Alex Wharton is the Head of Middle School at Carinya Christian School in Gunnedah, NSW. He is one of twelve inspirational teachers across Australia to be awarded the Annual Commonwealth Bank Teachers Award.
The award, in partnership with the Australian charity Schools Plus, celebrates and rewards educators with the aim of inspiring excellent practice in schools across Australia, focusing on helping address the education gap in areas of disadvantage around the country.
“This year 400 applications were received for this teaching fellowship, I am still pinching myself and can’t believe I’m in the final 12” said Mr Wharton.
Mr Wharton is an English teacher by trade who is passionate about improving students learning outcomes, particularly related to literacy. One of the gaps he identified was the transition students were having from primary to secondary education. “There’s plenty of research that shows academic results traditionally dip, there can be a bit of a disengagement until they have settled in. I’ve been trying to be more proactive in countering that and challenging that through my teaching and classroom practice”.
The transition from primary to secondary school is a testing and exciting time for students which coincides with the social, emotional, physical and cognitive changes they endure. Focusing on enabling a positive transition during this time can give adolescents the support they need to maintain their educational performance, mental health and social wellbeing.
One of the unique initiatives Mr Wharton is proud of is the school’s Literature Circles Program. This program, collaboratively implemented by the teachers, gives Middle School English students the opportunity to have a voice and a choice in what they are thinking and reading, encouraging them to explore a particular area of literature which may be of interest to them.
“This program is something we have seen great success and engagement in. Students who traditionally may struggle in reading a sustained text actually find texts that they are interested in, have their eyes opened and really enjoy the power of literature which can affect them in a positive way”. Students must also study the mandatory set text in line with the curriculum.
What Mr Wharton loves most about being a teacher is the positive impact he can have on co-shaping the future of his students and in return, the things his students teach him. “Co shaping; I actually think we walk alongside the students. We learn together, we’re co learners, we collaborate together regularly”.
During a challenging year in 2020 with the advent of COVID-19, Mr Wharton is amazed at the resilience of his students’ ability to adapt during tough times. Mr Wharton believes that COVID-19 has brought real issues such as students access to modern technology in regional and rural schools to the forefront.
“A number of our student population are on the land, and do come from agricultural and farming families, so in terms of access to technology, in many ways the pandemic actually highlighted some of those struggles. I was “receiving emails from students writing “Sir, I’m sitting in the middle of my paddock trying to do this English lesson because that is the only spot I have reception” and it’s those little stories like that which highlight the resilience of our students to overcome whatever barriers that they are faced with at that time”.
Each recipient of the award will receive a $45,000 fellowship grant including $25,000 to rollout a strategic project in their school, $10,000 towards professional development and a group study tour to learn from a high performing school system.