John aims to emulate a real lab as much as possible, fanning the flames of her students’ curiosity – and her efforts gained national recognition recently when she was named winner of the prestigious Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize.
She describes the award as a “huge honour”.
“I was really humbled to receive it, it’s pretty exciting."
Johns’ classroom is a hive of activity; there’s a student trying to produce a human-powered light for her bike, other students working together to see if they can produce a turbine, and another trying to build an emergency shelter out of recycled plastic bags.
“They really are going for it!” Johns enthuses.
“It’s not chaos, but it’s kids working to the beat of their own drum, and it’s my job to facilitate and cultivate the process so that they are building those learning muscles along the way.
“Even though I’m that coach on the side, they very much are pursuing their own projects, and my job is to sort of checkpoint and challenge or be invited in to give feedback.
“I’m observant enough to know that we need to strengthen certain muscles through the reflections that they make and through the conversations [that are] happening, but it is quite an organic process.
“That’s how science happens."
Johns sees herself as a facilitator of science muscle-building, creating a program that taps into students’ interests and builds their weak spots.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to sit back and watch them be challenged and struggle as they hit a wall or they don’t know how to move through a problem, but what’s interesting is when they look back and see how they moved through that problem and problem-solved...
"I think they can really appreciate the growth in themselves as learners.
“There are so many projects on the go where these kids are struggling, but moving through things.
“They're kids that are going into our world. They will be amazing,” she says.
The Prize includes a cash portion of $150,000, of which Johns receives $50,000 and her school, Nelson College for Girls, receives $100,000.
True to form, together with the school’s management team, she is planning to reinvest the school’s share of the funds into science teaching and learning.
“Some of the money will go towards a fund where students who pursue their own science and technology, STEM projects, they’ll have an opportunity to apply for funding to support those.”
“It’s trying to model it on the real world process, because often acquisition of resources or funding to acquire time with an expert or transport somewhere, that’s been a limitation for some of our students and I guess we feel like it shouldn’t be,” she says.
“Another [idea] is that we’d like to create a space where students can really pursue projects – because often it’s happening in the kitchen at home, or in the garage, or they have 45 minutes and then they have to pack up and often they want to keep going, so a space that can really accommodate collaborative work.”
Johns adds that she wants to make her students’ classroom experience “memorable”.
“I hope it’s memorable for them.
“You know, when we think about who our teacher was, who that person was [that inspired us], that’s ... not necessarily [because of] the content that they were teaching, but they made us feel significant, they talked to us and had a relationship with us.
“For me, that’s largely what I found my practice on, relational practice; learn who they are,” she explains.
“I don’t underestimate [my students], they are so capable, so for me to say those words to them and know that I have a role to play to basically enable that [is great].”
Johns says her favourite part of the role is seeing her students get excited by their studies.
“Every day is different and the young people, that’s my favourite place to be! In the classroom with these amazing young people that you get to in some way turn ... on to science and help them see their place in the world.
“It’s energising. I get a lot personally out of it.
“It really does nourish me when I’m in that classroom, and I see them grow belief in themselves, and see them excited, and see their motivation for understanding the world and their place in it,” she says.