Inside a glass box in the National Museum of Australia sits a poignant and powerful piece by Rachel Downie’s former Year 9 student who took his own life.
The ceramic bird, with a green crown and tail feathers―one of those feathers sheared off and gently placed beside its body―is titled “Undone”.
“I was working with this student as his Art teacher and we had been making animals from clay,” Rachel’s inscription in the museum explains. “He died before his had been fired. A few weeks later, I finished firing that Year 9 class’s animals and when I opened the kiln, all I could see was this boy’s little bird. It completely undid me.”
When Rachel first saw the bird in the cabinet, she “really cried”.
“I never felt right about gluing the little tail feather back on and I think more than anything else, when I did open up the kiln that day and I saw that the tail feather had broken off, that was what really … that is really what undid me,” she says.
For the past five years, she has been trying to fix one of society’s tail feathers with Stymie.
Stymie is an online platform―a place where children can go to notify school staff of potential harm to other students, themselves or their community.
Through Stymie, alleged assaults and self-harm involving children have been reported; children have reached out about their peers and reported dangerous behaviour; and interventions for students dealing with bullying, self-harm and all sorts of violence have been put in place as a direct result of the notifications.
It has also led to Rachel being named Queensland’s Australian of the Year for 2020.
This month she will be honoured at one of the nation’s most prestigious awards ceremonies, the Australian of the Year Awards.
“I believe that I have been given this torch to shine a light on an issue and I am holding this torch on behalf of Australian youth and on behalf of any person who is not experiencing kindness,” Rachel says.
When she goes into schools to introduce Stymie, Rachel has two mantras.
“The first one is, that we want to remind you to be the kind of person who leaves a mark and not a scar,” she says.
“And we want you to feel empowered by the fact that you are the boss of how people are treated here. That is your job as a student in this school, is to be the boss of what it feels like to be in this school.”
For teachers, there is a quote by Haim Ginott that resonates with her, and she hopes it will with others as well.
“I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a student's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a student humanized or de-humanized.”
“That is what I aspire to every day,” Rachel says.
“Being a part of a person’s future is incredible.”
For Rachel, the death of her Year 9 student was the catalyst for where she is today.
“The way that I talk about it is that it wasn’t the first time that one of my students had died by suicide―unbelievable as that is―it has happened in school communities more than six times in my career,” the former Head of Faculty says.
“I think this was the first time that as a staff member and as an individual … my individual experience was that I thought it was preventable, and that is because of the information that we received afterwards,” she says.
“There were so many ‘if onlys’ around this one.”
Determined to be proactive, she began asking the question: “How can we actually support kids in making sure that something like this doesn’t happen again, or at least being proactive about it?”
She worked together on a solution with her wife, Amanda, who was working in the mental health system.
“Amanda and I had this amazing idea, after doing lots of research, that if we could make an online platform, because of the way that students are existing now, that the kids might use it,” Rachel says.
“So, then we kind of took that idea; we asked kids about it, we asked staff at schools about it … and everyone went, ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? It’s so simple’.
The Stymie notification system is simple.
Currently, hundreds of schools across the country are using it.
Once a school signs on to the site, students can log on and fill in a notification form online. That notification is then encrypted and goes directly to staff who are able to seek out the student whom the notification is about to see what can be done to help.
Rachel or another Stymie presenter visits each school before the system is rolled out and talks to every year level, along with school staff and parents.
“We run the entire school through a launch day―that is a non-negotiable part of the process,” Rachel says. “One of the issues with things like Instagram and Snapchat, for example, is that nobody humanises that technology for kids. We talk about empathy and kindness and them as individuals contributing to the culture of care at their school. And then we run them through how to make an truthful and responsible notification.”
Rachel says 99 per cent of the schools who have subscribed to Stymie over the past five years have continued their subscription every year.
Some principals, who have moved twice since introducing it at their first school about five years ago, have reintroduced the system at their new school each time they have moved.
“I have got goose bumps; I feel really positive about that, that they think that it is an important part of a brand new cultural practice that they are starting,” Rachel says.
“If we could get to a place where we don’t need something like Stymie, I would have been the most successful businessperson in the world.
And I know the irony in that means that I no longer have an income, but how awesome would it be if my income wasn’t based on schools receiving this kind of information?”
A hard road
While Stymie has been successful, the road to being Queensland’s Australian of the Year has at times been really, really hard for Rachel.
She has spoken publicly about having an upbringing that was full of challenges.
It was a teacher who inspired her to try and help the next generation of students―Mrs Johnson.
Rachel says the Year 10 Art teacher “really connected with me as a human”.
“She saw a side of me that needed something beyond the curriculum,” Rachel says.
“I really flourished after that and I felt really inspired, I wanted to do that for other kids.”
While she studied to be an Art teacher, she also chose to specialise in Physical Education and English, to boost her employability.
“I became a teacher because I wanted to become an awesome Art teacher,” Rachel says.
“And I wanted to fuel kids’ creative pathways and take them on these just really beautiful learning journeys. I had no idea I was going to have to help kids through family divorce, family violence … I had no idea that I was also going to have to help kids manage trauma,” Rachel says.
“What we are experiencing at the moment is, that for some reason, in this really privileged, lucky country Australia, we have 25 per cent of young people saying they are unhappy.
“And educators are at the forefront of dealing with that.”
As she gets ready for the national stage, Rachel has “grateful butterflies” in her stomach and “feelings of unbelievability”.
She has been recognised as one of Australia’s greatest achievers.
“What has been incredible is the number of ex-students who have contacted me and just said the most beautiful things about their experiences with me and I had no idea. I really have had that altruistic notion of just turning up and doing the best I can do every day and now some of these kids have their own kids,” Rachel says.
“And you know that Mrs Johnson I was speaking about? She contacted me and said … ‘Just thank you for getting this award and for honouring teaching and honouring the process of growing."
“It was just so great.”
“I love teaching―I just love it. I love my job.”
She knows being Queensland’s Australian of the Year also presents her with an opportunity.
“I have a platform for this limited period of time; that is such a privilege, and I really want to use it to best effect,” Rachel says.
“And just to help people reflect on their day-to-day kindness actions. I’m not saying that we are an unkind nation, what I think is that individually we have trouble acting on it,” she says.
“Look at what is happening with our bushfire and climate crisis at the moment: goodness, how many times have you cried watching videos about how kind people have been to animals? As a collective, Australians are really good at collective kindness and acting on it.”
“But what we need to do is to empower people, and we need to start with young people―we need to model it for them―how to do that in an individual way.”
Kindness, Rachel says, is one of the keys to changing culture.
“When we get kindness right, so many other things are just better,” she says.
Changing the we way talk about standing up against bullying and unacceptable behaviour―including the labelling of people as “dobbers” or needing to be “tough”―is also crucial, Rachel says.
“We ask schools not to use that language,” she says.
“And that is why, when you open up the notification page (in Stymie) it says, ‘You are getting help for someone’, which I think is such a powerful thing, and you’ll notice in our press photos our t-shirts don’t say Stymie, they say, ‘Say something’.
“We are asking people to find a way to Say Something. Any way. It can be anonymously, it can be by courageously speaking up, it can be with your body language by physically standing next to the person being treated poorly or it can be telling the person with poor behaviour that they are doing the wrong thing.”
“If people speak up, it can save lives.”
The QCT would like to thank Rachel for her tenacity, her resilience and her passion to make the world a better place for students.
Congratulations Rachel on being named Queensland’s Australian of the Year. We hope the next year is your most fulfilling yet.
You can watch the Australian of The Year Awards on ABC at 7.30pm on January 25.
To read more about the National Museum of Australia’s Australian of the Year Awards 2020 exhibition, which includes Rachel’s former Year 9 student’s ceramic bird, click here: https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/australian-of-the-year-awards/exhibition-2020/rachel-downie
If you, or someone you know, needs help, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Callback Service on 1300 659 467 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.