configurable space for collaborative team teaching where multiple classes can be involved together as well as a full class VR room. Now students can take a virtual tour to anyplace in the world or design prototypes in VR to be 3D printed into hands on creations.

'It's the ultimate excursion with no permission slips. I was able to take students to Hawaii, Macchu Picchu and the International Space Station. Experiencing their learning brought it to a whole new level.'

Making learning something real

Tony prides himself on using empathy as a teacher and understanding his students as individuals so that they can learn at their best.

'Acknowledging students individually helps them feel witnessed and to build this connection to the classroom as a safe space.'

'If you, as a teacher, can be comfortable enough in your own practice to connect with your students on this level, the kids will thrive in this culture.'

This connection has helped Tony break through to his students and, in turn, help them feel connected to learning in the classroom. They hold regular meetings at the start of class, outline what they're going to do in that lesson, and the tools they're going to use.

'I saw them become empowered, take over their learning and run with it. These are the moments I'm most proud of them.'

Tony encourages educators to find the parts of their job that they're most passionate about. Using this drive, they can change to a more evidence-based practice that will have better outcomes for students.

To read more about the winners of the 2019 awards, see: Australian Education Awards