Never underestimate the impact of a teacher who challenges and stretches students

From discussions on Afghanistan to painting the ‘Archies’’ cow while talking about saving our seas, there’s no subject that’s off limits for today’s students led by their champion teachers. Here we meet one of them.  

 

At multicultural Riverstone High School in northwest Sydney, Sana Said, an Australian-born support classroom teacher with a Syrian and Lebanese background, doesn’t walk into the classroom and announce that students will discuss “human rights, slavery and genocide in unknown parts of the world”.

 

“It’s usually organic rather than prepared but that’s better as students are eager to learn about what interests them rather than be forced into something that doesn’t.

Current issues they have discussed include war, immigration, racism, unjust laws and bullying.” says Sana referring to some of the school’s unique initiatives, like their PRIDE Projects. 

 

It’s the same approach that the 33-year-old takes to The Archibull Prize with her students, who opted to investigate Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 – to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” – for this year’s entry.

 

“We’ll have discussions on issues – things that aren’t necessarily part of the core curriculum but will come up,” says Sana,

Adding that she is thankful to Action4Agriculture for providing online resources and regular newsletters to provide the kids some structure with the program.

 

“If you want students to absorb what they are learning, it’s important to give them ownership and immerse them in the experience, and this is what The Archibull Prize offers students. Starting with what the students value and giving them access to real people who are living the issues everyday, it’s giving both parties an opportunity to work on solutions together.”

 

Through the ‘Archies’, students have a platform to take away real knowledge of what is happening around them.

 

“It becomes infectious – when you tell one person something, they’ll tell somebody else and then all of a sudden it’s viral because it’s quite contagious information,” she says.

 

A teacher of 11 years, Sana was born to Muslim parents and grew up in Castle Hill in northwest Sydney. 

 

“Only a few of us had parents who were migrants and I remember all the comments that I got about how I didn’t fit the mould. 

I didn’t run away from people and hide, it just made me realise that I have to push myself a little bit more and make them see me for who I am rather than what I am.” ” says Sana.

 

When she started kindergarten she spoke only Arabic. At five she learnt English and still remembers “the anxiety that she suffered and the difficulty that she had with pronunciation and phonics.

 

“But kids are resilient.”

 

It was an assessment-driven place, where there were textbooks and computer labs but no laptops.

 

Sana was the first in her family to attend university. 

 

“I’ve never stopped wanting to be a teacher since I started, but I didn’t grow up wanting to become one.   

In my background your ‘career’ is being a housewife and it wasn’t until I went to uni that I was like ‘oh I want to be a teacher, I didn’t realise how good at it I am’ and how important it is for me to achieve my career aspirations.” she says. 

 

She moved around schools in NSW after graduating.

 

In Tamworth in the state’s northeast, Sana taught in two different schools with a high population of Indigenous students.

 

“It is less multicultural up there than other parts of Australia. I was the only Arab there and easily spotted among the crowds.” she says.

 

In her first year of teaching at Riverstone, a co-educational school that “takes pride in their appearance” and puts students’ tables in a circle rather than in lines, it’s a different cultural mix to Tamworth. 

 

“We’ve got Polynesian and Samoan families and we’re slowly getting Indian and some others from Asian backgrounds,” says Sana. 

 

Having been in grade eight during the September 11 attacks, when people “just assumed that all Arabs are terrorists”, she doesn’t shy away from confronting issues like the situation in Afghanistan with her students. 

 

“I’m very grateful that because my father was a lieutenant in the Syrian army, I understand war, and what it’s like for families to migrate to Australia and feel like an outsider.  

I have a lot of students wearing hijabs and kids going ‘why do you wear that, it’s stupid?’ But it’s not stupid to a student and it’s inappropriate that you even think that you can come up to her and tell her that because you obviously don’t have the full picture of the reason why.” ” says Sana.

 

Sana considers it a privilege to teach young people so they will challenge concepts and ideas in the world.

 

“They get to vote when they finish high school,” she says.

 

Riverstone has a number of progressive school initiatives, including their PRIDE Projects, where a teacher creates a topic that they would like to explore, writing out a proposal with a timeline of what they’d like to achieve each week over ten weeks. The scheme involves showcasing a product that you can donate to, for instance a program helping the housing or a clothing or food drive, to raise awareness of social and health issues. Launched in 2019, the projects aim to fuel creativity and wellbeing. They include those in which the students aim to donate secondhand clothes to organisations like The Salvation Army and Vinnies, plant their own vegetables to give to Hawkesbury Community Kitchens, and learn about different Polynesian cultures which they then showcase through performances and food sharing days. 

 

“It’s pushing the boundaries further so that we can educate kids why it’s important to donate, to give blood or save the environment especially in these weird times,” says Sana.

 

 As someone who considers herself being constantly open to challenge, Sana is conscious of seeking out new responsibilities at work.

 

“Times are changing and teachers are having to adapt because students are changing and we’re having to change with them by keeping up to date with new policies, new skills and technologies.  

I’m fortunate enough to work at a school where I have a head teacher who’s very supportive, who’s always saying ‘yes’ to my ideas.” she says.

 

COVID has of course presented its own challenges, with teaching in NSW currently completely online.

 

“It’s really full on, especially when you’re having to see your students through a computer screen and have phone calls with those who need one-on-one attention. It’s a very different learning environment to ensure that no-one is left behind,” says Sana.

 

She adds that during the pandemic teachers have been watching more students be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).   

 

“But programs like The Archibull Prize are helping keep students motivated. These sorts of programs are teaching students about sustainability and natural resources. It’s very vital information, because sometimes students are only seeing what’s on the news and it’s sometimes not accurate or blown out of proportion so they really need to hear it through primary sources, first-hand information, other than just what they’re hearing.”  says Sana, who remembers learning about agriculture in geography at school.

 

Having started teaching special education in 2016, in the future she would like to start a podcast highlighting children with disabilities.

 

Sana aspires to become a leader in education, whether this is through taking on a deputy principal role or another position.

 

“I’d love to be a head teacher because you get a mix of leadership and are still in the classroom connected with kids, building that rapport with kids which is the reason why I got into teaching in the first place.”

 

 

 

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