The last 12 months have been challenging to say the least. In March 2020, COVID-19 brought world economies to their knees and Australia was not exempt. Within a month, the country had gone into lockdown, with many small businesses forced to close their doors. 

The nation’s schools were forced to come up with innovative ways to teach those children who were no longer physically present in the classroom. 

And innovate they did. 

Australia’s community of school teachers showed just how incredibly talented, resourceful, innovative and dedicated they are. 

Today, 12 of the country’s finest educators were celebrated at the Commonwealth Bank’s Teaching Awards ceremony held in Sydney. 

While the 12 teachers have come from all parts of the country and teach a range of subjects and ages, they all have one thing in common: the determination to keep education fun and engaging for their students.

Winner Anna Ritzema, from Tambrey Primary School in Karratha, is one teacher who strongly believes in the power of ‘engaging education’.

A science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) school teacher, Ms Ritzema runs a philanthropically funded after-school science program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with an aptitude for STEM concepts.

She maintains close contact with their families, driving the children home and following up if they are absent. The trust she has built with the students has paid off, with attendance for her classes close to 100 per cent.

Speaking to CBA Newsroom, Ms Ritzema said she has always had a passion for teaching others.

“I have always enjoyed helping others, and ever since I was little I was always setting up classrooms with my friend's younger siblings. I loved school and learning, and was lucky to have some of the most fantastic teachers,” she said.

If she had one piece of advice for those thinking about a career in teaching, Ms Ritzema said it would be to “invest in your craft”.

“You will never stop learning, and showing your students your passion and willingness to do so will make you a successful role model for their own learning journey,” she said.

Pic: Anna Ritzema, Tambrey Primary School

Fellow STEM teacher and award winner, Hastings Secondary College’s Lloyd Godson, reiterated the sentiment about constant learning.

According to the Port Macquarie-based educator, COVID had proven how incredibly important it was for teachers to be open to change and ready to pivot or re-learn something at a moment’s notice.

“We all, students and teachers alike, learnt a lot of new skills in a very short space of time,” Mr Godson said.

“I loved how the teaching community, especially the Marine Teachers Association of NSW, came together to support each other by sharing ideas, lessons, technology tips and ways of making content more engaging. It created a lot of extra work for everyone initially, but a lot of what we did has been incorporated into our everyday teaching now.”

Pic: Lloyd Godson, Hastings Secondary College

Winner Jessica Chesterfield, a visual arts teacher at the Hymba Yumba Independent School south-west of Brisbane, agreed COVID forced her to pivot her teaching style and look at new and innovative ways to engage the children (locally referred to as jarjums).

Ms Chesterfield said when COVID forced the school to close its doors (albeit only briefly), it caused some of the children to disconnect from their education.

“While we moved to a digital forum and continued teaching, many were without devices and missed the relationships they depended upon at school. Upon their return, our jarjums struggled to reconnect to each other and their learning as they had before,” Ms Chesterfield said.

“I began creating collaborations focusing on connections. Our jarjums across the school worked on painting shared stories and meanings across all year levels with older jarjums mentoring younger.”

This collaboration between students provided Ms Chesterfield with one of her greatest learnings, that “true learning respects the contributions of the individual whilst sharing the vision of the group”.

“My practice as a teacher was most strongly changed the week I stood amongst my entire school of jarjums working together on a single art project on a shared Dreaming Story. Each jarjum contributed their own individual stories, symbols and techniques and yet they never worked alone; their art merged and grew with that of others into a breath-taking whole. At no point was I required to stand and deliver content as the educator of a group, or to set the parameters of their learning and process. Instead I was absorbed as a participant, my contributions valued and heard yet merely one of many sources of inspiration and guidance amongst the crowd,” she said.

Fellow winner and Head of Middle School at Carinya Christian School, Alex Wharton, said his greatest learning as a teacher is that “anything is possible”.

The Gunnedah-based educator said every day he is blown away by the achievements of his students.

“I feel a lot of joy when I see improved student outcomes, or when a student reads out their poem. It shows that, for them, the future is so bright and the best is yet to come,” he said.

Pic: Alex Wharton, Carinya Christian School

And with teachers like these educating the next generation, it certainly seems as though the future is very bright.