WINNER OF THE 2021 DR JOE MCCORLEY AWARD FOR AN OUTSTANDING CONTRIBUTION TO SCHOOL COMMUNITY
Working with students in a COVID-19-ravaged country, painting artworks for community organisations they believe in, writing letters to aged care residents, and selling coffees to ‘pay it forward’ to frontline health workers, are just some of the incredible social justice activities a state teaching award finalist is helping Brisbane students participate in.
St Laurence’s College teacher Elyse Johnston is behind an astonishing array of extra-curricular activities and assessments which see students at the all-boys school serve their local, state and international communities.
The Visual Art and Drama teacher is the winner of this year’s Queensland College of Teachers (QCT) TEACHX Outstanding Contribution to School Community Award.
Ms Johnston’s idea for students to paint for charity in a new ‘Art in Practice’ subject was the catalyst for a much-loved, school-wide event, which raises money and provides food for charity.
“We would get someone from the community to come in and talk to the students about what their organisation does and why they do it. Then, the students would choose an organisation they aligned with and create an artwork for it,” Ms Johnston said.
“Then we thought, ‘No, this is bigger than just to show in class’, so I spoke to other Arts areas and we put on our first exhibition, which was artwork and performances.
Since then, it has also included music, so we have school bands play, and this year we have Visual Art and Film and TV joining the line-up as well, which is really exciting.”
Ms Johnston is currently co-facilitating a student-led Edmund Rice Beyond Borders project, which has connected ‘Lauries’ students online with pupils at St Patrick’s College in COVID-ravaged India.
“We’ve heard what life is like for these young people in India – they have been in lockdown since last year … and they have to pay for vaccinations, it’s insane,” Ms Johnston said.
“We’re in the phase now where we are developing a project in which we are going to advocate,” she said, adding it was likely to be a student online campaign targeting vaccinations or mental health.
The QCAA confirmer for Senior Drama helps manage the student-run Café Edmund, which regularly donates to different charities, including a pay-it-forward campaign in which buyers donated to pay for coffees for frontline hospital workers. The café also helps students develop barista skills.
She has volunteered at Edmund Rice Flexible Learning Centres, which work with disengaged and vulnerable students, and with the Queensland Program of Assistance to Survivors of Torture and Trauma (QPASTT).
Connections she made at QPASST have led to the establishment of a homework club for students with an African and Middle Eastern background at St Laurence’s College.
Ms Johnston, who connects drama performances with social justice themes and works weekly with students who don’t respond well to mainstream schooling, said she was grateful to be teaching at an Edmund Rice school, which has values that align with hers.
“That compassion, that solidarity, that inclusiveness … I am super happy to work under those touchstones,” Ms Johnston said.
Ms Johnston has won $5,000 for professional development.