With teachers being celebrated around the globe, we shine the spotlight on one of our own wonderful educators. Camilla Portela embodies the core principles, work ethic and passion for which our teachers at Navitas Skilled Futures are renowned.
By FIONA WEST
On the day I interview Camilla Portela she is at home on Zoom after a full day of online teaching and she is losing her voice. It’s been a big day; a big week in fact. One of her youth students lost his mother to COVID-19, many others have contracted it themselves and most are struggling with the lockdown.
Yet she perks herself up for the 45-minute conversation we have scheduled, with her beaming trademark smile and infectious positivity, as she pushes past her fatigue and hoarse throat, and we settle in for what turns out to be a 90-minute chat that is as free-flowing and engaging as her classes. So much so we barely notice when it’s turned dark outside and her four children are patiently waiting for their dinner. This is the magical spell of Camilla Portela, and it is changing young lives at Navitas English Fairfield.
TEACHING BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
Generous and passionate are two words regularly used by students and colleagues to describe Fairfield’s Youth Teacher. Her colourful classroom in the top right-hand corner of the college is often buzzing with movement, laughter and chatter. But don’t mistake that for frivolity. This is a class that gets stuff done. And the fact that students enjoy doing it means they turn up each day, they knuckle down and they achieve results – and not just in language, literacy and digital skills.
“We absolutely deliver English outcomes and we always hit the benchmarks, in fact we exceed them, and the students come out being able to talk to you beautifully in English, and it’s such an achievement. But that’s just one positive outcome,” Camilla says.
“When you get to know them, each student has had a huge journey. They might come from gangs, drugs, sexual violence, physical violence, no home, no place, all that in a package; a child with no history, who’s gone through three countries.
“To see how they can overcome all those obstacles in their lives, how resilient they are, it’s unbelievable. I don’t think I’m as strong as them.
“I’m asking them to learn a new language in a new country; no support, nothing. And you know what? They get up every day and they do it. And that really inspires me.”
STEPPING ‘OUTSIDE THE SQUARE’
Camilla came to Navitas English with a wealth of experience behind her, not only in education but also in HR, where she started her career in the pharmaceutical, finance and tourism industries, including a senior executive role in Singapore. But with her first child on the way and no work-life balance, Camilla pivoted to education and, after completing her degree, spent six years teaching legal studies and business to high school students.
“Then someone suggested adult education, so I did that,” Camilla states matter-of-factly. “And it’s like everything led up to that moment. I think my background in HR is why I work so well with youth – understanding how to talk to people, relate to people, keeping things confidential. I’ve brought that into the classroom and I’m really happy in that role.”
Fairfield Academic Team Leader Chen Zhou agrees: “With her background in HR, it taught Camilla a lot about how to approach people and I think it’s that approach that creates a bond and trust with her students. They know she genuinely cares about their study, and also their wellbeing.”
Chen says Camilla gives every student individual attention and is “the kind of teacher who often pushes the boundaries” to get the best out of them and the program.
“Over the years she has developed the ability to marry the program requirements with some of her creative thinking. She’s an ideas person and she’s driving innovation,” he says.
Camilla says her teaching philosophy of “TEAMS” is what drives her teaching: Technology (computer coding and robotics projects), English, Art, Mental Health and Science.
“Six years ago the program was mostly just about teaching English,” she says, “whereas now, full credit to the management team at Navitas English Fairfield, and other colleges, they are prepared to jump out of that square. Not just English, but English in context, with more practical and project-based application, such as the Fairfield Youth Art Project.
“I keep this philosophy of TEAMS in my head always because it triggers me to think about something we can bring to the classroom to make the learning more engaging.”
TOUGH TIMES FOR TEACHERS
It is a hard time for students in South West Sydney – and even harder for their teachers. Fairfield was one of the areas worst hit by COVID-19, and the youth were the “super spreaders”. Camilla said much of her time over these months has been spent listening, offering advice and information and trying to keep everyone on track and motivated.
“We’re not counsellors but its sometimes their friendships that get them through these times,” Camilla says.
“Six students out of my class of 18 have been COVID positive, and one student’s mother passed away.
“We have really dark days, but we also have really nice days. They know that I am there for them, whether they are calling me from the ICU or I’m calling them to check they are staying home.
“All the staff, and the Pathways Guidance Advisors at our Navitas college in Fairfield are also extremely helpful, meeting with my students on a regular basis and providing information and helping them with personal matters. We all get through it together.”
When the youth students first step into Camilla’s classroom, she says they are all wary of each other.
“They won’t sit next to each other; they won’t talk to each other. It’s hilarious – like these invisible compartments of countries in my classroom,” she says.
“And then slowly, everyone starts to merge and then they become friends and then they can’t live without each other. I just love that. The way that so many nationalities can come together and support and get along blows my mind.”
Camilla says the stories behind each students’ settlement journey are often enough to “make you cry”, but following their successes in the classroom and their own lives she has shed tears of joy, like a proud parent.
“What I’ve learned most from the students is just their sheer willingness to keep going; just to keep overcoming the obstacles in their life,” she says.
“You see these girls who were taken out of school at 8, or 12, they were married at 14; Things you just don’t understand and you just can’t get your head around as a Westerner. But just saying, ‘OK, that’s fine, that’s part of your life, but now you’re here and it’s time for you’ lets them know they can do it.
“These girls had nothing in their lives and now they want to be lawyers, nurses, photographers. That was never on the cards before. That is where education changes lives. We are changing lives.”
Youth student Odette Siuofi is one such student. The bright and confident 20 year old, who arrived in Australia from Syria in March 2020, said Camilla was one of the staff members at Fairfield who had believed in her and helped her achieve more than she ever dreamed possible within 18 months, including completing several courses, representing the college at events and recently being named a MYAN Youth Ambassador.
“I go to teacher Camilla for everything, even my personal problems. She is amazing,” she says.
“She does more than she can do, for me; for all of us.”
Notice: On 1 December 2021, Navitas English changed its name to Navitas Skilled Futures. This name change reflects our programs, the focus of our work, and our positive impact on the people we serve. Find out more here.