COURAGE By Sherrin Justo. PositiveTeacher of the Year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe best way to predict the future is to create it and when I look around this room I know that the hearts and minds of our future-our future generations are in safe hands as their futures are being shaped by the energy compassion and skills of the educators I see before me. I know that every single one of you has fabulous programs, practices and policies which are designed to create exciting and dynamic learning environments and it is with acknowledgement and respect that I stand before you today sharing some of my story.
My name is Sherrin Justo and I was awarded Positive Teacher of the Year for 2012 which has been an enormous honour and indeed an enormous surprise (the first I even knew about the nomination I was waiting to have a blood test and my DP who nominated me rang to say you should read your emails NOW and all I could think was what have I done now or worse what haven’t I done none that would have been a bigger list but instead it was an amazing surprise). and for me this is a wonderful way to end my 21 years as a public Educator-but more on that later.
It is my belief that we need to have courage to do what we do. It is my belief that we need to have courage to be ourselves in the classroom and to have courage to be good leaders within our school communities. I also believe that we need to have courage for ourselves. Here are just a few of the ways which I tried to show courage as a teacher, as a leader, in my current school and for myself.
Firstly courage to be me in the classroom- What I remember the most from my education is the teachers themselves and this had a tremendous influence on me as a teacher .and it made me want to speak and share with my students. Courage or did I just like talking a lot I’m not sure-but as greater expectations are placed on classroom teachers it seems that there is less time for relationships so in my view it takes courage for teachers to share and talk to students, apart from quality pedagogy and quality relationships are the only things that truly matter in the classroom.
Don’t you love it when you are at the shops and you see kids 5, 10 depending on your age 20 years on and they remember you in a particular way that makes you reflect on your whole practice? This happened to me the week I was appointed to my first HOD position 12 years ago.I was at Carindale on a shopping adventure in the big smoke and a young man came up to me and said I remember you you use to let us out on time to get pig dogs from the tuckshop I asked him if he remembered any of the English that I taught him ( I had spent weeks of my life developing lessons for these challenging little possums) he thought for a moment and replied nah but you were the only teacher who was nice to me when I was in Year 9. Let me explain about the pig dogs At the other end of our block was the tuckshop, cruel 20 minutes before breaks with their inviting aromas, and they sold a thing called the Pig Dog (slices of bbq pork with bacon onions and bbq sauce in a hot dog bun apparently a feast fit for a king) and the boys of my lovely Year 9 English class were obsessed with them and as luck would have it I had them there twice a week just before breaks. Now pig dogs were very popular and my year 9’s stood no chance against the seniors in the queue in obtaining the pig dog but on the days they had me they had a chance to race to the front of the line and obtain the prize, man they were good in English they put up their hands they completed their class work they were polite and they punched each other if they weren’t cause I only had to hint that I would not let them out on time and they looked at me in horror and fell silent. What had the young man remembered from me???? Me being a person me understanding their very real plight at the potential lack of pig dogs. Me having the courage to be me in the classroom.
I taught English and SOSE at Capalaba SHS for years in the SOSE block located behind the library beside what appeared to be the main mating corridor for the entire koala population of the Redlands. Have you heard koalas bonk? Do you know how loud and vicious they can be? I would have to stop teaching, move my entire class to the window and watch cause quite frankly no effective teaching or learning was going to happen while the koalas of the Redlands ensured there was a future generation of koalas. Other teachers were appalled at my actions and when it happened I could hear then roaring at their classes trying to control them ,while we were having a good old chat-bonking koalas provided excellent opportunities for d and m’s –courage or is this another example of liking to talk again??
My most favourite classroom example of courage is about out and out bribery, many years earlier I had travelled extensively in Africa and had experienced many hair raising adventures. The best was a fabulous and terrifying story about me being hunted by a female lion. we have just paddled into the Okavango Delta and were in a campsite that was surrounded by buffalo meat that had been ripped into biltong drying all around the camp site which they had just taken from a male lion, yes the mikoro (canoe) polers chased the lion away from his kill and hacked off bits with a machete and took it back to our camp site and soon our camp site was surrounded by a pride of lions and the females were hungry and hunting so I did the only sensible thing I drank everything I could find and passed out hoping to awake refreshed in the morning, my bladder had other ideas and this was always the students favourite part they had to imagine me in only my boots and a sarong trying to have a wee behind a tent when a very hungry female lion came up behind me
This tale goes on to explain how I managed to save myself using burning sticks from the fire blah blah blah it’s a good story. I was famous in schools for this story. I always promised junior students that the whole week before the Easter break I would tell them a story they would never forget I don’t know if it was the appeal of 2 lessons having a “bludge” or the appeal of an interesting story but the deal was they had to be good for the term it worked the Lion Story as it came to be know became famous, part of the deal was you had to keep it secret and couldn’t tell anyone other students would beg to hear it Another example of me having the courage to be me in the classroom.

It takes true courage to be a good leader in your school community As a HOD I often needed to develop a diverse number of strategies to develop and value staff in my department
At Mt LarcomP-10 I developed the hilariously named biscuit meetings-I was asked by the Principal to meet each term with staff to discuss their planning and assessment a daunting task as I had been newly appointed to the school as the HOD Curriculum in a brand new position, they weren’t real sure about this HOD business so you can imagine the staffs delight when I initially began to organise these one on one meetings with each staff members favourite biscuit . We did get around to talking about assessment and planning but it was done in a collegial environment while munching on bickies.
I also needed to employ some courage when I did a stint at Sunshine Beach SHS as HOD of English-it was a huge department with 33 staff ,1350 odd students and when I inherited it there was a budget of about 9 grand-criminal really-7 of which was being used for the years photocopying and the new Senior curriculum had to be implemented as well as all new Junior units all in my first year-excellent. In the beginning I thought I have nothing but I reminded myself that I had my team and I had myself. I quickly set about planning the combining of classes it was the only way I could release staff to develop lessons, new assessment items and implement a moderation program for all year levels at once. I asked the team to organise group sessions for a number of classes that I could take on my own that would release two or three staff so that they could plan write etc while I for example managed the viewing of the film version of Shakespeare. This showed the team I really did understand the mammoth task being asked of them and that I was truly supporting them. Also in such a big school with up to 10 classes in a year level it was a way of me getting to know the students.. Other HODS said I was mad-but I had 33 staff in 9 staffrooms most of whom were teaching multiple subjects and no TRS budget I had to have some courage to think how were we going to do this We got the job done and we were all talking to each other by the end of the year and even more importantly students and parents were happy, I went from taking close to 100 complaint calls about the English Department in my first weeks as the new English HOD to none in my second year. Courage?
When I arrived at Nambour as the HOD Social Justice one of my main roles was to create a new team, “the team” were very sceptical about getting a HOD ( I think I’m starting to get a bit of a complex) , they hadn’t had one before and some team members didn’t really want one, to make matters more confusing half the team including School Based Youth Health Nurse Chaplains, Indigenous Support Staff etc I was required to manage while the rest of the team were Guidance Officers and so were the same level as myself so I wasn’t required to provide management. but I was responsible for the. student welfare process a tall order in anyone’s language and I employed a number of strategies to make my new team work. First of all I made it all about the PROCESS for all team members, the student welfare process. For those that I did manage I had regular one on one chats but as they were support staff and always available and no such thing as a spare I would take them down the road for a coffee for half an hour.(a variation of the biscuit meeting) At first other HODS were aghast and I said why not it means we get to talk and for once they become the most important person in the room (it doesn’t happen often for support staff they just seem to be hammered-some of team use to have ques outside their doors).Once a fortnight we as a team went to a café for out team MEETING staff got to actually eat and could really discuss cases. This reduced service to our frequent flyers and provided the opportunity to develop a team approach to providing support to a large number of students and especially for tricky situations.. Once a term we as a team went for lunch for 45 mins no school items were allowed to be discussed. It didn’t always happen but it showed staff that to me their welfare was equally important as the students they were looking after. Also I ensured that they all had professional debriefing at least once a term more if required. Once a term we had a whole day team planning meeting to discuss programs resources etc. This was often held at my house to save money and also that way we could really talk safely the walls didn’t have ears. We reminded each other of positive practices every hour we had 15 mins of fun with each person in the group conducting an activitiy yoga, celebrity heads whatever. Again I found myself in a situation with very little resources apart from myself and the people in my team. It took a great deal of courage to create an environment where I could promote staff looking after themselves..
I also had to bring courage to my develop my role as HOD Social Justice Whilst I haven’t technically taught in the last few years, my timetable was “freed” up so that I was available to manage the large number of classroom refugees we seemed to have (some legitimate some not).SO many of our “little possums” were often too traumatised/off their heads to be safe in a classroom. One of my main successful strategies was for us all to eat a frozen super doper and swear our heads off ,I really needed to have courage for this one, once some of my little possums realised that I could actually say a “ bad word” as many times as they could they eventually stopped saying it and we could start talking and have some real dialogue. I don’t know if this strategy is an official strategy if it has a psychological basis but it seemed to work. Lots of very angry young people ended up smiling and having a chat.. Frozen super dopers are Hardly healthy schools I know don’t tell anyone I did try it with apples but they just didn’t have the same appeal.
As part of my role to make the environment of Nambour SHS a more positive environment I developed the SFA I loved that acronym SFA and support process I had up to 70 students at once accessing alternate programs from a wide variety of sources. Including our alternative campus for up to 12 students SWAG students with a Goal that is run by the amazing Amy Alexander. Through the promotion of positive behaviour it’s a totally individualised literacy and numeracy program other , student SFA’s included combinations of work experience reduced subject load one on one programs with support staff and external programs including Get Set for Work and MAD. All students on SFA’s had fortnightly meetings with me to monitor their progress again this takes lots of courage to continue to engage with these students, especially when they are off campus but I wanted to show students that they were important and that our support was on-going .
On arrival at Nambour SHS there were 12 Indigenous students enrolled at the school and only one of these students were accessing ITAS tutoring. This tutoring was occurring in a corner of the main staff common room. I asked my Principal if this was an issue of concern, an area that social justice could support-his enthuastic reply did throw me a bit but I began to support Indigenous Students. The first thing I knew I had to do was establish a space , I had had some experience in this area, years earlier JAquline Johnson Elder of the Goereng Goereng People and I had been successful Showcase winners for a project which developed a curriculum for Year 4 and Year 9 students and all Indigenous students had identified the need within their schools to have a recognised space. I located an old detention classroom filled with carols and behaviour management files. I secured the location and soon made it a groovy space with bean bags posters and music, lots of Indigenous Art and an old lounge. I established Notice boards to get info out. As well as group e-mailing of all information. I held a competition to name the space and the name students selected was Our Place which reflected that it could be used by students and community members as well We had an grand opening with lots of yummy tucker. (especially pizzas its amazing how far a few 5.99 pizzas from Dominos can go and how they can encourage students to engage). I organised a weekly tutoring session for students and held fortnightly morning teas to give out info and encourage engagement. Once we had the ARTIE program engaged this assisted me greatly as I had support to deliver such support mechanisisms Our Place became a drop in/connection spot for All Indigenous students and this was greatly appreciated by all school community members. Also once a term we did something special a cultural day, visiting significant site, going to the university or TAFE all sorts of places We celebrated special events such as Reconciliation Week and I encouraged students to help me organise such events. I held a celebration Dinner each year to recognise all Year 12’s graduating as well as academic, social and cultural success as well as getting to know the community. I have a wonderful memory from our first celebration dinner, one Father who was crying when I presented his daughter with an engraved silver pen celebrating her graduation said this was the first time in 30 years he had been in a school and he was my age and the last time he was in a school he had been told by a teacher to bugger off and he did just that and never returned to school and quite frankly he was only attending the night for the provided spit roast. He was so proud of his daughter and so amazed that we were celebrating her success All this takes courage. By the end of my third year we had over 70 Indigenous students enrolled at Nambour, all bar 2 were accessing ITAS tutoring and our pass rates were high.
I won a 20,000 grant for the Gecko project which meant we could buy some computer and run a groovy literacy and technology program for all Year 8 Indigenous students. The kids loved it they did amazing things and we were able to have technology accessible for all of our Indigenous students to complete assessment. I wish to inform you that I will now speak of someone who has passed. We also developed MURRI MAD, the same very successful MAD program that you all know but only for Indigenous students. One of our teacher aides had a gorgeous son who was highly at risk and I made roughly 300 phone calls seeking a support program none could be found so I created one, within 7 weeks I had MURRI MAD ready to go complete with tutors elders and work experience. Unfortunately the young man for who the program was developed was killed in a car accident while joy riding one week before the program started and in one of my most humbling events of my teaching career his mother had somehow in her grief to write me a thank you card and organise to have it placed on my desk the morning after her sons death. 13 other young Indigenous men went on to complete the semester program and at its completion 10 were engaged in either full or part time work. Courage is sometimes just to continue on.
I also had to have courage to implement numerous school wide activities to promote a more positive environment at Nambour SHS Anti-Bullying a major focus and events were held annually for each year level.
For Years 8 and 10 we collectively developed units for all English classes that were supported by visits and activities from the support team,as well as drama performances to support curriculum delivery.
For Year 9 a whole group presentation and follow up activities from ACMA and mysel
Year 11/12 Parade presentation and activities
Staff and Parents also had Presentation nights and activities
Parent Information Nights-don’t you love those nights when 0nly 5 parents turn up-and they are the parents of good kids-I know Michael you suggest at this conference last year holding an all singing all dancing quiz night with booze and food as a way of increasing parent participation-great idea I just didn’t get to it-don’t know why?? plus nobody wanted to play bouncer at our place have you been for a beer at our RSL???
I found we had the greatest impact when we accessed all students through the curriculum rather than one on one so I focussed a great deal of time developing these units with the relevant subject HOD and their team and we tried to have a support team member attend at least one lesson per week for each Year 8 English class for the duration of the unit-again no small feat but we wanted to provide real support to the teachers engaged in the delivery.
I also organised numerous whole school events to promote positive school mental health-school wide in fact I held 15 major events each year. An example of this was International Women’s Day I always held events for both female staff and female students each year. It takes a lot of courage to have the same conversations with the same 12 staff members that say why are you celebrating international women’s day? Another example is I would always organise Motivational Media to present during Mental Health Week as a way of showcasing young people and their strength and resilience to our young people.
And we developed specific activities as required to meet identified needs by members of our team. For example My Youth Health Nurse the fabulous Carol Hegarty identified a key issue in our school population around consensual sex so we as a team implemented the outstanding Love Bites program. Each and every one of you understands how much work it is to deliver these programs properly, great programs but to implement in school settings it requires a Herculean effort.
I also developed an extensive referral program to ensure that all students were accessing required assistance and my DP Sean Maher developed an extensive data base to assist us to track support offered to students. I also ran a one on one school support-check in system before school and during breaks for identified students ,just to make sure they were set up for the day behaviour wise and basic needs wise, I have feed clothed and provided basics including soap and shampoo, sanitary products clean undies, jumpers and bedding to more young people than I care to remember. I was always deeply saddened after heating up a meal for a young person watching them literally scoffing it and burning themselves because
they were that hungry-I could never get use to that it takes a lot of courage not to cry or take them home. Wow I feel like I need a bex and a good lie down as my Nanna use to say that’s a lot of jobs-
Some staff simply felt better that we were there that there even were some options for some of the trickier possums you know they are keen to see what options when they follow you into the loo now what you got for Joshua?? Or saying things like what do you drink find something for Maddison to do on a Mon lesson 3 and Friday 5. anyway I am very proud of the support that we provided to the community of Nambour State High School.
COURAGE-Why I need to have courage for me now. I do ask your forgiveness if at any stage I become a bit emotional telling my story
In 2010 following two years of protracted illness including several bouts of pneumonia and numerous significant life events including my partner of 20 years deciding to separate while I was pregnant with our second child, my Father dying from prostate cancer after a long battle, building a house (that was the easy bit) and moving to a new school and establishing a new department (everyone here knows what hard work that is), I went for a routine chest x‐ray my then 1 year old daughter and my then 5 year old son and myself were enjoying milkshakes when my GP phoned me and insisted on an immediate CT scan (to which I replied but we just got milkshakes) which was followed by an immediate appointment in his office to inform me that I had a tumour in my right lung. My world changed.
A few days later I was in a Brisbane hospital having two thirds of my right lung removed. They had cut many of my ribs to remove my lung and every breath I took it hurt. I can’t quite tell you how much it hurt. I had an epidural in my neck (so glad I fought so hard to have two very long labours without drugs) and a trolley of pain meds and it still hurt. I had a lengthy hospital stay and returned home for an extended recovery where I was supported by my family and friends who were amazing many of my school staff had a roster they actually moved into my house and provided a 24 hour a day support for myself and my family everyone in my team knows how my kids like their carrots cut up. I was told I was one of the lucky ones as I was told it wasn’t cancer and I was told that I should go off and live my life and I did just that –I had my two beautiful children, I returned to full time work and I worked hard at my job, I looked after my home and I enjoyed my family and friends‐I lived.
It was one and a half years later just after receiving the positive teacher of the year award I suffered from a sore back just after achieving co—location for our support team an idea that was confirmed as a great strategy at last year’s positive schools conference and I explained it away as you do , sitting too long in a meeting, carrying a wiggly child‐it eventually got to the stage where I was almost unable to walk , my son who is my hero had been helping me do the dishwasher, taking out the bins, bathing his sister, putting on my shoes when I was finally sent for an MRI. I was very nervous about having one I remember very clearly coming out of the MRI and congratulating myself only to be told by the attendant I needed to repeat it this time with dye‐I began weeping _ I just knew something was wrong seriously wrong and within days I was in a Brisbane hospital again.
I underwent a week of harrowing tests and towards the end of the week a wonderful surgeon David Walker agreed to operate on my spine (for free) which was good because by that point I was dragging my left leg and was at risk of losing control of my bowel and bladder.(they didn’t tell me that bit until later) They removed a vertebra from my spine (can you believe they can even do that amazing) and conducted a spinal fusion complete with the insertion of four steel pins and two steel plates. Again I can’t explain how much it hurt .While in ICU ‐two young physios came to get me up and walking when they arrived they stood at the door of ICU they actually laid bets about who was going to walk furtherest myself the middle aged woman who clearly likes chocolate or the fit young 20’s something young man who had had a spinal fusion due to a jet ski injury‐he also had the words courage and pride tattooed in large letters on each arm. The young man refused to get up‐he said it hurt too much. The physios came to me and it took a lot to get me upstanding but I walked the length of the ICU‐days later the physio said to me you cost me $20 I bet against you‐I looked him in the eye and said I have a three year old a seven year old and I have one lung –I needed to get up and walk‐never bet against the Mummy. Unfortunately the young man beside me in ICU did not get up and walk and several days later was transferred to a psych ward. Again I had a lengthy hospital stay which was followed by an extended recovery period at home supported by friends and family again. I can’t really explain how much it hurt or how wonderful my friends and family were.
I recovered from the spinal surgery, but there was more bad news to come its been a big year‐ the results from the plethora of tests showed that I do indeed have cancer. Cells from my lung had escaped before it was removed and a rare type of cancer‐carcinoid cancer of the endocrine system had developed. I have 14 tumours in my bones, some as large as dinner plates but worse was to come I was informed that my cancer is terminal and they could only guarantee me a year. Nothing that had happened to me thus far could prepare me for having to tell my children that my cancer wasn’t going away.
Over the past few months I have worked very hard to make the most of every single moment I have organised lots of special gifts for my children like treasure boxes , my husband has returned and my family has been reunited , I took my children on a zoo odyssey of NSW and I took my children on their first overseas trip‐we went to Singapore and we had a tremendous time, we went to all 7 animal attractions including the main zoo twice, you might have realised that we are a bit animal obsessed at our house and we are now thinking about where we are going to next. Obviously each and every day I’m in a fair amount of pain but I am still here, still here for my babies.
So that’s a little bit of my story. I intend to live every single day to the fullest and enjoy every moment of being with my family and friends. I hope that my story helps to highlight this rare type of cancer and helps to promote the Unicorn Foundation which provides support and funds for research for this type of cancer.
When I think back I am proud of what I did-how hard I worked and how hard I tried to make my schools a better place for all of the students and staff. This is my last job as a public educator and I will be resigning next week. Please continue to have the courage to be you
in the classroom, please continue to have the courage to be quality leaders in your school communities and remember to have courage for yourselves.

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