bmag Brisbane Person of the Year candidate Kelly McBurnie uses rap music and iPads in the classroom to teach English, earning her accolades as an innovative educator.

Forget rote learning and dictation, the lucky pupils in Kelly McBurnie’s prep class at St John’s College in Forest Lake practise their ABCs by listening to rap music through YouTube and have their art lessons on iPads. Microphones, iPhones and computers are used alongside textbooks and pencils.

“Technology allows me to extend my classroom beyond four walls and five hours a day,” says McBurnie, who last year won a National Excellence in Teaching Award (NEiTA) for most inspirational teacher. The awards were held by the Australian Scholarships Group, a not-for-profit organisation that helps families plan for the cost of their children’s education.

McBurnie has been especially praised for her interactive techniques for teaching English. For 35 per cent of her four-and-five-year-old students, English is a second language; their parents are from countries including the Philippines, China, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. When teaching her pupils the names and sounds of letters, McBurnie streams a series of raps from YouTube through a projector.

“The children identify with the music and it is a fun, interesting and effective way of teaching the national curriculum,” says McBurnie, who encourages parents to get involved by emailing them homework apps for handwriting and reading.

“Parents are desperate for their children to learn English and have a better life than they have but can’t help them with school work because of the language barrier.”

McBurnie has also created a class website and blog for parents to foster an online community.

One of McBurnie’s former students is Jonathan Najarro. “Before I went to school my parents spoke to me in Bisaya – they’re from the Philippines – and Mrs McBurnie focused on improving my English and spelling.

“When I look back, I realise she didn’t only teach me grammar and punctuation, she created a loving environment and taught us to be kind and respect each other. She helped shape me as a person.”

Now 18 and a student at Griffith, Najarro is considering a career in teaching because of McBurnie. “It’s kind of embarrassing but one day at school I called her ‘Mum’. But that is the kind of teacher she was – she was my second mother.”

Offering pastoral support to students and parents is another reason why McBurnie has been recognised by NEiTA. She is studying for her masters in early childhood education with a focus on special needs. McBurnie has a particular interest in autism as her son Angus was diagnosed with the condition when he was three.

“He was sent to a special school. I was devastated. His future disappeared before my eyes. But we helped him through a combination of early intervention and therapy and now he is ten and at a mainstream school doing brilliantly – he is in the top third of his class.”

McBurnie offers practical and emotional support to parents of children with autism at St John’s. “This is my passion,” she says. “I feel I can offer some perspective for parents.” She is currently developing a screening program for prep students to identify special learning needs. If successful, the program will be used throughout the school and beyond.

Other achievements include conducting workshops throughout Queensland to share her innovative teaching methods and contributing to Australian Teacher Magazine.

A subscriber to dozens of educational blogs and websites, even in bed McBurnie Googles for new ideas. “I am always experimenting and I try to look at everything from a child’s perspective.”

“I credit Kelly for my life achievements so far,” says Amy Holland, a former dux of St John’s, who is currently reading English and Music at the University of Queensland. She has been awarded a prestigious Dean’s Commendation for Academic Excellence.

“I truly believe this would not have been possible without a strong foundation built in early schooling,” says Holland.

McBurnie strives to inspire her students both in an out of the classroom – her mantra is ‘just give it a go’.

“I encourage my students to try something new. I entered an art show recently and later in the year I’m competing in a triathlon. You don’t have to be the best at something but there is nothing wrong with trying. I believe a fear of failure is what limits children. It creates a lack of resilience.

“My goal is for every child to reach their potential and then I will push them a bit harder to go even further. I know I can make a big difference to children’s lives.”