Lavington teacher wins NSW humanitarian award during Refugee Week

HOLISTIC APPROACH: Murray High School teacher Kerrie O'Connell says students from refugee backgrounds bring many skills to the Border. "They all want to be productive in our community," she says. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

HOLISTIC APPROACH: Murray High School teacher Kerrie O'Connell says students from refugee backgrounds bring many skills to the Border. "They all want to be productive in our community," she says. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

A LAVINGTON teacher whose care of students goes well beyond the classroom has been honoured with a state award during Refugee Week.

Kerrie O’Connell, of Murray High School, received a humanitarian award in the rural and regional category from NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS).

Mrs O’Connell has worked with students from a refugee background since 2008, with her official role being as a teacher of English as an additional language or dialect.

“But to do that, I think, which is the way I’ve approached it, kids have to feel safe in the classroom, comfortable with the environment that they’re in,” she said.

“Building that trust before they can start learning.”

Former student Ram Khanal nominated Mrs O’Connell for the award, saying this action was “a no-brainer, really”.

Mr Khanal arrived at the school at 16, having lived his whole life in a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal.

“I felt a bit lost and out of place, out of comfort, and Kerrie was the person who took the leadership to ensure that I felt comfortable, that I had the resources to succeed,” he said.

Mr Khanal, 24, graduated dux of Murray High School in 2011 and is now studying medicine.

He said Mrs O’Connell didn’t just focus on his schooling but made sure “that I was OK at home and in the community and I had the best opportunity to succeed”.

“Kerrie is an advocate, a guardian and a motherly figure and family friend to all of her refugee background students and their families,” he said in his nomination.

Mrs O’Connell attended Friday’s NSW Refugee Week launch in Sydney to receive her award.

She said Murray High School had about 40 students with refugee backgrounds this year and staff took a holistic approach, also teaching skills such as swimming or driving.

The teacher has visited Nepal twice to learn more about the refugee camps and their style of schooling.

She said her present role highlighted the students’ ability to adjust to change.

“Resettling in a totally new world that they really had limited knowledge about,” she said.

“A new language, many hadn’t used electricity before.

“To me it’s amazing how many skills these people have to offer to the community.

“They all want to be productive in our community, want to have an education, want to work, want to fit into our Australian way of life, which is multicultural.”

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