Get to know a teacher from Riverside School!
Niall Walsh worked at The Riverside School (Ahmedabad, India) for more than three years. He had an amazing positive impact at the school, developing new and very interesting projects. It is a pleasure and a great opportunity to being able to talk to him.
What did you study? Why did you decide to start teaching?
I studied English literature at University, and this is one of the subjects that I eventually taught at Riverside, but the reasons I wanted to get into teaching came from a different source. In the summer of 2007 I spent 3 months in Kenya, working as part of the SUAS educational development program, where we were working within government primary schools for three months to assist teachers in structuring engaging teaching activities and creating supporting instructional materials. There were 70 kids packed into smaller than normal class sizes but what struck me more than anything was the willingness and desire of the students to do whatever they needed to do to learn, and this ultimately inspired me to want to get into teaching, at least for some time.
What brought you to Riverside?
In 2010 I was working within ARK (acts of random kindness), a not for profit clothing start up brand that aimed to promote empathy and kindness. We were looking at developing modules for schools based on empathy and I had seen Kiran Sethi’s TED talk and skyped with her about the possibility of bringing Design for Change into Dublin classrooms. We experimented with the concept in Irish schools but I left Ark a couple of months later, but always kept in touch with Kiran. I then had signed up to coordinate a team of volunteers on the SUAS program in 2011 in Kolkata, and after chatting with Kiran she convinced me to teach at riverside for some time. I think what really attracted me to the school was the philosophy of student centred education and the fact that kids were not taught what they should do, but rather given the tools and opportunities to genuinely engage with the world around them and develop their own unique identity.
Why did you decide to stay there during more than 3 years?
I think the easy answer would be to say the kids, my fellow teachers or the space, and all of those were contributing factors. However, I think what made me stay for so long was the personal growth I experienced in Riverside, and the opportunities and responsibilities I received at such a young and inexperienced age. Being able to craft and shape both the classes I took in literature and English, but also being able to create from scratch an innovative sports curriculum and then put it into practice was an extremely engaging opportunity, and gave me huge motivation to work hard in this environment. Coupled with this, the atmosphere of warmth that permeated the walls of each and every space in Riverside is something that is hard to quantify, and seeing the effect that this place had on the students that I taught was a huge reason I stayed. Being able to see these genuinely bright and empathetic students grow in this atmosphere and through the efforts I put in on the sports field and in the classroom was a hugely rewarding experience, and I do not know if I will ever feel the sense of being valued in another place the way I was in Riverside.
How would you explain or define Riverside in 4-5 lines to someone who hasn’t got the privilege to get to know this amazing school?
Riverside is a school that challenges both students and teachers to be more than they thought they could be. It encourages teachers and students to genuinely care for one another, and it does everything it can to provide both with the opportunities to grow and develop intellectually and emotionally. The school campus is a paradise of positive thought and constructive dialogue, and students are never taught down to, but rather always encouraged to express themselves, push their own boundaries, and genuinely appreciate and care for the people around them.
Your colleague told me that you introduced something called “The Sports Day”. Could you briefly explain me what is this about and what is the purpose of it?
The purpose of this altered idea of a Sports Day, was that every single student in Key Stage Three at Riverside could feel included and involved in a day that celebrated everything that was good about the school. Students had the opportunity not only to play a host of different sports events across two days with their various mixed grade squads, but also squads were challenged to be creative with costumes, dance routines, branding of their squads, speeches, chants, entrance at the opening ceremony etc. The purpose of including in the points structure of such a day is that teams come together before the sports are actually played in building an ethos and culture of a team, and that the full blend of talents and abilities within a squad are appreciated, rather than just the fastest or the strongest on the field. Throughout the day teams are encouraged to cheer for and support each others teams with equal voracity, and the way that the sports day brings out the best in each and every student was a key idea in its design.
Nowadays education is one of the most trending topics. Innovation and creativity are two of the main concepts people talk about when thinking about what should education empower in our students in order to prepare them for the future jobs. How does Riverside teach their students to be innovative and creative?
Riverside teachers their students to be innovative and creative through both inquiry based learning and opportunities outside of ordinary academic activities. Inquiry based learning can best be illuminated by the example of a mini apprenctice that students in Grade 10 worked on, when they encountered the topic of entrepreneurship in their textbooks. The class was split into two groups and each group was given the real world challenge of designing a new ice cream for the brand in the city, Havmor. The students had to go out into the city to understand the market, to develop pricing and branding strategies, to differentiate their produce from others, and most impressive of all, actually create a new ice cream flavour. The fact that the students were created with such an open ended problem and given the freedom and support necessary to come up with a creative solution, was vindicated by the fact that one teams ice cream caught the imagination of Havmor’s CEO to such an extent that it was put into mass production and included in every Havmor outlet in the city. The activities outside of the academics that the students engage in such as their persistence ‘NGO’ organizations or the debates or model united nations committees help to also give students the ability to be innovative in their approach to tackling complex problems around them.
In order to help and guide our students to develop competencies and skills like the two mentioned above, teachers need to be prepared. How do you think schools can train teacher to be innovative and creative in their classrooms as well as among their peers?
I think that the key here is that professional development must practice what it preaches. If we want out students to be exposed to creative and innovative teaching, then we too as teachers need to be exposed to creative and innovative professional development. A process of inquiry based learning with problems such as redesigning a curriculum, or completely reworking the timetable of the school, or developing a blended learning approach across two subjects, can also help us to already understand what it means to be creative in the education space. Further, the opportunity for teachers to trial new approaches within their classrooms and then receive feedback from peers observing or working in communities of practice, is also critical for these new interventions to actually move beyond the idea stage. If a teacher is interested in the Olympics or the world cup and they teach economics, they should be encouraged to twin both passions and design units of instructions that use these real world phenomena to make academic concepts more relevant.
The Riverside School is also known by the international “Be the Change Challenge” that brings together thousands of students all over the world. What is this challenge about and what is its objective?
Yes, I think the be the change challenge is a great initiative because it once again challenges students to take matters into their own hands, and not wait to be told what to do by their elders. The challenges asks students to look around them, in their specific frame of reference, and see what bothers them, or what shouldn’t be. They then have to go through a process of brainstorming and thinking through what a feasible solution to this problem would be, before finally implementing it and then sharing what they have done to inspire others. It sounds extremely straightforward and simplistic but that is because it is. Students need to be encouraged not to be overwhelmed with the complexity of problems particularly at a young age, and instead their own personal agency should be developed. If students believe that they have the capacity to start changing the world around them in small and innovative ways that only they as children can see, then will start to see themselves as capable of taking on any challenge. The guidance of the teacher is critical at this point and is a key element in the Change challenge that needs to be considered, as they must provide the environment where it is safe for students to challenge and ideate, but provide a more realistic and pragmatic influence when required.
What is the best moment you remember about teaching with and for your students?
There are countless! Really, I could list a thousand moments of laughter and joy at Riverside, and of my heart bursting with pride at just how much my students have developed their minds as human beings. For me personally though, it will be the graduation ceremony of students in Grade 12 in my last month working at Riverside. The student giving the graduation speech was a student of mine at English at A level, and also a key player in the girl’s football team I had coached. This girl was really quite shy up and had a phobia of public speaking and speaking out in general particularly in the early stages when I had joined the school, and had a real lack of confidence in herself despite being quite bright and engaging as a student. In grade 3 of school her and her twin sister would barely even speak out loud in class. Seeing this girl grow to such a degree where she was able to deliver a stunning valedictorian speech was possibly the proudest I have ever felt of anybody, and I think only in a place like Riverside would the growth trajectory of this girl even have been possible. Most places give opportunities only to the naturally adept leaders, but throughout her final two or three years this girl had been challenges and pushed, and supported through that challenge, to the point where she was able to deliver a speech that was so poignant and appropriate that it won’t be forgotten by any of her classmates. I really think this moment emphasizes the potential of Riverside more beautifully than any other I witnessed during my time there.
Thank you very, very, very much! :)