For Chris Henderson, winner of the 2011 CORE Education Travel Scholarship, a key role for teachers is to encourage and enable students to think about how the world works and what their part is in it. Teachers, through personal involvement in agencies and organisations, can open up access to people and places that give young people a voice, particularly in times of disaster and recovery.
Last year, Chris, then teaching geography at Aranui High School in East Christchurch, used the scholarship funds to attend the 8th International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, held at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. His paper, 'Social Media as an Educational Tool for Developing Youth Citizenship in a Post Disaster Context' fitted perfectly within the session theme of Social Sustainability and Citizenship and drew on his experiences during the Canterbury earthquakes.
He was also able to extend this experience with an invitation to present a workshop about about disaster recovery at Centre for Human Relations and Community Development at Concordia University in Montreal.
Teachers are important
Two key things struck Chris during the conference. First, the emphasis placed on the importance of educators in economic and social sustainability. He turned up with the idea that he would need to push the role of teachers. However, surrounded by climate scientists, urban planners and the like, he heard their clear message that progress can’t be made without the key role of teachers; if schools aren’t on board, then young people are not reached.
Secondly, he was overwhelmed by positive feedback about his workshop, and realised the skill teachers have to engage and communicate messages as well as learning in a way that other professionals don’t. These strengths are transferable and are needed in other spheres outside the education system. In the same way, he believes we need to be teaching young people these skills through exposure to events and experiences that allow them to gain confidence and find their voice.
Some of the many things Chris was involved with last year:
1. Pasifika Youth Climate Leadership Workshop in Fiji
One of the students he took to this conference in June 2011, a 15 year-old, gave an ‘earth-shattering, most powerful speech’, that talked of the pride and strength his Pasifika culture gave him, but, at the same time, it was also a culture that didn’t always listen to people his age.
The student went on to communicate that his age group does have something to say, and that they must tell their elders what they want now and in the future. Many of the audience broke down in tears, and the same student, after this experience, went from being disengaged in school to being selected as Pacific delegate for UN environment conference on youth in Indonesia. His newfound confidence and ambition also led him to research other international events to attend.
In three weeks, Chris fundraised $25,000 to take five Pasifika students, himself, and a social worker to this conference. He sees his involvement in agencies such as UNESCO and the UN allowed him to achieve this goal. Doors were opened in a way that would not have been if he had simply been a teacher with no connections asking for money. In the end, his work with those agencies gave his request weight.
If I’m a teacher going to UNESCO and saying ‘I need these funds’, you’re just a teacher. But to say, ‘ I’m one of the officers, and this is some of our work…these are the funds we need ‘, then bang it happens. Teachers connected into other organisations strengthen their ability to get young people involved in things on a global scale.’
Being an officer with the Christchurch-based Social Innovation Trust allowed Chris to open doors for students. The three-day workshop in May 2011, organised by the Trust, focused on leadership through disaster, and worked in with the TEDxEQChCh event held at the same time.
Students who attended the TED event wore red t-shirts and dispersed themselves throughout the auditorium, sitting next to business leaders and academics to meet as many speakers as they could. They aimed to receive advice, and to also promote their message. The students practiced ‘elevator pitches’, encouraging them to feel confident and in control when talking to fellow guests at the event.
After this experience, two students, tired of hearing people speak of the eastern suburbs of Christchurch and its problems in ways which didn’t resonate with them at all, formed ‘Burst the Bubble’ [of ignorance], and hosted an event for fellow students from western schools to talk.
3. Pacific Islands Forum
Chris took three students to Auckland as representatives of Pacific Youth at the recent Pacific Government Leaders Forum. As well as speaking at the forum, they toured South Auckland schools to raise awareness of environmental issues threatening the Islands. He said his students spoke of how living in New Zealand gave them access to a world their elders in the Islands do not have, and that they needed to be speaking out for them.
Importance of student voice
Chris has enormous respect for the students he has worked with over his two years at Aranui High School. He explains that in his years of attending events—both international and national—he has found that the usual "student voice" is representative of high academic achievers. These are often those who are used to ‘saying the right things’, and who have had to write essays or presentations as part of the selection process. The students he has worked with have not necessarily been in this group.
When given the opportunity, these students are creative, with fresh things to say, and fellow delegates are challenged and delighted to hear a ‘different voice’. And Chris is delighted to have seen his high expectations for his students bear fruit and see them grow a stronger belief in themselves.
And his advice on using the travel scholarship fund?
"Go to events that aren’t necessarily about education. You have to inspire people in your subject… [for example if you are a Secondary Science teacher and you] went to UN conference on bio diversity or deforestation – [you can then say] I’ve got an important role to play in this field – I can participate in your discussions. [We need to] broaden experiences outside the classroom to take back in."
2012 applications for the CORE Education Travel Scholarship are expected to open in June 2012.