For everyone Lifting spirits

Photo: Meredith O'Shea

When student wellbeing coordinator Lee-Ann Derrick steps up to the plate to lift a mighty stack of weights, the way she sees it, it all ties back to building resilience. Especially in the young women she works with at Blackburn English Language School, many of them new arrivals to Australia.

“As a powerlifter and a sportsperson, and especially when you are lifting heavy weights, you learn about discipline, focus, and how to not let all these other things that might be happening in your head interfere with what you need to get done,” says Lee-Ann. “It’s a mental skill.”

Her physical prowess helps build her confidence as an educator and manage her workload at school and in the gym. “When I do something, I am 100% focused on it,” she says. “It’s helped me balance my life out, so I don’t bring things from home to school or vice versa.”

She has been in the job for eight years now, beginning with the new arrival program as an ESL teacher, then moving into a learning specialist role mentoring colleagues, followed by a stint consulting with the department before returning to Blackburn as a wellbeing coordinator. “I like taking onboard new challenges and seeing what I can do to push myself,” Lee-Ann says.

Her impressive drive has been a lifelong deal. At a young age, she got involved in competitive swimming, moving into coaching other hopefuls in the pool from high school through university. “Then I moved onto triathlons, and then archery. I was thinking, ‘What could I do to improve my abilities?’ And that’s how I got into weight training, and that sort of took over.”

“It’s about building that awareness among young people about the strength and valour of all women, regardless of race, socio-economic status or educational background.”

Lee-Ann has an honours degree in psychology, initially working in the field of drug and alcohol addiction doing telephone counselling. But her love of coaching never left her, so she decided to head back to uni to study teaching.

“I’ve been teaching since I was old enough to work, so there was that recognition that I must really love it if it’s stuck that long.”

While Lee-Ann is certainly physically strong, she does not ascribe to limited views of what strength means. “Being mentally or emotionally strong isn’t not being sad or empathising with others,” she says. “I’m a huge advocate for breaking gender stereotypes.”

The librarians at Blackburn ELS created a wall display celebrating women in sport, including powerlifters. “Some of our refugee students are on the Afghan women’s soccer team, and they are amazing, so it’s been really great that we’ve got that relationship. It’s about building that awareness among young people about the strength and valour of all women, regardless of race, socio-economic status or educational background.”

Somehow Lee-Ann still manages to get eight hours of sleep every night while keeping on top of piles of school admin. She’s also the Victorian state manager for the Australian Powerlifting Union as well as being an extremely engaged member of the AEU, which she joined at university before her first teaching job. She is the sub-branch rep at her school, president of the Glen Waverley region, on both the AEU branch council and executive, and part of the education committee.

Lee-Ann models the same values in her teaching as she does in her union work. “Weightlifting helps me have the confidence and the strength to speak up about matters that concern our staff and our students. To advocate for what is important and needed to create change. And not just at that local level, but also filtering up through the ranks.”

And another thing…

The most important things to take into the classroom every day are… Your heart, your empathy and your passion for teaching, for being there for the students.

The most important things to leave at home are… Any grievances, setbacks, complaints and gripes. Leave behind the negativity.

The best advice I ever received was… I have been so fortunate to have had so many amazing mentors. Be open to new challenges. Don’t close a door.

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I remember my first few years of teaching. It is tough. But with a positive mindset, seeking help and not being afraid to take on board challenges, you can do it.

My favourite teacher at school was… My Year 5 teacher Mrs Eadie. There was an incident when a student started bullying her, and I remember thinking, “That is just not right”. But the way that she responded, held herself and still supported us, despite going through that shitty situation, inspired me. Also, my Year 11/12 teacher Madame Layral ignited a love for learning languages in me. 

The people I admire most are… My mum. I am who I am today largely because of her. 

The book that changed my life was… The Harry Potter books. My house is Gryffindor. We’re known for our courage and standing up for what’s right.

In my other life, I am… I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s so important to create the life that you want. 

If I met the education minister, I’d tell her… It’s great that we now have a woman as state education minister [Natalie Hutchins MP]. I hope she’d underline the importance of promoting gender equality in our education spaces. Education is the foundation of our society. If we are failing our young people, then we are failing as a whole.

The most important thing the union does for its members is… Making sure that we are continually heard amongst the bureaucracy of our educational system, and that we have the ability to make positive change.

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