Teacher Awards 2023: Cultivating an Inclusive and Positive Culture

This month, we were delighted to announce the winners of the 2023 Teacher Awards. The impressive list of winners for our 8 award categories span 5 states and all school sectors.

Last week, we shared the story of Kate O’Donnell, winner of the Improving Health and Wellbeing Award. In today’s article, we speak with the winner of the Cultivating an Inclusive and Positive Culture Award, Dr Todd Zadow from St Margaret’s Berwick Grammar in Victoria, about how he ensures his classroom is a safe, respectful, and inclusive learning environment for all students.

Effective school leaders and educators place a high priority on creating and maintaining an environment in which all students, and staff, can thrive and succeed. The Cultivating an Inclusive and Positive Culture category in the Teacher Awards celebrates the efforts of an individual in cultivating an inclusive and positive school culture, which can promote learning outcomes and wellbeing.

The 2023 winner of this category, Dr Todd Zadow is Science Learning Leader and Learning Analytics Coordinator at St Margaret’s Berwick Grammar in Victoria. He was nominated for the Teacher Award by his school principal, Annette Rome, who shared how many of the programs and clubs that Zadow has formed that have led to increased student engagement.

‘Todd is an outstanding educator who exhibits humility, intense curiosity and a deep care of and for young people so they may become the best people they can be,’ the award nomination reads.

Zadow says that getting involved in student experiences outside of the classroom is something that he’s always prioritised. Early in his career when he was working as a CRT, Zadow attended a year 9 camping and hiking expedition, where they spent 9 days sleeping under a piece of plastic without tents.

‘I really enjoyed that and I attended it 10 years in a row because every year I got to witness students who, in some cases, this was the longest time that they’d been away from their home. They came out of their shell and they discovered strengths in themselves that they could then use not only in other parts of their schooling, but also beyond schooling into adulthood as well, and to even just be a small part of that journey for them is a really rewarding experience,’ he shares.

Just this year alone, Zadow has organised over 15 events for students at his school, both internal (incursions, National Science Week activities, webinars) and external (third-party science competitions, off-site excursions). Zadow has introduced activities like the sailing and STEM clubs, to create opportunities for students to explore their own strengths and also form relationships with students of other age groups.

‘The nature of these clubs also helps to promote the inclusion of students across all abilities, including those with a disability or those who are neurodiverse,’ he shares.

In addition to providing engagement opportunities for students outside of the classroom, Zadow says he is conscious of what he can do within the school to engage a range of students.

‘We actively promote the engagement of girls in STEM by partnering with organisations in the industry; we get invited to tours of factories and we have guest speakers come in to speak to our girls. Earlier in the year we also celebrated the International Day of Women and Girls in Science with a group of our girls meeting the CEO of the Royal Women’s Hospital and meeting some of the researchers there,’ he says.

Zadow is also keen to engage the primary school students in STEM as well, so he had the year 10s run workshops with grade 2 students. ‘It was a great opportunity for the grade 2s to learn a bit more about science, but also for our year 10s it is a really interesting mentoring type of experience for them.’

In his role as Learning Analytics Coordinator this year, Zadow has been working closely with the school leadership team and other stakeholders to ensure that no students fall through the cracks – not only in identifying students at the lower end for additional support, but also in identifying high-performing students who may be good candidates for our extension programs.

Creating a safe, respectful, and inclusive learning environment

He says he is always working to ensure his classroom is a safe, respectful, and inclusive learning environment for all students. ‘There’s a famous quote: “They may forget what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel” and that really underpins every time that I walk into the classroom,’ Zadow reflects.

‘Teaching is a relational profession, and now more than ever, the building of positive relationships with our students is essential for their engagement, their respect and their learning. For me personally, I like incorporating a lot of humour into my classes because it’s a great icebreaker and I have a captive audience who I get to test my jokes on,’ he laughs.

Zadow says he draws on a philosophy that he heard while in university that has stuck with him. It says, as teachers, we decide the weather within our classrooms, so why not decide for it to be sunny rather than cloudy and raining?

‘I think a big part of it also comes down to really knowing and understanding my students. Learning their names - and especially how to pronounce their names - really early on certainly helps. But also getting a sense of who they are as a person, not just a student in my class – so understanding their hobbies, their interests, their taste in music, their character strengths and their weaknesses. I think all of that helps build that picture of the individual person in the classroom, not just a student,’ he adds.

Building a culture of trust

As part of the judging criteria, one of the elements our Judging Panel was looking for in this award category was that a culture of trust and support exists among school community members.

The Judging Panel commented that ‘this submission details the extent to which a single education professional has gone beyond the position description and created opportunities for students that will benefit long after the programs, engagements and experiences this teacher has created and led. The depth and careful thought that has gone into developing experiences for students is impressive.’

Zadow says that he doesn’t think trust and respect are things that should simply be expected of students, but they should organically develop in reciprocity to the trust and respect that we show them.

‘As teachers and indeed as adults, we need to role model what it means to be respectful not only to students but to our colleagues as well. Young people have a very good ability to pick up on this, and they’re excellent judges of the sincerity behind the interactions that we have with them.

‘When asking student in my class how they’re feeling, I genuinely want to know how they’re feeling. When I ask them how they how they went in the footy on the weekend, I genuinely want to know how they went,’ he says.

Zadow also tries to contribute to making school an enjoyable experience for students and break down that ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

‘This has led me into a range of situations like camping in torrential rain to try and get a fire started for my group, performing an opening from The Lion King for a lip sync contest, I’ve had drum battles with students at assemblies, I’ve had wrestling matches in sumo suits and, more recently, I was in an air guitar competition in front of 1,000 students and I actually tore my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], which I didn’t think was possible in an air guitar competition. That was about 2 years ago and I’m still getting physio for that. I may have jumped off the stage,’ he laughs.

Zadow says that he’s grateful to his school leadership who haven’t hesitated to support all of the initiatives he’s introduced, and for nominating him for the Teacher Awards in the first place.

‘I think to be recognised by Teacher magazine and its panel of judges for this award is a real privilege, not to mention being nominated in the first place. You don’t go into this profession expecting any sorts of awards or extrinsic reward for the time and the heart and soul that you put into education. But it’s the little individual wins that you have with students along the way and the little sprouts of growth that you see that really make it worthwhile.’

The Teacher Awards will be returning in 2024! The awards recognise work that’s been completed in the past 12 months, so it’s not too early to start thinking about your nomination for next year. You can browse the specific criteria for this award, and the other 7 categories, here, and our FAQ page for the Teacher Awards here.

How do you ensure that your classroom is a safe, inclusive and respectful learning environment for all students? How do you know? Is this something you ask for feedback on?

Dr Todd Zadow tries to make school an enjoyable experience for all students. Is this something you aim to do in your school? What steps do you take to make this a reality?