For Defence Families with children, one of the decisions to be made on arriving in a new location is where to send children to school. Around Australia eligible schools with Defence students have the Defence School Transition Aide (DSTA) (Primary School) and the Defence Transition Mentor (DTM) (High School) programs available.
The Defence School Transition Aide (DSTA) Program provides funding to support schools to engage a DSTA or DTM to support Defence students at the school. This support is particularly important when children transition in and out of a school and at times when parents are absent from home.
We wanted to find out some of the things a DSTA or DTM do to support Defence children and we were lucky enough to have Vicki Walsh, who works across two schools in Canberra talk to us.
Vicki, what type of activities do you coordinate to assist students from Defence families at your school?
At John Paul II College (JPC), we have weekly meetings where the students can come along, share some morning tea and have a chat with other Defence students. These are informal gatherings and the amount of students changes each week. The idea is that they are welcome to drop in and catch up with each other and discuss everything from ‘Dad or Mum being deployed for nine months to the ‘latest movie release’. We also hold ‘Coffee Club’ every week, which is exclusively for our Senior students (Years 11 & 12) and offers a smaller and more sophisticated setting.
At Holy Spirit Primary School, we run ‘DKC (Defence Kids Club) every week, which involves different activities such as obstacle courses, board games, puzzle solving, colouring in and cup cake decorating. Again, this is a voluntary activity and occasionally they can bring a friend along to join in on the fun.
Leading up to important occasions such as ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day, both schools participate in a variety of projects which enhance our Ceremonies and pay tribute to our current and past serving ADF members. These Ceremonies provide excellent opportunities for our Defence students to be involved with and to be recognized as important parts of our community.
Welcome activities, such as Defence breakfasts are held early in the year to provide opportunities for families to make new connections with their school and community and perhaps catch up with former workmates or family friends. Departing students are farewelled when they leave and are given tips and strategies for their new beginnings in another state or country.
A major part of my role is to raise awareness in our community of the unique lifestyle of Defence families and the significance of respecting, honouring and remembering our past and present serving members. A lovely example of this is our ‘human poppy’ for Remembrance Day in 2017, which our whole school participated in and received very positive feedback from the community.
We have a variety of excursions both within our 4 Parish Schools and with other schools around Canberra to the Australian War Memorial, other day excursions and outdoor adventures which involve team building, resilience activities and sometimes they even get to learn something!
What brought you to the DSTA/DTM role?
I had been a full time Mum to my four children for 11 years and I was ready to get back into the workforce. My background was hospitality and when I read the job description for the position, I knew it was me. Having a husband who had served for 15 years in the Australian Army and a Dad who was Royal New Zealand Navy in WWII, I felt a huge amount of empathy and passion towards the role. I informally describe my role as ‘part concierge, part mother hen and part confidant’.
I feel extremely privileged to be working with not only the children of ADF families but also their parents, some of who have become friends. I feel very humbled when parents speak with me about the latest ceremony they have attended or the bond I have with their child. But in reality, it is me who feels very honoured to be part of the support network for their family and for the very important and sometimes dangerous job that they do.
What do you enjoy about your job?
Every day is different and during the past five years, it has never felt like ‘a job’. My own children often joke about me loving my ‘Defence Kids’ more than them, as I am always bringing work home and they observe a lot of care which goes into my role. I am constantly looking for activities and products to bring new adventures and experiences for my students. Each year brings something new to learn and improve on and I am as passionate now as when I started.
The toughest part of my position is saying goodbye to families as they move on to a new chapter of their lives when they are posted somewhere new. These times are even harder than all the devotion, time and concern, which go into our ceremonies.
I love that my Defence students feel comfortable and secure enough to approach me with any concern or situation bothering them or that they want to share in some good news with me. Building relationships with my students and their families takes time and trust and for me, it is a privilege to be considered their safe haven, for whatever they are experiencing at that time.
I am very fortunate to work with an amazing kaleidoscope of DTMs and DSTAs in Canberra and we are very supportive of each other. Being a DTM/DSTA often means you are working on your own as it is such a unique school position, however having a group of excellent colleagues who are happy to share ideas and advice is very positive.
Some periods of Defence life can be particularly tough (like deployments and extended absence). How are you able to assist Defence children to transition through this period?
At Holy Spirit, we run a ‘Friendship Group’ where the children of deployed parents meet weekly throughout their parent’s absence. During these meetings we do activities, talk about our feelings; like anger, loneliness and or pride in their serving parent and we find out how we can help the parent remaining at home. These groups are particularly important as they normalise what our students are feeling and allows them an opportunity to vocalise their emotions in a safe and mutual environment.
JPC presents a more challenging situation as high school and college life is extremely busy and students cannot always allow for time away from their studies. Again, this is where those fostered relationships come into play, allowing the students the security of knowing that someone is there for them and has their back when they need it. I make a point of regularly checking in with all of my Defence students, even if it is just a reminder that support is available to them.
Being a DTM/DSTA and hopefully being a part of a positive and successful journey through a Defence student’s school life, is a very privileged and rewarding job.