Dr Sarah Mathews is one of Queensland’s great examples of someone destined to be a teacher.
Sarah left her 17-year career as a scientist to educate and inspire students in science and maths, and she now finds herself being recognised as one of the best teachers in the world.
It was in during school that Sarah first thought she wanted to be a teacher, but instead she went on to study science at university where she discovered a passion for molecular biology during her undergraduate years.
After progressing to an honours degree in genetic science and then a PhD in medical research, Sarah felt she was learning more and more about less and less, and wanted to broaden her thinking.
Sarah volunteered a few mornings a week at her children’s primary school where she developed a love for being around teachers and students.
She participated in the CSIRO Scientists in Schools initiative where she ran science programs and became heavily involved in the school’s Science Week activities. From then on, Sarah knew she had to teach.
“I just got the buzz for having the kids in front of me... I thought, I’m going to make the jump into teaching,” said Sarah, “I believed I had a lot to give.”
The transition from the lab to the classroom came naturally to Sarah who compares teaching to observation in science.
“As a scientist you’re taught the art of observation and what goes on behind what you’re seeing.”
“Now as a teacher I’m able to use these skills to troubleshoot, and I find I’m doing mini action-research within my class, without even knowing it.”
Now, after nine years in teaching and leadership roles, Sarah is one of the top 50 finalists for the $1 Million Global Teacher Prize.
Sarah says she was amazed to learn she was in the top 50, and she has really enjoyed the journey so far.
“Even just doing the application was a deeply reflective exercise,” she said, “It made me reflect on where I had been and where I wanted to go.”
When asked what she loves most about being a teacher, Sarah said it’s that “lightbulb moment”.
“I love it all. I think the thing that what drew me in was that I had a lot to offer in the maths and science space, but I think ultimately it’s the relationships, and that connection with the kids who aren’t engaged and being able to switch on those lights.”
Sarah says she’s grateful for the wonderful facilities and the positive learning environment at Brisbane Bayside State College, which is now in its ninth year.
One of Sarah’s many “proud-teacher-moments” was the boosted attendance rates she achieved with a Year 10 class who were struggling to see the fun in Science.
Sarah promised students there would be a lesson based around scientific explosions once a week, and as a result engagement soared.
“It was a huge year of risk assessments for me… but they’ve been part of a scientist’s’ life from day dot,” Sarah joked, “I’m now teaching maths, so there’s no opportunity to go bang”.
As Maths Head of Department at the College, Sarah says she’ll certainly be tapping into STEM to enhance future learning, and that she aims to transform the way students and teachers think about numeracy in everyday teaching and learning.
“Maths teachers are very good at abstract thinking, so I started challenging them to encompass representational thinking, then I challenged the rest of the school to see how they could help us make links to numeracy,” says Sarah.
Sarah is joined by Heads of Department from across the College on a journey that is taking the line of sight from intended curriculum to reported curriculum, which Sarah says is off to a flying start.
“Schools are incredibly busy and everyone wants to drive a different agenda, but it’s about just taking a step back, reflecting and thinking what is it we all need to do?” says Sarah.
“Like my maths, I like to bring everything back down to the common denominator, so that we’re all working in the same direction.”
Sarah is joined by 2018 Australia’s Local Hero and Head Mathematics Teacher at Cherrybrook Technology High School Eddie Woo, and Wilbur Klein from Tjuntjuntjara Remote Community School in the Top 50 finalists.
The winner of the 2018 Global Teacher Prize will be announced in March 2018 at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai.
Congratulations Sarah, and good luck in the next stages of judging.