Australia’s Best Teachers: Sacred Heart teachers and principal help students

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11 June 2024

Sacred Heart School, Fitzroy, principal Matthew Shawcross has moved heaven and earth with his teachers to give kids a second chance at school.

By Toni Hetherington

When Sacred Heart School principal Matthew Shawcross sees student Hewad Wali smiling and thriving, he is proud to know his school’s 150-year tradition of helping the most vulnerable in the community lives on.

Hewad and his family fled war-torn Afghanistan at the end of 2022 to start afresh in Australia, and it was the kindness of the school at the base of four public housing towers that led them to a happier, safer life.

‘Our mission has always been around caring for the most vulnerable and serving the poor, and trying to give them a hand up to achieve well in life’, Mr Shawcross said.

‘We’ve been around since 1869 in the slums of Fitzroy. And we’re in the birthplace of one of Australia’s best teachers in Saint Mary MacKillop, who was all about making sure those who weren’t as fortunate were at least able to receive an education that could give them a chance in life. We’re trying to live that on.’

For Hewad, when he chanced upon the smiling faces of children in the schoolyard, he told his dad that was the school he wanted to go to.

‘Before I even went there, there were kids playing, smiling and there was no fighting or violence. Everyone was happy together’, Hewad, 12, said.

‘I told my dad: I want to go there for sure. It’s a beautiful school.’

Sacred Heart School staff worked with community organisations to help Hewad’s family find a home, employment and enrol in English language classes.

Mr Shawcross said it was an all-of-school approach from his 28 staff that helped Hewad and his three siblings settle in to the school, and all are doing exceptionally well.

‘I believe I have some of Australia’s best teachers on my staff. I’ve inherited some of them, but we also employ on character first and talent second. It doesn’t mean that talented teachers are not important – absolutely they are – but you can develop talent and it’s harder to do it the other way around.’

Matthew Shawcross and student Hewad Wali
Matthew Shawcross, principal of Sacred Heart, Fitzroy, was instrumental in leading his staff to help student Hewad Wali and his family, who escaped from war-torn Afghanistan to start a new life in Australia. Picture: David Caird

The character traits he looks for in a teacher are a willingness to go the extra mile, compassion, generosity (particularly with time and being patient) and being willing to go on a journey with people.

He said the school plays a unique role for refugees in Melbourne because of its location.

‘Even though there are other high-rise housing estates in Melbourne, none of them have a school virtually sitting on the estate’, he said.

‘This is literally on their doorstep and we are a part of the village raising those children. The community knows they can rely on our school to support them.’

Hewad, who is in Year 6 and enjoys playing soccer, learning the cello and ICT at school, said he was eternally grateful for the kindness shown to him and his family by the staff at Sacred Heart School.

‘They are kind, amazing … I’ll always remember what they did for me’, he said.

Hewad said feeling safe in a three-bedroom house in Melbourne was a far cry from seeing people stabbed on the streets in Kabul under the control of the Taliban.

‘It made me feel horrible, but when I arrived here and I saw the trams, I thought look at this beautiful country. I was smiling and happy.’

Hewad hopes to become a doctor in Australia and give back to the community that saved him.

‘If you show kindness, it will always come back to you in time’, he said.

Meet 50 of Australia’s Best Teachers .

This is an extract of an that was originally published on the Herald Sun website on 8 June 2024.