Sydney
7 April 2002

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Conversation: Inspiring students and 'making a difference' - Sharyn Dickerson, primary school principal

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Conversation: Inspiring students and 'making a difference' - Sharyn Dickerson, primary school principal

By Marilyn Kerjean

Many of us can remember at least one teacher who inspired us during our formative years; who played a part in making us see our own potential and the world beyond the classroom and home.

Sharyn Dickerson (pictured), the new principal at St Gertrude's primary school, at Smithfield, believes all teachers should be like that.

"Teachers working in schools now have so many opportunities to make a positive contribution to children's understanding of the world, and their responsibility to the world too," she says.

"Just because they're kids doesn't mean they can't make a difference ... we need to give kids lots of chances to be successful.

"And they're the adults of tomorrow so the values that we instil in them can really impact on having a better world in the future."

Sharyn certainly sees education as a mission.

She has travelled to Vietnam twice during school holiday time to teach English to adults, on one trip taking clothing donated by her primary school students' parents.

She and her sister, who acts as her teacher's aid in Vietnam, hope to return regularly for short teaching stints.

"You go over there and work very intensively for two to three weeks teaching English to adults. It's exhausting," she says.

"But it's a wonderful experience because it's very humbling. They are so grateful that you're taking the time to help them.

"And it's interesting to see the Church in another culture. It's very valuable to engage with people in the practice of our faith, but from a different cultural perspective."

Sharyn also travelled to India with Caritas in 1997 to help with research on the education of women.

"It was interesting to see how the women were starting to value the education of their daughters and the sorts of things that they were trying to do to promote that," she says.

On her return Sharyn has shared her experiences with her students, even unwittingly inspiring some of them to raise money for Caritas, as she found out later from one of their mothers.

Sharyn worked in the banking world, married and had two daughters, helped run a small playgroup and spent five years as an unpaid infant's librarian at her daughters' school, St Brendan's primary school, Central Bankstown, before finally pursuing teaching qualifications at the University of Western Sydney.

Teaching was her lifelong dream. Now a principal with her own school for the first time, she is just as passionate about children's education as when she first aspired to play a role in it.

As the end of the first teaching term approaches, Sharyn is well and truly settled in her role. "The whole school community have been very welcoming and I'm really excited about being back in the schools," she says.

"And I hope by the time I leave here, whenever that is, people will say, 'yes, she did make a difference'."

Sharyn's daughters have followed her into teaching. They are secondary teachers at All Saints, Liverpool, and St Patrick's, Campbelltown.

A career highlight for Sharyn was in early 1997, when she was asked to represent classroom teachers from around Australia and across all years to respond to a keynote speaker at an international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference.

"It was a really interesting experience, but I thought it was a real coup for Catholic education (that someone from the Catholic school system was asked)."

Sharyn has been a teacher and assistant principal at St Brendan's School, Central Bankstown, Our Lady of Fatima School, Kingsgrove and All Saints Catholic Primary School, Liverpool.

She was seconded to the Catholic Education Office's southern region office as a consultant to schools in the area of science and technology.

And for the past four years, she has been with the Catholic Education Commission, based in the Department of Education assessment and reporting unit.

That's where teachers write and assess the basic skills test, the English Language Literacy Assessment, the Secondary Numeracy Assessment Program and the Primary Writing Assessment.

She was the voice of the Catholic Church in the development of the tests as the Catholic sector liaison officer for the state.

And she worked with all the dioceses in the primary and secondary years to help them use the assessments most valuably and to understand how to interpret the results.

Now back on the education frontline, Sharyn, who has lived in Sydney's south west all her life, is well placed to judge what challenges primary schools face today, especially in her region.

One, she says, is a shortage of teachers in south western Sydney combined with a greater proportion of children from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

Also, she says: "Children come to school in kindergarten now a lot more worldly-wise than what they were 10, 15 years ago, and so I think the outside world is having more impact on how they think, how they act.

"Children can be easily influenced by the media. Twenty years ago you'd never jump up and down because you wanted the brand name clothes, because you didn't need it.

"And sometimes children are left to their own devices more, watching television and playing computer games alone, and that is exposing them to a whole new dimension they weren't exposed to 15 or 20 years ago."

Overall, Sharyn's view of education in NSW today is a positive one.

Her experience working with the Department of Education has especially encouraged her.

"The people in the unit were just fabulous," she says. "They hadn't worked with a Catholic sector person before.

"It showed that good educators are there for all children and it doesn't really matter what system they're from; they are just as anxious to get it right for children as we are."