It was a watershed moment.
For months, Jessica Walker and Yeronga State High School (YSHS) staff had been talking to students, their families and their lawyers about changes to visas for asylum seekers, which meant some pupils would no longer have a right to a high school education once they turned 18, and they could not apply for tertiary studies as domestic students.
YSHS staff watched as one 19-year-old student was denied asylum and was brought to school by immigration detention security guards. Then one day the student, Mojgan Shamsalipoor, was transferred to a Darwin Immigration Detention centre.
“That is when we just went ‘No, enough is enough now; we can’t be just silently standing by any more’,” Ms Walker, the former YSHS Head of EALD (English as an Additional Language or Dialect) said. There were other students in similar circumstances, and under Ms Walker’s lead, the school’s staff and parents began to advocate for Mojgan’s release.
“State education is about social justice and it’s about ensuring that everybody has the right to learn and have the same human rights that we’re all afforded, and you have to speak up when you see those things that aren’t being provided for students, you have to speak up for your students,” Ms Walker said.
Her passion and determination to make a difference are just some of the reasons Ms Walker is a finalist in the Queensland College of Teachers (QCT) Outstanding Contribution to School Community Award. Earlier this year she won the Department of Education International Women’s Day Award.
Now a Deputy Principal at YSHS, Ms Walker was able to boost the numbers of teachers, teacher aides and school support staff who came from different cultural backgrounds, which enabled better communication between staff and students. Parent-teacher interview attendance went up 300 per cent once school staff were able to communicate to parents in the same language.
Scholarships for refugee students, boosted welfare and support services have all been provided under the leadership of Ms Walker, who said she was proud to work at a school which embraced diversity and celebrated it as its strength and point of difference.
“We’re a global village in this tiny little spot in Brisbane and the greatest thing I have seen is the kids feeling welcome here, that they are all part of this Yeronga State High School community and that that is the thing they have in common – their humanity is what they have in common – there are all these differences, but through the differences they find the things that are the same,” Ms Walker said.
The QCT Excellence in Teaching Awards are the only state government awards which recognise registered teachers from all schooling sectors, and the early childhood sector, across all subjects state-wide. Winners will be announced on October 25, on the eve of World Teachers’ Day celebrations in Australia.
Congratulations Jessica on being named a finalist.