‘She can be whatever she wants to be’. An open letter to my Year 8 teacher who changed everything.

Commonwealth Bank
Thanks to our brand partner, Commonwealth Bank

Dear Mr Sherry, 

I’m not sure you’d remember me? Has it really been over 20 years? Back then, I was a Year 8 student at a new school – somehow shy, but spirited all at once. You were my homeroom teacher – and my English teacher, SOSE teacher and Religion teacher, and Health and Development teacher too. There was “a lot of Sherry” that year, we joked. 

Year 8S were a rambunctious mob, with racing attention spans – and hormones. We were young teens pushing the boundaries. There were those few boys who’d sit at the back, and talk back to you. And the girls, with their sass and giggles too. It was the early-2000s. 

Oakley sunglasses were worn atop heads (more than over eyes), over-tweezed eyebrows were in, and everyone was obsessed over the latest ‘So Fresh’ CD.

It was an exciting time for me then, my first year at a new school. I didn’t fit at my old school: it was highly academically competitive – even in year 7 – and I was just another number. I was an average student there. Not bad, not great. Unseen. And basically miserable.

But a year in your classroom turned that around. 

And that’s the power of an excellent teacher – something the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards recognises each year in partnership with national not-for-profit Schools Plus. 

The Awards celebrate 12 inspirational and outstanding teachers who are making transformative and measurable impact on their students and school communities and appreciate all that they give. They are each awarded with a $45,000 Teaching Fellowship that goes towards funding a strategic program in their school and professional development.

These Awards were created to show appreciation for the important work teachers like you do. But I will admit, I was a bit daunted by you at first. You had a bellowing voice, and knew how to command the attention of a classroom. Each Monday night, you set us homework from ‘English Rules’ – a textbook which taught the nitty-gritty of grammar and language. 

“Noun phrase or noun clause?” That was the question you put to me, one Tuesday morning as we went around the classroom sharing our answers. I was unsure – and took a stab. You could sense my doubt, and wouldn’t let me lock in an answer until I could justify it. You challenged me, again and again, pausing the class until I would give you an answer I could properly substantiate. At the time, my fragile teen self thought you were picking on me. My ego took a bruising, and I knew you didn’t like me. 


And then, a few weeks later we had parent-teacher interviews. I sat next to my mum, nervously awaiting your appraisal. 

“Well, what can I say about Rebecca?” you beamed to my mum.

“She can be anything she wants to be. She should be a lawyer.”

I remember I was so surprised, flabbergasted, the words that fell out of my mouth were, “I do good at English.” You shook your head at me with a smirk. 

Yes. Bravo, Rebecca. 

But afterwards, I understood. All this time that I thought you were being harsh on me; you were actually pushing me. Encouraging me out of my shell, and into the potential you could see. 

Potential I never believed I had. 

Your style was tough; old school. But your unwavering belief in me made me think that just maybe I truly could be anything I wanted to be. 

This was my moment. My turning point in my education, where I began to take it all very seriously. That’s what you evoked. 

Your impact wasn’t just on me though. You knew how to ensure no student was left behind – even those pesky boys that sat at back of the classroom. I’d see you speak with them after class, and lining up other opportunities for them at school; access to programs that engaged them with hands-on learning, building their confidence and self-worth too. 

That’s the instinct of a teacher with decades of experience, a quality the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards aims to accelerate. 

This year, in a first, 10 Early Career Teachers with spades of commitment, potential and passion to make a significant impact in classrooms will receive $10,000 for professional development and mentoring. 

And it’s the application of those skills that can profoundly impact a student who might not fit into the standard mould.

While we had you for four subjects, it was clear that English was your true passion. It was where you lit up – and it was contagious. When we studied Julius Caesar, you somehow gathered together costumes, and insisted we give an impromptu performance in the centre of the playground at lunchtime. We thought you were nuts at first, but you brought the text to life. And other students engaged in it too.


“Shakespeare wasn’t written to be read,” you charged. “It’s to be performed!”

Too true. This was where my love for Shakespeare began – and what led to me studying both English and Literature in VCE. 

I was fortunate to have you as my Year 9 English teacher too, where I remember you issued a warning with dire seriousness. It stays with me still, and something I’ve relayed to secondary students I’ve mentored since. 

“Read everything, and as much as you can. Be a sponge, and absorb it all. Think of your brain as a bank account. Every time you read, you’re making deposits of words, improving your vocabulary. Do it now, because by the time you get to VCE you won’t have time to read anything more than what you study.”

And you were right.

I ended up looking into law courses, by the way, and even spent time at a law firm for Year 10 work experience. But it wasn’t for me. 

Meanwhile, my ever-growing love for language inspired and enthralled me. It took me beyond VCE and into my arts degree, where I majored in English and history, and completed honours in history too. 

And today, words are what I do for a living – as a journalist and writer. 

It all began from your few little words of encouragement that left a big impact.

“She can be whatever she wants to be.”

And I am. 

Each year, Australian Schools Plus in partnership with Commonwealth Bank recognise excellent teachers and school leaders who are making a transformative and measurable impact on their students and school communities. 

Visit here to meet this year’s inspirational Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award winners.

Feature Image: Supplied.

Looking forward to a brighter future? Complete this survey now and go in the running to win one of six $100 gift vouchers!

Commonwealth Bank
For more information on the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards visit