When Dulari Gonawala arrived in Australia with her husband and young family nine years ago, she had no idea she’d win a national award and become an early education leader.
Dulari had previously worked as a high school teacher in Sri Lanka, so when finances were tight she studied a certificate and began working at a Day Care Centre in Victoria to continue her passion for teaching while supplementing her family’s income.
Not wanting to waste her valuable teacher training, Dulari researched online postgraduate options and began studying a Graduate Diploma in Education (Early Childhood) part-time through Southern Cross University while working full-time.
“I realised I could progress my career and income level significantly just by studying the graduate diploma, so I did a lot of research and found Southern Cross University where I could study completely online,” Dulari said.
“It was a challenge with two kids under two and working fulltime, but my lecturers at Southern Cross were incredibly supportive, and my husband as well.
“I am the biggest advocate for studying through Southern Cross. Since I graduated in 2017 and received my teacher registration, four of my colleagues have followed my path and now graduated from Southern Cross.”
Dulari recently won a prestigious National Excellence in Teaching Award (NEiTA) for her role as Educational Leader at GoodStart Early Learning in Berwick as nominated by her centre director. She has since been promoted to Teacher Mentor, supporting other up-and-coming early childhood educators.
“I can’t believe it myself, I sometimes pinch myself and ask is this really happening. Winning a national award is a big deal and especially so when English is my second language. And now being in a role focused on supporting and coaching the rest of the team, this is a dream come true for me.”
In the classroom Dulari implemented inquiry-based STEM projects to focus on the individual learning journey of each student, extending their goals and stretching their limits. She involved the community and built strong connections through setting up a Bush Tucker Garden, and assisted in enhancing the early childhood centre’s cultural awareness by supporting the publishing of the centre’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).
“All our projects started from the children’s interest. We were reading a book and there was a frog in the story and the children wanted to know where the frog came from. We had only just finished learning about a chicken’s lifecycle, and so we did some researching using the iPad and interactive Smart TV, then I got some tadpoles into the classroom and the students were able to observe them turning into frogs. We fed the frogs crickets, and we were able to extend their learning by figuring out what the crickets eat and exploring the whole food chain,” she said.
“That’s how the bush tucker garden started as well – we had been reading a book about Indigenous culture and the children were wondering about bush tucker, so we researched it, drew plans and established a project. We wrote letters to Bunnings and some community nurseries and they generously donated plants and a gift voucher and the students had first-hand experience learning all about seeds and roots growing into plants. It has become a community feature, with families enjoying the produce such as berries and spinach, our centre using it in daily menus, and the students enjoying regular mini-excursions to the garden. Our local Koori engagement officer was so impressed by our Reconciliation activities and the Bush Tucker garden, he invited our centre director and me to give a presentation on ‘Best Practice’ during the City of Casey Yarning circle, and the centre has now received a Landcare Grant for the next project.
“I love working with children, because it’s a new day every day, and I’ve learned so much about children’s behaviours and learning – it’s definitely become my passion. The first five years of life are crucial in terms of brain development, and social and emotional skills, which shows the importance of the work we do. I’m still deciding what I want to study for my Masters.”
In her new role as Mentor Teacher, Dulari will be able to share her experiences with other teachers, while also supporting those who are moving into full registration to showcase their proficiency. She also mentors Southern Cross students through the University’s Bright Futures program.
“These past few years have been a wild rollercoaster but I’m so thankful to centre director Julie Frazer, and my family who are all super proud. My parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to University, but they knew the value of education, and taught me English from a young age so that I could work and study – I get emotional thinking about it. And Southern Cross really went beyond my expectations, with unit coordinators who were easily accessible, flexible and helpful while maintaining strict standards within the units.”