Simon is a Year 7 teacher at Selwyn House School in Christchurch. He recently won an EDHQ Unsung Heroes award for his excellent work on Mechatronics, a new curriculum area combining mechanical engineering, mathematics, science, technology and the arts.
Can you give us some background on your teaching career? How did you start off in teaching, and what made you decide to become a teacher?
When I was younger I was a summer camp counsellor in the U.S., where I taught climbing and teamwork skills at a highly traditional boys’ camp in Maine. Although the travelling was fun and I made lots of friends, the thing I loved most was the thrill I got from watching the campers’ personal growth and knowing that I had been a part of that. I came back to New Zealand and signed up for teacher training the next week.
I first taught at an inner-city Catholic primary school in Wellington, which I loved, before moving to Christchurch and taking up a position at Selwyn House School. I have been here ever since.
Were there enlightening moments or inspirational people to set you on your way to a career in education?
I think my piano teacher and one of my university lecturers were particularly inspiring people. They were wildly dissimilar in their specialities – one was a concert pianist and the other a systems engineer – but both modelled reason, respectful feedback, and an inspiring level of technical skill. I found them motivating, and because I was engaged I wanted to achieve.
Can you tell us about Mechatronics, the new curriculum area you have developed for Years 1-8? How did the idea come about, and how did you make it happen?
I work with a very talented colleague, Liz Fairhall, who is a highly capable and well-regarded teacher of e-Learning and robotics. I enjoy these subjects too, but my passion lies more in designing and scratch-building things. Liz and I realised that our interests complemented each other well, so we designed a programme that could combine both of our skill sets. We came up with a course that concentrates on technologies that are both mechanical and electronic in nature – Mechatronics.
The great thing about mechatronics is that it is a very real and very creative engineering discipline, so there are plenty of opportunities for finding learning experiences that are authentic to our students beyond just robots. We believe authenticity leads to greater engagement, so we work hard to build and maintain relationships with industry to keep the learning as real as possible. The College of Engineering at UC has been particularly amazing for that.
How would you describe your teaching style?
My goal has always been to be a ‘benevolent dictator’, but ‘dictatorial clown’ might be a better description. I do like a bit of structure in my classroom, but I really value the power of shared laughter. I try to breed a class culture where everyone feels confident enough to take constructive risks and make mistakes.
How long have you been in your role at Selwyn House School?
I started in 2006. I have a background in civil engineering, so I spent a few years during the Christchurch earthquakes working on the Rebuild but returned to Selwyn House School in 2016.
What attracted you to the school?
I have a daughter, and I don’t want her to have to push back against the negative gender stereotypes that are often associated with women, particularly in technology. Selwyn House is a school where those stereotypes simply don’t exist, and I love that I can play a part in that. I also really enjoy my co-workers. We have a very high performing staff, which gives the school a really exciting vibe.
What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?
I enjoy the rewards that come from building good, strong relationships with the students in my class. It makes work a fun place to be and I find it immensely pleasing to look back on the year and see how the class has grown together as a team.
What are your thoughts on the benefits of independent schooling?
In our school, we have specialist teachers, classrooms and equipment available to everyone – including the preschool. We also have a boarding house. Students don’t have the same access to these skill sets and opportunities unless they are in an independent school, especially in the primary sector.
In your role as a teacher, what do you most want for your students?
I want them to understand two things: the importance of failure and that learning is lifelong. I have found that making mistakes and getting things wrong has always been the fastest route to learning for me, and that hasn’t stopped as I’ve gotten older!