At the chalkface - UOW Outlook Magazine

At the chalkface

By Jessica Sparks

UOW alumni are changing the way we think about and deliver education globally. We meet three alumni working in the field.

Neil Bramsen

Assistant Principal Mount Ousley Primary School


Neil Bramsen was always curious as a child, but he didn’t much like science at high school – he thought it was too boring and textbook-driven. When he left school in Year 10 to take up an electrical engineering traineeship, he never dreamed that years later, he’d be back in the classroom, leading the way in teaching and learning innovation as Assistant Principal at Mount Ousley Primary School. 

The 2017 recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools employs innovative partnerships, learning opportunities and uses of technology to foster students’ enthusiasm, knowledge and skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education. 

“Kids need to be engaged with their learning and their curiosity enriched and nurtured,” Bramsen says. “STEM offers great scope for learning. Science particularly is an enabler of learning across the curriculum. For example, when my students explore bottle rocketry, it brings together elements of human endeavour, risk and failure, engineering design, data to inform maths and physics, collaboration and literacy skills through science-based journal writing. 

“It’s introducing students to new challenges and experiences, and hands-on learning with a balance of fun and deeper meaning. I love to see kids smiling and engaging in their learning and making connections – you see real light bulb or ‘wow’ moments as something gels. 

“Devices can also provide enhanced opportunities for student learning on many levels – collaboration, research, content creation. I find the learning is more interesting, varied and personalised when devices are used with sound pedagogical understandings and purpose.” 

With “always learning” as his personal mantra, it’s no surprise Bramsen has actively participated in several professional development experiences including a Churchill Trust Fellowship, the Apple Distinguished Leaders’ Summit, a CSIRO EarthWatch TeachWild Research Fellowship, and several Honeywell education programs. 

The opportunities to travel and learn from other educators have offered new insights into education techniques, like Project Based Learning. 

“Project Based Learning hooks kids into learning through meaningful projects in which there are multiple entry points and success for all students. 

“Our butterfly garden, for example – students researched local plants, costed, ordered and planted them. They mapped and calculated the amounts of gravel for paths and mulch and built the paths and beds. Classes now maintain the area and we are monitoring the number of butterflies breeding in the garden, and their life cycles.” 

“Keeping it local also adds a relevancy to the data. Ideally, such projects resonate with the kids and they become catalysts for positive change within the community.” 

“Plus, for me, learning outdoors is half the fun of learning in general. We shouldn’t be trapped by the four walls of our classroom. The environment can provide a rich source of learning

Simply being outdoors and enjoying nature can also improve students’ social and emotional wellbeing and capacity for learning. opportunities. 

“Simply being outdoors and enjoying nature can also improve students’ social and emotional wellbeing and capacity for learning.” 

For the second half of 2018, Bramsen is using his knowledge and experience as an advisor in the Department of Education’s Futures Learning Unit. 

"It’s an exciting and challenging role, supporting teachers and schools to best meet student learning needs and outcomes though a futures focussed perspective. I’ll be exploring flexible learning spaces, 1:1 devices and online workflow. The aim is to ensure academic success along with the development of softer but essential skills such as collaboration, teamwork, empathy and resilience in students. 

“Education now is about equipping young people with the knowledge, skills and capabilities to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world, with a rapidly changing employment marketplace. I hope to keep contributing to that.”

Dr Alfred Chidembo

Founder Aussie Books for Zim


Dr Alfred Chidembo knows first-hand the life-changing power of books. He grew up in one of the poorest regions in Zimbabwe  with no shoes or running water, let alone access to a book. An opportunity to move to the city and visit a library for the first time saw him develop a love of reading and learning and go on to further education, escaping the cycle of poverty. 

“I loved every minute in the library, I literally got lost in books. With a book, you give kids a chance to dream and explore other worlds, to see beyond the village life,” Chidembo says. 

Now living in Wollongong with a completed doctorate, he and his wife are giving back and helping other children from disadvantaged communities with their non-profit, Aussie Books for Zim. The organisation collects and ships books and stationery from Australia to set up libraries in rural Zimbabwe schools. They hope to promote improved literacy and education, and empower children who wouldn’t otherwise have access to books. 

Inspiration hit Chidembo while visiting a Lifeline Book Fair, where he saw an opportunity in the discrepancy between the books being discarded here and the lack of resources back home. 

“I was amazed at the number of books being thrown away. I learned at least 5 million books go to landfill in Australia, yearly," he says. “They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure! I thought, ‘We cannot take every child out of that environment, but we can bring the libraries to them’.” 

Chidembo’s first goal was to collect 2000 books for Mavhurazi Primary School in Zimbabwe, where he went to primary school 30 years earlier. 

We can never underestimate the power of a book.

“We received such an enormous amount of support that we ended up shipping a 20-foot container of over 30,000 books to the Mudzi district of Zimbabwe last year – including 5000 of those to Mavhurazi.” 

Chidembo is now working full time as CEO of Aussie Books for Zim and has taken up residency at the University’s iAccelerate business incubator to further his work. Together with a team of UOW alumni, staff, students and volunteers, Aussie Books for Zim has now collected enough books to fill up another two shipping containers. 

“Instead of just donating books though, our newly developed strategic plan is focused on partnering with communities, equipping them with knowledge on how to become good custodians of the books,” he says. “This includes supplying bookshelves to build the libraries, training for teachers to become librarians and learning programs to support the library. 

“We’ll use this model to establish more fully-functioning libraries in the area.” 

Chidembo says these books and libraries offer the rural communities of Zimbabwe great potential for success. 

“We can never underestimate the power of a book. This first small step towards education opens up a myriad of opportunities in life. I hope these kids will grow and learn and realise they too can impact other people’s lives and effect social change on a larger scale.” 

Paul Harris

Co-founder of Vibe


Paul Harris is changing education and workplace culture in the UK, one teacher at a time. His London teacher recruitment company, Vibe, has gone from an idea over a beer with a mate in 2001, to being named one of the top five medium-sized workplaces in the UK for 2018. 

Harris employs 60 staff – all teaching graduates themselves, too – who have placed around 20,000 teachers into classrooms, in over 350 schools across the UK. They currently have around 1500 active candidates or ‘Vibers’ on their books. To top it off, this year Vibe was named one of the Top 5 Great Places to Work in the UK. 

“I could never have imagined it would be this big,” Harris says, “I still remember the days when there were just two of us going out to schools. Now we have about 800 candidates going out each day.” 

With teachers placing teachers, Vibe has created a community of like-minded people – including many from UOW – all committed to quality education and inspiring kids to learn. The company’s employee-focus attracts and retains teaching talent and offers a highly valuable network of advice, socialising and support for teachers, teaching assistants, nursery nurses and cover supervisors in London and across the UK. 

“Our unique selling point is our ability to understand the challenges faced by teachers and schools. It helps us match them to each other effectively, which builds rapport and trust,” Harris says. “It’s all about knowing the person, knowing the place and matching the right person to the right place. That’s what really matters to us and that’s how we make a difference.” 

Endeavouring to be the “coolest brand in education recruitment in London”, Vibe has created a fun, energetic, welcoming environment where staff, clients and candidates feel supported. The office workspace, healthy food on offer, team-building sessions, fitness memberships and other perks are all designed to build a culture that engages and inspires staff. Harris says this is important to continually improving the business. The company values a culture of positivity and happiness that motivates everyone to want to do their best. 

“I firmly believe that if you’ve got a happy work environment, you’re going to have a more productive staff and will attain more success”, he says. “When about 70 per cent of people are coming to us through word-of-mouth referral, we must be doing something right!”

Neil Bramsen

Bachelor of Teaching (Primary), 1996

Dr Alfred Chidembo

Doctor of Philosophy (Engineering), 2014

Paul Harris

Bachelor of Education (Physical & Health Education), 1999

Jessica Sparks

Certificate of Languages, 2013
Bachelor of Journalism / Bachelor of Laws, 2016


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