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#LEADINGLADIESSERIES: Rachel Downie

100,000 Australian kids stay home from school every day because they are bullied. Sadly, home is not necessarily a safe place either, as up to 80% of children who are bullied at school are also cyber bullied. In 2019, children spend a substantial part of their social lives in ‘digital villages’ which are virtually hidden from parents and educators. In these digital spaces the phrase ‘why don’t you just go kill yourself’ sits at the milder end of the bullying tactics scale. Rachel Downie is a passionate and highly experienced educator who ‘loves kids guts’ and who struggled with bullying during her own childhood. 

Rachel observed this gap in communication between student and adult communities and was inspired to Co Found STYMIE with her wife Amanda. STYMIE is a web platform which enables students to make anonymous notifications about themselves or their peers, that are delivered straight to their school so that an intervention can be appropriately planned. Rachel spoke to us about her early life challenges, how she created STYMIE, and the struggles and joys that come with teaching and protecting Australian kids for a living. 

On Her Education Experiences  

Growing up, I was surrounded by some amazing examples of how not to treat people.  I really like to think that my humanity and life values are infused into how I deal with kids. I love them, I love their guts and I really want them to flourish; that’s why I became an educator.

 I had some horrific teachers at school. I grew up in a corporal punishment environment when they whipped kids. Having that threat of violence hanging over me was traumatizing. In addition to this, the educators who taught me didn’t really encourage my ambitions. When I was asked about my career ambitions, I would say I wanted to be a Doctor and the Teacher would reply ‘as if you could ever be that’. Later at boarding school, I was sexually abused by a Teacher.

There is one particular experience with a Teacher that I’ll never forget. My Mum had mental health issues and this meant that parenting my sisters and I was sometimes difficult for her. There was a period where I had lied about doing my homework because at that time, I had so many responsibilities at home. Our home environment, combined with Mum’s mental health problems, meant that homework was the last thing on my mind. When Mum found out that I had lied, she sent me to school with a big cardboard sign tied around my neck that said ‘I am a liar’ and a note to my teacher saying I wasn’t allowed to take the sign off all day. I begged the teacher not to make me go outside at lunchtime, I offered to do anything, even scrape the chewing gum off the desks so I could stay away from the playground. But the teacher thought the sign was an awesome idea, so she made me go outside where I was bashed up by some students. They were some defining moments for me. 

When I think about my history, I wonder how I would have survived if cyber bullying had been added into the mix?  Some days, I had to use all my stores of resilience just to get through my home life and some days school was really tough. I did have moments when I believed there was some innate flaw in me because people kept telling me I wasn’t good enough and I kept getting punished for things that I hadn’t done. Ultimately, I think I am lucky because I was born with a really strong brain (and probably also the ability to disassociate!) which helped me see each new day as a fresh start and a chance to do better.

On Her Passion as an Educator

Be the kind of person who leaves a mark and not a scar.

– Rachel’s life motto

 By the time I was a parent and an educator, the celebrations in my life out-weighed the negative experiences of my childhood. It is an honour to guide and support young people. They’re going to be our thought leaders and our change makers. It is a privilege to be able to contribute just a tiny bit to their lives, to make a human connection with them and to teach them something that maybe isn’t even about the subject matter that you’re required to impart.

On Starting STYMIE 

What prompted me to start STYMIE was one of the year nine boys I taught completed suicide. I was the Coordinator for the year nines at that point in time. As an educator, you know your kids, you’ve got your funky chickens, they’re the ones you need to keep an eye on. He was one of those kids and I knew that something was wrong, so I would check in with him every day and he’d always say ‘oh yeah, I’m fine.’ 

The hardest thing when we found out about his death, was dealing with a student population who thought they’d killed someone because they hadn’t spoken up for him. The kids started coming forward and saying they knew he was being told to kill himself, that he was bullied and that there were some family violence issues going on at home too. If we as educators had known this, I believe he’d still be here. This was not the first time that a child had died in my community by suicide, but it was the first time I felt it was preventable. That was the defining moment. 

In the wake of his death, I began to think about bullying and harm in schools and my own experiences of bullying and sexual assault. I began to imagine what it might have been like back then if I’d had a place, or my very best friend who I confided in had a place where they could have gone and said ‘Rachel isn’t doing well and these things are happening in her life right now’. Then maybe that information could have been passed onto a school staff member and they could have confidentially asked me if I was ok, which would have had a really powerful effect on my circumstances.  I was gifted that idea by the universe, but I worked my ass off to get it going. It was built with 25 years of teaching experience as an educator and mountains of research. 

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On Her Start-up Struggles 

I was Head of Faculty when we decided to start developing the STYMIE concept. Building a web app is expensive, so to make the money I took a second job waitressing at a Chinese restaurant whilst Amanda was working in mental health. It was tough. We went without a lot of things so we could develop a useful tool. We decided we wanted to support a local website design company. We were so excited. They told us they could build the web app, no problems and we gave them almost all of the money we’d saved. When the proposed launch date came around, I was so excited I was pacing. I hadn’t heard from them, so I called but they wouldn’t take my calls and the site wasn’t coming up on Google. I got a call from one of the schools I had signed up to STYMIE saying that the site was producing nothing but garbled code. We were devastated.

We ended up having to sue the web company for what they had built for us. They didn’t want to give me what they had created because it was so bad. We had to start again. All of those months of all of that hard work and all of that money. I went back and questioned them on the promises they hadn’t delivered on. I met with three men and it was very intimidating. They had the audacity to tell me that the promises they had made were all ‘part of the sell’. It was one of those moments when you’re shocked into silence. This project was about protecting children and they were still happy to rip me off. So we went to another company and they were able to plug the holes in the site so we had a baseline. But STYMIE deals with sensitive information and child protection, so we needed the platform to be infallible. An acquaintance of mine who had worked for some big dev companies had stepped away from that industry and was contracting. He offered to make STYMIE for us and then he let us take two years to pay it off. Essentially he did the work for free because he believed in STYMIE’s purpose. He’s still with us today (and he gets paid!). 

If I learnt a lesson from that experience, it was that I wasn’t thinking big enough. I needed to think of myself as a bigger player. I needed to go and seek out people who really knew what they were doing. I went for a local company that really only did work for other local companies. That was about my own level of confidence.

On the Importance of STYMIE 

I am morally tied to STYMIE. I can’t not do it now. People often ask me ‘if you were offered the opportunity to lead a school, would you give this up?’ The answer is no, because this work feels really important. I get messages from principals and student managers every other day saying, ‘the kids used STYMIE to save a life today, we just wanted to thank you’. That moves me. That motivates me.

I do this work every day to honour the kids who use STYMIE positively to support one another. Without that, what we do with STYMIE is nothing. It’s a very fine line. Our society has underestimated how much kids need something like STYMIE. It’s not a cure for harm in communities or schools, but it is a really effective tool that allows kids a voice. It’s a conversation starter. If someone uses STYMIE to report something they know about you, then you have support and options in your healing journey. You can always refuse the help, but your school knows to keep a gentle eye on you, something they may not have known to do before.  

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On Australia’s Bystander Culture 

As Australians we can be disgusting enablers. We say things like ‘don’t worry about that, it’s just how they are, it’s just jokes’. Part of the work I do is in empowering kids to be cultural change agents. We need to enable kids to have enough guts to stand up and say ‘Hey, we don’t treat people like that. We still love you, you’re still a part of our community, but we’re not cool with you treating people like that.’ That’s tough work because they’re frightened of doing that. 

When you ask kids why they don’t speak up, they often say they are worried about being judged. When you ask why they are worried about being judged, they say they’re worried that people won’t like them if they speak up for another person. When you ask them if they’re ok with that other person continuing to be harmed as long as they aren’t judged, the kids often say yes through their inaction. Once you identify bystander behaviours with kids in a really overt way like that, there’s a 90% chance that next time they’re in a bystander situation they will actually say something. 

 Grownups often partake in this bystander behaviour too. How do we teach courage? I’m nearly 50 and I make jokes to people that I’m having a mid-life crisis, but instead of buying a sports car I’ve taken up downhill mountain biking. I loved bikes as a kid and ride motorbikes now, so I have ‘bike skills’ but my courage is non-existent! You’re at the top of the hill thinking ‘holy shit!’ I can manage my bike, but that lack of courage and confidence is what makes you crash. Now that I’ve done it a few times I’m braving the panic and that’s what we’ve got to teach kids. We’ve got to teach them the brave vocabulary. Australian kids need role models that demonstrate courage with kindness and empathy. In order to change a situation when you’re faced with a challenge, you’ve got to have some courage. Courage and fear exist in relation to one another. If you’re not frightened about something, then you don’t need any courage. When we’re talking about harm which creates fear, we need to find the courage in ourselves to call in some help, be able to self-help or call out poor behaviour in a supportive way. 

On Self-Care 

I don’t manage self-care that well! Like many women, I have suffered from seeing self-care as being selfish. Balancing those thoughts is very important. I’m lucky that I live on the Sunshine Coast. I love surfing, I ride bikes, I make art. I think there needs to be a real balance between physical care through activity and diet, and spiritual care for your soul because in the work I do, some of what I come across is utterly heartbreaking and it can be hard to shake it off. 

I go to see a psychologist once a month. My advice to people who are managing people on any level is to make sure you check in with somebody; give that care to yourself. A lot of people I know in management don’t have a person to speak to about how they’re feeling, or about the stress of managing people and how it’s affecting them. If you’re managing a team of people and they’re going through personal issues, the relationship you have with them means that you can emotionally take on some of their plight; you feel for them and it leaves a little blemish on you. In order to be an effective manager, you have to find a way to renew your emotional slate. The mind heart stuff – in schools we call it social and emotional learning it’s really important that as leaders, we take care of our own social emotional wellbeing balance.

Whatever you breathe in, you also have to breathe out. LML I say, love my life.