Teacher uses digital classroom to win national prize

25 November 2015

My theory is that if the teacher is enjoying what they're doing, then it's likely the students will.

A Canberra high school teacher who has embraced technology in her classroom has taken out The Australian National University (ANU) inaugural Patji-Dawes Award, a national award that honours outstanding language teachers.

The award was won by Canberra Grammar School teacher Sarah Payne, who said the incorporation of digital tools was crucial in engaging modern students.

"If it's just the text book lesson after lesson, they'll switch off," Ms Payne said.

One of the assignments she sets her students is to produce a short video in the language they are studying.

"They all know how to make films and upload to YouTube now. So they are using language to talk about what is relevant to them," she said.

"It's allowing them to be creative. The feedback that I've had from parents has been fantastic."

Ms Payne said she also uses websites and online tools like Language Perfect and GetKahoot.com to increase the fun in her classroom.

"My theory is that if the teacher is enjoying what they're doing, then it's likely the students will," she said.

Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at ANU Professor Nick Evans, who speaks 'about a dozen' languages himself, said the award was aimed at helping combat a decline in language studies in Australia.

"It's a huge problem. Australia probably has the worst level of foreign language learning of any OECD country. We're atrocious, and it's going down," Professor Evans said.

"Giving recognition to those rare people, inspiring language teachers, is a concrete step we can take, and a chance to learn from people who can make things succeed in a failing system."

Professor Evans said Ms Payne was an outstanding teacher well deserving of being the inaugural Patji-Dawes Award winner.

"As Sarah's nominator and former pupil Derek Bayley stressed, it's often harder to get males interested in foreign languages. He commented on her special ability to get boys fired up about language learning," he said.

The prize is named after Aboriginal woman Patyegarang who taught her Eora language to First Fleet arrival Lieutenant William Dawes. The two shared a student-teacher relationship that saw Lt Dawes master the local Sydney Indigenous language in the earliest documented instance of a settler learning an Indigenous language.

Sarah Payne has been teaching at Canberra Grammar School since 2002 and was appointed Head of the Languages Department in 2008.

She will be presented with her award at a ceremony in Sydney on Wednesday evening at Macquarie University.

The award has been established by the ARC Centre for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL), which spans The ANU, the University of Melbourne, Western Sydney University and the University of Queensland.