For everyone Changing the game

Kerri Smith at play with her students. Photo: Rachel Sands

Don’t smile until Easter – it’s the classic advice new teachers have long been given when first facing a classroom solo. Fish Creek and District Primary School teacher Kerri Smith wouldn’t agree. She says smiling and cracking a joke is crucial to building a relationship with kids – a relationship that is essential for good teaching.

“In terms of building relationships with the kids, you’ve got to crack jokes,” Kerri says. “When the kids are comfortable enough to give it back to you, you know you’ve got a good relationship with them. My kids pick on me all the time, just being funny.”

Kerri certainly knows what she’s talking about. In 2018, she was awarded Outstanding Primary Teacher of the Year at the Victorian Education Excellence Awards. While she was delighted – and surprised – to be nominated, she says the process made her aware of how important relationship-building has always been to her practice. 

When she was made a finalist, she was asked to take along four A3 pieces of paper to a panel interview, with the freedom to talk about anything teaching-related.

“I filled them up with photos of my classroom over the years and it was really nice having the opportunity to talk about those kids and the relationships I’d built with them,” she says. 

“In terms of building relationships with the kids, you’ve got to crack jokes. The silliness is a bond that we share.”

Kerri Smith

“I was talking about kids I’d taught years ago. I hadn’t really thought until then how important those relationships are.”

After more than 37 years in the classroom, she considers her most important job to be getting to know her students, so that she can truly engage them in their learning journey. This means finding out about their lives beyond the school gate. Humour and silliness play a large part in discovering what makes kids tick.

“When we go swimming, I remind them they are not allowed to get wet,” she says. “When they go to music and drama, I tell them they are not allowed to have any fun. The silliness is a bond that we share.”

This focus on the interpersonal might seem at odds with a current push in primary education towards a more measurable, outcome-based approach. Does Kerri think we need to create more room for goofing around in the classroom?

Kerri accepting her Education Excellence award; the creative Fish Creek PS garden; examples of classroom STEM activities. Photos: supplied

“Hell, yes. Let’s ditch NAPLAN! If I think about the ways that I get my kids to do things, it’s all about games.

“We do this thing called ‘write and wriggle’. At the end of that five minutes, the kids have practised writing their words quite a few times. Just getting them to sit down and write them out 15 times wouldn’t have the same impact at all.”

This instinctive understanding for how children learn might be down to how young Kerri herself was when she first took control of a classroom.

“The reason I became a teacher in the first place was because when I was in Grade 6, I was asked to look after the prep kids for the afternoon because the teacher had gone home sick,” Kerri says. This career-defining experience is one that she uses as a teaching tool with her students.

This focus on the interpersonal might seem at odds with a current push in primary education towards a more measurable, outcome-based approach.

“I get the kids to do an exercise called ‘You Be The Teacher’. Sometimes kids can understand each other better than adults. If a kid has met the challenge I’ve set them, I’ll say, ‘You’re now a teacher’ and I’ll send them around to help other kids. It’s good for them, because the best way to know you’ve learned something is to have to teach it to someone else.”

This year, Kerri will be having a go at teaching other teachers – both at her school and throughout the local network cluster – what she’s learned since winning her award, which included $20,000 towards professional development. To make the most of that windfall, Kerri chose to spend it on online courses that she could do in her spare time. Somehow, she managed to clock up an incredible 300 hours of PD in the past year, while continuing to work full time.

“I occasionally saw my husband!” she says, laughing. “Once I’d started getting into it, it just snowballed. You start hearing about all these other things you could get into.”

Kerri chose to focus on mathematics, particularly around a technique called Number Sense, which helps kids connect abstract mathematical ideas with the real world, allowing them to understand what quantities actually look like. As with her other classroom practice, games play a large part.

“It’s really hard sometimes to get past parents who say, ‘I was never any good at maths, so my kid’s not going to be’. That’s just totally wrong thinking. We’re doing games every day in maths and the kids don’t see it as being particularly boring or hard, because they’re playing.”

This year, as well as sharing her wisdom with her peers, Kerri will be mentoring a graduate prep teacher. When asked what advice she’ll be giving, Kerri doesn’t hesitate.

“Get to know your kids! Don’t worry about the academic stuff at this stage, just have fun with them, find out what makes them tick, because you’re not going to get anything out of them if you don’t have a relationship with them.”

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