You don’t hear the word kismet used a lot these days. But when Annabelle Chauncy (BA ’07, LLB ’10) and Eddie Woo (BEd(Second)(Math) ’08) sat next to each other at the 2017 Alumni Awards, kismet was definitely involved.
They were both there as award winners: Chauncy, for building and operating community schools in Uganda; Woo, for his achievements as one of Australia’s most influential and effective mathematics teachers.
Chauncy remembers them bonding almost instantly over their passion for education. “By the end of the awards night I think I already had him booked on a plane to come over to Uganda,” she says.
It’s a long way from the leafy Sydney suburb of Cherrybrook, where Woo teaches at Cherrybrook Technology High School, to the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Not unexpectedly, the always engaging and animated Woo, is across the numbers.
“It’s a country of 44 million people in an area the size of Victoria,” he says. “Talk about an energetic place. Everyone hustling, everyone trying to get by.”
Driving just 20 minutes out of Kampala, things quickly become very different. There are few actual towns but the verdant country is dotted with small properties where subsistence farmers grow food for their families, with hopefully some left to sell. The mud huts where most of them live have no running water, no electricity. Most travel is done by foot.
It was in a rural area even further out that Chauncy chose to build her first school. How that happened is a story she now finds hard to believe, herself.
While studying law, Chauncy decided to take a break by volunteering to teach English in Kenya. Her timing wasn’t great. While she was there, an election was called and the country descended into chaos. She remembers holding a phone out of a window so her mother, at the family home in the peaceful Southern Highlands of NSW, could hear the machine gun fire.
Chauncy was evacuated to Uganda but rather than head back to Australia, she decided to see what she could do in this new country. She quickly felt a connection with the place and the people.
“I had a very immersive experience, living in villages with local people who would quite literally give you the shirts off their backs,” she says. “They also had this real desire to improve themselves.”
It struck Chauncy early on how transformative an education could be for the children in these poor areas. For example, English is the national and business language of Uganda. If you don’t speak it, and many rural people don’t, you are unemployable. You survive rather than flourish.
With her travel partner, David Everett, Chauncy decided to raise money back in Australia to build a school. It was a standing start. They had nothing more to shop around than a written proposal and a drawing of what a school might look like.
“We were 21, all passion and naivety, and next to no experience in life,” she remembers. “But I say to everyone that my law degree set me up to know how to operate in the world.”
Just over 10 years later, after navigating steep learning curves, government-level meetings, an arduous building process and tireless fundraising, there are now two primary schools and a high school. Altogether, about 680 students attend what is now called the School for Life, for free.
“Lots of them have never held a pen or pencil before. It’s a big deal for their parents to let them be educated, because it means one less family member working on the farm,” says Chauncy. “We feed them. We give them a uniform, and we teach them everything they need to be successful.”
As Anabelle Chauncy was opening her first Ugandan school, Eddie Woo was in Australia going against family expectations to become a mathematics teacher. He excelled from the start, but what really put him on the world map was, for Woo, a typically compassionate and practical gesture.
In 2012, when one of his students was missing school because of serious illness, Woo started recording his maths lessons on his phone and uploading them to YouTube for his student to watch remotely.
The student wasn't the only one who tuned in. In fact, so many others did the same that the WooTube channel was born. At the time of writing, the channel has had more than 28 million views, and 519,000 subscribers worldwide, who are learning from Woo that maths isn’t just graspable; it’s fun.
Woo himself is so thrilled that he’s chosen not to make WooTube a commercial venture. “If a 14-year-old wants to watch a video about maths, the last thing I want to do is give them time to change their mind by making them watch an ad,” he says.
As his profile increased to the extent that he was being recognised in the street, Woo seized the opportunity to promote not just maths but better ways of teaching it. His achievements have been widely awarded, including as a finalist in the prestigious Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, essentially placing him among the top 10 teachers in the world.
Such a passionate believer in the power of education was always going to be shocked by the education sector in Uganda.
When Chauncy took Woo to see a Ugandan government school, she saw the effect it had on him. “Eddie was deeply, deeply moved by the situation the teachers are in,” she says quietly. “I really mean it when I say that you can see pain in their eyes. You can see they’re almost helpless.”
Woo adds: “The schools are simply not resourced; some don’t even have electricity. And the teachers don’t get paid. Most I spoke to hadn’t been paid for two or three months. So what Annabelle has been able to achieve with School for Life is just astonishing. In educational terms, it’s an oasis dropped into the middle of nowhere.”
The 17 hectare School for Life property (bought with the money raised in Australia by Chauncy and Everett) is about a 90-minute drive from Kampala (or nearly five hours, if you leave at the wrong time on a Friday). The school buildings are sturdy, spacious and built for purpose.
Western teachers have been a rarity at the School for Life because Chauncy wants to empower the local people – her entire teaching staff is Ugandan. But Woo offered a singular opportunity for professional development and easily fitted into the school community.
“The teachers were just lapping up the time they spent with Eddie,” Chauncy says. “And the kids loved him – they were calling him Eddie Whoa!”
“My day was about one-fifth observing a teacher and four-fifths running classes with teachers watching me,” Woo says. “Then I’d run a professional development session with the teachers for about two and a half hours. The thing is, I spent four years at university studying learning theory. They’ve had nothing even close to that.”
Woo’s time at the School for Life was almost literally a flying visit. He worked at the school for just four days and was operating in jet lag mode the whole time. But he did make a connection with Joseph Kaabunga, the School for Life head teacher.
“Joseph satisfies all the criteria of being a highly accomplished teacher,” Woo says admiringly. “He asked me how I come up with my stuff. I’d brought lots of reading material with me, including an Adam Spencer (BA ’92) book about maths. It’s a book I turn to for inspiration. I gave it to Joseph, for him and the other teachers to use. It brought him to tears. It was a very profound moment.”
Often called “Australia’s most famous maths teacher”, Eddie Woo has just been made the first ever Education Ambassador for the University of Sydney, through the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. The role will see him partner with the University in promoting the importance of education and inspiring Australia’s future teaching professionals.
Written by George Dodd
Photography supplied by Eddie Woo