51. Heather Douglas

29 Feb

51 HeatherShe’s worked at Montmorency Secondary College for over 30 years, and has no desire to leave any time soon. She is respected, loved and admired by the entire community, but mainly by her coworkers and students.

Heather Douglas is the school’s student wellbeing coordinator, a position she naturally fell into after years as a legal studies and business teacher.

She always had an interest in the lives and futures of her students. About 15 years ago, she played an instrumental role in the implementation of VCAL at Montmorency.

VCAL, which stands for the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning, is a hands-on alternative to VCE for year 11 and 12 students.

“When VCAL started up, I ran information sessions for parents, and they were always very hesitant about it, they’d say that they wanted their child to follow the academic stream. But it’s about the person and what they want to do, if they’re not interested in school, and they’re forced to go there, you’re really just setting them up for failure,” Heather said.

“I’d say to parents that I have two university degrees, and if your son did a building apprenticeship, and got a good job, he’ll be earning ten times more than I ever will.”

Heather said that in the first few years, the number of VCAL students was small, but these gradually grew.

“We now run one at year 11 and one at year 12, and we only run one because we cap it, and it’s always full so we have people on the waiting list, and people wanting to come from other schools.”

Heather taught the personal development part of the VCAL course. She said she dealt with students who required a lot of support, and who often came from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is what inspired her to apply for the student wellbeing coordinator position.

“I have three children of my own, and at the time, my criteria [to decide if the job would work] was if I could sit and listen to people, and hear their stories without crying, then I’d be okay, and if I could make sure that I don’t take the burden of these stories home with me, then I’d also be okay,” she said.

“So I listened to some stories, and didn’t end up crying, and at home they said that I didn’t bring it home, so I thought I’d apply for the position, and I got it.”

Eleven years later, and she’s become a confidant and a supporter for many students at Montmorency Secondary. However, she does more for these students than most would imagine.

“I do a lot of financial stuff for disadvantaged kids and families, so if there are families who are struggling to afford uniforms or books, I tell them to drop by and I can help them out. In some cases I’ll pay for books out of my own budget if I think it’s really necessary,” she said.

“I also always keep food in my office for kids who come to school without having had breakfast, or bringing lunch. I just go down to Aldi and out of my school budget buy some two minute noodles, muesli bars, drinking chocolate, cheese sticks, and things like that.”

She also makes “wet packs” for students who may not be very hygienic.

“I’ll buy bags and fill them with soap and face washers, deodorants, razors, new socks and things like that. I give them to students who I think need them because sometimes they may not have those resources at home.”

She runs a weekly breakfast club, where the Salvation Army come down and offer free breakfasts, runs courses for parents, organises group activities like going down to the Eltham Leisure Centre, and even teaches a VCE subject.

“I work full-time, so I’m here all the time. It’s annoying sometimes teaching a class, because I might have a whole heap of things to do, and then I’ve got to go to class, but it’s also pretty nice to go into a classroom and not worry too much about other people’s problems because I’ve got my teacher hat on now,” Heather said.

“Sometimes I even fill in for the principal’s class if they are out. I’ve been here so long, I know the ropes so well.”

While Heather has a lot to offer, her main role is as school counselor.

“Kids can come and talk to me anytime they want, but I am a teacher, so I am obliged to mandatory report where necessary, but I’ll always tell the kids that,” she said.

She said that a diverse variety of topics are covered in counseling sessions, including home issues, school issues, bullying, drugs and alcohol, and so on.

“I know that not every kid will like me, but one thing that is very important is confidentiality. If you go and tell people what you’ve heard from the kids, you’ll just lose their trust straight away,” she said.

In any given year, Heather estimates that she deals with at least 20 per cent of the students at Montmorency. She’s accompanied kids to court, been to their houses, and has worked closely with the Department of Human Services and Berry Street.

“You’ll remember the Swanston Street wall collapse, those two students were our kids, and that happened over the Easter school holidays, so the Principal and other staff ,including myself, basically worked during the holidays inviting kids down, offering counseling, running BBQs, and then attending the funeral.”

Heather beams with pride and passion for Montmorency, a school she was allocated to after she finished her university studies.

“Because I live over in the east, Montmorency is close enough for me to get here easily everyday, but far enough away so that I don’t have to run into students at shopping centres during the holidays!”

Even though she’s worked at the same school for many years, she feels as though she’s reinvented herself so many times with so many new positions, that she’s never felt stuck in one place.

“I’ve been a classroom teacher, been on all of the committees, been a level coordinator, then I introduced VCAL, then I became student wellbeing coordinator, and that’s a completely different role,” Heather said.

However, she said she’s done reinventing herself.

“I think I’m at the stage in my career where I doubt I’ll reinvent myself again. I’ll probably do my swan song from this position. Exactly when that will be, I don’t know. I’m happy here.”


Words: Joely Mitchell

Picture: Sean Porter


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