Spotlight on Gavin McCormack: The Change that a World-Renowned Educator Wants to See in the World Podcast Transcript

[Ludo] – Ludo Millar

[Gavin] – Gavin McCormack



Hi, my name is Ludo Millar, host of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. Now, today’s guest is a change maker that has inspired more than most. So much so, in fact, that he’s featured as a TEDxSydney speaker as one of the top ten, most influential global educators. And, even as Australian of the year in 2018. Now, that man is Gavin McCormack and we are honoured to invite Gavin onto our podcast. Now, I could spend the next ten minutes introducing Gavin, his lifetime achievements, his lockdown activities that inspired thousands of children across the world, his background in Montessori education, his vision for how education can rescue the Earth, the children’s picture books he’s written and designed, the training he’s delivered to teachers world wide, the three schools he’s funded and built in Nepal or even his almost, unparalleled reach on the world of ‘Education LinkedIn’, but you don’t want to hear that from me. So all I’ll say is, thank you for joining us Gavin, and welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast.


Wow! That’s an amazing introduction, I feel absolutely, I’m blushing as I listen to you say those things. It’s yeah, it’s an honour to be here. I’m really feeling so good. So yeah, I’m really looking forward to today’s- today’s chat.


Very good, yeah. So, as we were just joking about earlier and as you may have guessed from that introduction, Gavin is based in Sydney, in northern Sydney. And I, myself, am based in north-east London, so there’s often, it’s not easy to find a time that works for both, but so it’s currently seven in the morning for Gavin and just reaching ten thirty at night for me. But I think we are lucky to have Gavin’s early morning spirit on this podcast. So, Gavin, we’re gonna start with this question. What is your why as an educator?


Okay, so that’s a big question and one that I put to my students a lot. So being a principal of a primary school, I often ask them why. I tell the students in my school, anything is on the table. As a Montessori school, anything is on the table, if you want to do, you want to open a charity, you want to build a business, you want to sell a product, and all my students are primary school students, I say, yes you can. You can do all those things as long as you tell me why and your why has to be absolutely pure in terms of, it has to help at least one other person, at least, become better or progress in their life, or find some more success. And for me, personally in terms of my why, that is exactly it. You know, when I took the role of principal I knew it was going to be stressful. I knew it was going to be busy, you know. I wasn’t going to be able to have all the freedoms that I used to have in terms of going to the beach after school, or you know, finishing school at three o’clock.

But my why is about, not how many people can I inspire, but how many people can I motivate to be a change maker too. Because I think that the more people we get on the treadmill of change, you know, using their influence to make real impact with purpose. Then it’s not hard, you know, exponential growth in terms of feeling good and making a difference means that you only, five or six steps away from changing the world yourself. So I just think, my why personally is about exactly that. I grew up in Leeds, my mum was a single mum. We didn’t have much as children, and my aim wasn’t to go out the in the world and make money. In fact, I don’t have much money at all, I’ve given it all away. My aim was to have the most fun, but make the biggest difference and right now, I’m in a real sweet spot. It feels like I’m actually achieving that myself. So that’s my why ultimately.


Wow. I’m sure if you weren’t constrained by the fact that this is a half an hour question with a few more questions to add in then we could have a whole conversation, Gavin, on that why. I feel like that’s fundamental to what you are, sorry to who you are and to what you do. And perhaps that can lead into the question I wanted to ask next, which was, and please be as open and as visionary about this as you like. But what is it that you are most excited about at the moment, in your life, in your work? What is it that’s really getting you up in the morning and getting you out of bed?


Okay. So that’s a really good question and I haven’t told anyone this. So this will be great. So, obviously, you know, I’m the kind of person who has ten or fifteen things going all at the same time and it sounds stressful. But to me it’s not because what I do, it doesn’t seem like work to me, you know? When I was a teacher, just teaching in the classroom, that was never work. You know? I’m often looking at myself in the mirror thinking, oh my god, I get paid for this? I get paid to go to class everyday and inspire a group of children and then say look what you can do, look what you can achieve and watch them just run with it. And I thought, god I get paid for that and you know, Australian teachers get paid good money. I think we’re one of the highest paid teachers in the world. So it was crazy to think that, and then I thought, you know, I’ve got all this time. You know, I’m finishing work every day at three o’clock as a teacher. That gives me another seven or eight hours of the day to do something else. And then came along technology, and the world suddenly seemed so close. Everything, I’d been around the world and been backpacking for a few years when I was younger and everything’s so distant.

Suddenly, you know, I was given this device, like, here’s an iPhone and everything is in your pocket. You can talk to anyone you want in the world as long as you make a connection with them. And then I started to think, well , you know, now I’ve got this kind of, you know, energy within me. I feel like I want to make these big changes, this big difference. How can I. How can I leverage that? So I first started writing books, and I thought if I write some picture books then people will buy them. They’ll be in classrooms, and I can sell them online and I can have a little narrative within those stories and make a difference in that way, and I did that. You know, I’ve written four or five books, and they’re beautiful and I’m happy with- you know, it wasn’t big enough. It was big but it wasn’t big enough. And then I, it started to gather this following online and a lot of teachers and parents, and school principals, leaders and whatnot, and I realised that they felt the same way. They all were teachers, they all wanted to make a difference with their little class of twenty or thirty children, which is beautiful and we’ve all been there. But, you know, there’s a lot of power within every teacher to make a difference. If only you, if only they had fifty thousand students to teach everyday and it was a possibility. And then I started to realise that it is a possibility in actual fact, and I’ve done a lot of work in the Himalayas. So I’ve built seven or eight schools in the Himalaya and a couple of big training centres, the two biggest training centres in Nepal actually. And, the the what I realised there was, everyone has a school to go to but the school system is so shocking. Go to northern India, go to Ladakh, go to Nepal or Bangladesh, what you’ll find is dusty rooms where the children sit on the floor. There’s a teacher at the front and there’s a board and some chalk, but the quality of education is is so low. And it’s no-one’s fault, it’s just the position that that country’s in at the moment. And what gets me up in the morning at the moment is this, it’s that I recently resigned from my job as school principal. And that was a big decision. But I resigned, not because I don’t like the job. I love the job and I love the children, I love the teachers. In fact, all the teachers are my friends.

The reason I resigned, I realised in this pandemic with the capabilities of the internet and the networks that we have in terms of technology, that there is a chance to educate the masses via your bedroom or via your office, with a couple of screens, three cameras and an iPad. And I’ve been trialling that recently and next year, I’ll be embarking on a journey with a good friend of mine from Melbourne. He’s called Richard Mills and we are going to attempt to open something called UpSchool. And UpSchool will be basically an anywhere school for those who can’t attend. So if you’re in Ladakh, and Ladakh has hundreds of millions of people living there, with millions of children who can’t go to school, and haven’t been to school for two or three years. Well, they have the fastest Internet, they have faster internet than probably you or I. They have 5g running out of northern India, so they’ve got the internet but no school. So why don’t we just take the school to them? So the idea, and what’s getting me up in the morning is gathering a group of like-minded educators who are not in this for the money, cause this isn’t about the money it’s about making a difference. Who are willing to give a small section of their time to educate the masses. So we’ll make a timetable of teachers from around the world, will login and it will be Barbara from Massachusetts at three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. Hi guys, welcome to phonics with me, Barbara. She will deliver this absolutely killer lesson. Children from all over the world who can’t go to school, or even can go to school but want to go to the everywhere school, check in, are educated. Barbara log out and in logs John from Egypt who’s going to teach… and so when you’ve got a group of teachers who are willing to give their time, are empowered, motivated, wanna make a difference. Then I think, and I really believe this otherwise I wouldn’t have quit my amazing job. I think that you can educate the children who can’t get to school from the comfort of your own bedroom.

So that is getting me going at the moment and I’m running something called Empathy Week in September. September 20th to the 24th. I put it out online, just a quick little poster and I said hey guys, if you’re a teacher in the world and you wanna give one hour of your time during this week, please register here. And I’ve had three and a half thousand teachers who are willing to give one hour of their time in that week. So look, you know, there’s a movement out there, people wanna make a difference and it will just be a platform to allow people to do it. Hopefully next year these will come to fruition, become a reality and it will be very exciting. 


Okay. Yes, so World Empathy Week, I wanted to to speak a little bit more about that and hopefully we’ll do, chat a little bit more about World Empathy Week at the end of this, but yes, for those of you listening. The form to sign up, if you are a teacher and you’re willing to give an hour of your week in September to change the world just a little bit, to help children around the world then the form for that will be in the show notes below (here). But my question to you, Gavin is, can we get Barbara on the podcast or was she a made up teacher?


Barbara is actually my old secretary, lovely lady, not even a teacher. I just used that word, I don’t know why I used that name. I use it all the time. It’s just my fictional character who popped into my head. 


Barbara and John if I remembered?


Yeah, yeah. Whenever I’m talking about a made-up teacher to the students or in some kind of lecture, I always use Mr Johnson. So if there is a Mr Johnson out there, probably a really good teacher but I always use you as the terrible teacher who just lectures the kids all day. So, my apologies, if you are Mr Johnson.


Sorry, Mr Johnson! Okay, there’s there’s there’s a key point there and and you know, as as listeners who haven’t heard of you before, haven’t seen you on LinkedIn or elsewhere, Gavin, will already have understood you are an educator who seeks to make positive change in the world. And if you have heard of Gavin before and you’re drawn to this podcast because of that, first of all thank you Gavin. Second of all, you’ll know what what Gavin is about and really, I see there’s a point here. There’s short of an issue, but there’s a point here and that is that, if education, if we want educators to inspire change, how can they do this when consistency in education is key for children? How do we inspire change when consistency is key?


That’s, I mean that’s a killer question. That’s an awesome question.

I was doing a keynote speech last night in Turkey in Ankara and there were 80,000 teachers who logged into this forum. I don’t know how they ran it but it was unreal and somebody asked me a very similar question. And their question was, how do we, how do we be creative teachers when the government are so restrictive? And tell us exactly what to say and what to do? And that’s a really common issue, because what happens in most of the schools and in the government organisations in the world is that, the government want to show that their education system and their country is ‘la crème de la crème’. So they want it to rank on the Pisa Scale nice and high, and then Singapore, then there’s Norway and Finland, and when that comes from the top it filters it all its way down from, you know. The hierarchy of the government and it ends up at the desk of the child sitting there. And the way I see that, is you know, the government say we want to improve our education system and the way we’re gonna measure that is, we’re gonna get higher on the Pisa Rankings which is the world education rankings. And therefore, they push to their delegates, and their delegates push that out to their local principals, and the local principals hand the curriculum to their teachers and say look, if you teach this, then at the end of this journey. If you do a really good job, then your kids will all get grade As, then I feed that grade A back up the ladder again to the top, we report that to the to the world body and then there’ll be doing really well. So off you go, let’s make that happen.

And that’s an absolute failure in my eyes, in terms of your question. ‘Cause you said, you know, how do we inspire this innovation, and this creativity and this, you know, this future style of learning. Children who we, who will grow up to be leaders, who will basically do the right thing. How do we do that? And I think I actually have the answer to that. And the answer is, the answer lies within, a) our leadership within our schools and b) our teachers. But it starts with the leadership and the leadership have to do one thing right, and that one thing is to trust their teachers that they can teach. In no other profession in the world, you know I don’t go to the doctor’s. I’ve never been to the doctor’s and had a prescription handed to me, and me say to the doctor, are you sure this is right? Are you sure you prescribed me with the right medication? Are you sure I should take two a day? I trust him. He’s a professional. He’s a doctor. Now a teacher is also a professional, however we tend not to trust our teachers. Nobody in society, parents tell them how to teach. Parents tell them what they’re doing wrong. Their leadership teams tell them exactly what to say by handing them documents and saying, say this, teach that, assess that. But each teacher’s unique, each teacher is an individual, each teacher has their own style and also wants to be motivated themselves. They also come to school with a plethora of skills and interests, I have a chef, you know, who is a part-time chef, but he comes to school as a teacher. Are you utilising his knowledge of food in the classroom? You might have you know, a marine biology student who goes diving on a Saturday, are you allowing her to shine and bring her skills into school? And when we do that, when we trust our teachers, when we give them freedom to be able to experiment with the curriculum, and when I say experiment, I don’t mean miss out the outcomes and the indicators, and not meet their targets. I don’t mean that.

What I do mean is meet those targets and meet those outcomes, but meet them in a way that suits them. If the curriculum says, you will teach children about volcanoes and how they erupt, which is on provably every curriculum in the world. Why don’t you just let your teachers teach that in a way that suits them, because each and every one of them will come to the party slightly differently. Each and every one of them will teach them in a different way. But when you do that, they do it with motivation, and they do it with inspiration and therefore, your children walk away inspired too. But the second point I want to make is, the typically lesson plan that we all follow, which is you know, the teacher introduces the lesson, the teacher stands at the front, the teacher shows the whiteboard. The children open the textbook. They highlight the key words. They do a bit of reading, if you remember everything I said on Friday you get a grade A. That is, should be thrown out the window. That is, you know, two hundred year old style of teaching and it doesn’t inspire any creativity, any innovation or any independence in our students.

What should actually happen is, the teacher should only be teaching for about twenty minutes, and that should be really inspirational, really personal and really tangible. Something about, you know, if you’re teaching volcanoes, well here’s a picture of me when I actually went to Bali and I was standing at a volcano and the lava was really hot. And the children are like oh my god, my teacher went to a volcano, that’s unbelievable. And here comes the most important bit in my eyes, and that’s when the teacher says, now students, what would you like to know about volcanoes? And every hand goes up, and basically the children write their own curriculum. They say, how hot is lava? What’s the biggest volcano? What will happen if the volcano in Yosemite goes off? And the teacher writes those down, doesn’t answer them but writes them down and says, you can research one of these questions or all of these questions. You can work with whom you want in the class. You can represent your research in a way that suits you. It can be a diagram, a model, a show, a play, a dance, a report, an artist. And what happens at that very moment, when you do that, you say, yes to your students is. They go away and they show you how inspired they can be, but they also show you skills you never get to see if you had them all sitting in rows and listening to you. Because they start to collaborate, they start to innovate. They will make mistakes, and they will go wrong, but from mistakes comes great avenues fo learning. Btu we all know that. And I think that. That is the change we need to make from the top down and the bottom up is, we need to have trust, we need to have freedom within limits. We need to let go and we need to say to our students, yes you can. There’s a really good quote which I’ll finish your question with, which is: a good teacher knows how to teach but a great teacher knows when not to. And I love that quote, because it allows you to step back and just let it all play out in front of you.


A good teacher knows how to teach but a great teacher knows when not to.

It has to be repeated, I that has to be remembered, I think that has to be recalled at certain times for those teachers amongst us, and that obviously includes tutors as well, because tutors do teach amongst other things. So, what I, what a vision, I mean, that’s obviously the situation within certain classrooms. You know, certainly, I would imagine the one that Gavin McCormack oversees or at least conducts. But I want to go further into that point, Gavin, because we, that’s only I imagine, the very early stages of your, of the plans that you hope to inspire, but also implement in in classrooms around the world in the future. And that is, this is really a question in which you can let your imagination run wild, Gavin. Absolutely, what would success for classroom education look like in 2030?


Okay, so, good question, and I think that a really good point to make is, 2030 is ten years away. Can I extend your question to 2032?


You may. The hesitancy of that date was, I was going to go 2050 but let’s go 2032.


Yeah, the reason I say 2032 is this, if you are a Kindergarten child today in the US, you’ll graduate from school in 2032. Right? So, you know, that’s twelve years away. Now let me put that in perspective for you, because we have no idea what the world will look like twelve years at all. You might think you do, but let me put it in perspective. In 2008, so twelve years ago, there was no Google Maps, iPhone had just been released and there wasn’t an electric car on the road. Now, so if you think about what’s happened in twelve years in the world, you know. There was no Google maps, that’s crazy! Now we’ve got Google earth, now we have satellites in the sky that can track you everywhere you go and the reason I say that to you is because in 2032 we have no idea what kind of skill, what kind of knowledge our children will need, or if they will even need knowledge at all you know? You know? We have no idea. Maybe this is something we can download. We’ve got scientists talking about implanting things, all these crazy, you know, these crazy, whimsical things that people talk about. They often come to fruition. I mean, the the the you’ve got Elon Musk talking about going to Mars and you think, oh well that’s never gonna happen, but there’ll be a day when there’s some people standing on Mars. I can guarantee that.

And, in 2032 we do not know what academics our children will need. We don’t. But we do know one thing is really important, we know exactly what skills they will need. They will need empathy, love, resilience, compassion, time management, determination, persistence. They’ll need all of those. There’s no question about that. They’ll always have a place in our society and they always have had a place. Especially now, ‘cause the world’s in a pickle. The world’s upside down, we’ve got global warming happening, we’ve got sea-levels, sea levels are rising. The oceans are becoming polluted. We’ve got poverty. We’ve got the far right going. We’ve got racism. We’ve got sexism, the #metoo movement. We’ve got everything happening right now and the reason we’ve got that happening now is because twelve years ago, twenty years ago, we focused on academics. We only cared about getting grades and we didn’t prepare our students, who are now the leaders of today, we didn’t prepare them to be empathetic. We didn’t prepare them to be understanding or caring. And the reason I say that, is because, you know, you have organisations, companies now that go into countries where the people are poor, they’re impoverished, they’re desperate. And we say to them, hey, we’ll build you a bridge. Would you like a bridge to cross that river? And the people say, oh my god, I’d love a bridge. I just, I hate swimming across rivers. Don’t worry, we’ll build you a bridge, as long as you give me that bit of land over there, you’ve got some, you’ve got some rocks that I need. And the people say, okay no problem, we’ll give you the land, build us a bridge. And then we give, and then we build the bridge, we take the land, we mine the land. We pollute their waterways, we kill their animals, we kill their plants. We ruin their biodiversity and ultimately drive them out of their home. And we do that without care because we want money. We want that dollar value in our bank account. Never is that delivered with empathy, we don’t do that.

When Jeff Bezos went to space last week and he spent his trillion dollars, or whatever it was, why didn’t he take all that money and say, I know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna build a thousand schools in the Northern India with that money. I’m gonna change the lives of, you know, hundreds and hundreds of children. And I’m not picking on Jeff Bezos, I’m just using him as an example. We don’t have leaders with empathy. We don’t have leaders with compassion and we don’t have leaders who have perspective when it comes to understanding what other people are going through. We often say to our students, you know, imagine that you’re a/ Well why don’t we ask our leaders to imagine that they’re living in an impoverished society, or in an area where they don’t have everything. And when you ask me what do I see education looking like in 2030 or in 2032. I see that there should be a very big emphasis, and a strong emphasis for our schools to focus or at least allow an avenue for skills to be not taught, but experienced in our classrooms. So that our children get a chance to get perspective. So our students get a chance to understand and reach out and make a difference in the world. You know. One of the big things that we do in my school I that everything has to have a reason. It has to have an impact. So when students come to my office and knock on the door and say, Gavin we want to have a bake sale. I say, you can have that bake sale but you tell me why. And if their why is not good enough then we don’t have the bake sale. But if their why is big, you know, if they say, I wanna have a bake sale. And this is actually a true story.

Four girls came to my office, they are ten years old, this is their exact words. I wanna have a bake sale on Friday. You can, tell me why. We’ve been studying Burma and there’s a lot of Burmese refugees coming to Australia, we wanna raise five hundred dollars on a bake sale, buy some backpacks. We wanna give the backpacks to our parents at school, ask them to fill them up with things for children like teddies, and books, and shoes, and anything else the children might like. And we wanna give them to Burmese children as they arrive here in Australia to help them with their first day at school. So I said, of course I said yes you can definitely have that bake sale. And those girls, ten years old, nine weeks, they handed 140 backpacks with no help from me, to 140 refugees who had just arrived. And when I saw the video of the children getting their backpacks as they arrived from the boat or the boat that came into Sydney Harbour. When I saw them, when I showed the video to the students, two of them cried, they were only ten. And all four of them said we want to do this again. And to me, that is what education needs to look like in 2032. It needs to be around, you know, building, resilience, empathetic, understanding leaders of tomorrow who will right the wrongs that we have created today, unfortunately. So I hope that answers the question i9n a bit grandiose way, but I think that we can do that. I don’t think that’s too hard. It just involves a little shift. A mind shift in the way that we see education as a whole and I think we’re not too far away from that.


We’re not. We’re not. We’re 12 years from that, hopefully. That’s an amazing story. That really is. I hope that is able to inspire any listeners we have who are teachers or who have involved in the classroom to, to consider equivalent projects, similar projects.


I think, sorry can I just jump in? Sorry to interrupt you. I just want to say that, you know, their whole idea of inspiration and inspiring students is not about the teacher scaffolding and saying, you know. You can do this, here you go. Go and get some backpacks, go and do that. In that situation, that wasn’t my idea. That was their idea. And the idea was that you scaffold this kind of conversation between your students to say, this is what change looks like. You can do it, if you only give one backpack to one child that’s good enough. That’s totally good enough. Even if it’s a book that’s totally fine. But the, the whole point of change is that you start and somewhere. But you start. Like, you just start. Because things get out of control very quickly. You know, when I first started building schools in the Himalayas, I didn’t start with schools. I started with helping a guy redesign his training centre and I painted it for him. When I was there I thought, well I’ll do a bit of training while I’m here and I trained a few women in his training centre. He said would you come back again? I said, I’d love to come back again. ‘Cause I felt good. I felt good about doing that, you know. I walked away, feeling on a high and I came back and thought well maybe we’ll open our own training centre, let’s do that. So we built the training centre. Anyway that feeling about feeling good about doing good, the students also have that and there’s no better feeling than helping somebody else. And when they feel that feeling then all they want is more. So the best thing that any teacher listening to this podcast or any educator out there who wants to start this journey is just to start. It doesn’t matter how small it is. You don’t have to go big. It doesn’t have to be 140 backpacks. It can be one backpack, it can be one book. It can be a poster that you stick up in the town hall that inspires people to think about cleaning the waterways or whatever it is. But you just start somewhere and once you get started, there’s no stopping you once you get going. So I think that’s a really important message to have for most of our listeners today.


I don’t see why we shouldn’t end there Gavin. That’s been such a powerful message and we don[t want to muddy that with any closing comments. That was a brilliant message to end on. And if you are listening and you enjoyed any of this episode or you’ve enjoyed more of what Gavin does. You can find all of links to his work and his projects in Nepal in the show notes below. Please, please recommend this podcast, this episode to others. It is the strongest way to spread the good word and to inspire change is by word of mouth. So let someone know, let a family member, a colleague, a student know about this podcast and follow Gavin if you can, because there’s a whole load to come. Gavin, we’re gonna let you go. You have school, you have a whole school day, you have a Tuesday morning to be getting on with so we will say goodbye there. And thank you so much once again. 


My pleasure, thank you so much for having me. It’s been a wonderful start to my morning. I feel inspired by listening to you too and I hope your listeners have had a wonderful time, so thanks for inviting me, it’s been an honour.


You’re amazing, thank you Gavin. Bye for now. 


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