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Kiama Public School teacher Sheree Payne has seen the way her students’ eyes light up as soon as Harvey Norman Sky Blues captain Kezie Apps walks into her classroom.

“I’ve done a lot of things with Kezie being down on the NSW south coast, where she’s from,” said Payne, who is the NRL Education program co-ordinator, working in tandem with the St George Illawarra Dragons to deliver key school-age messages to Years 5 and 6.

“She’s often come to school as one of the ambassadors for the ‘Best You Can Be’ diaries, along with fitness and well-being.

“She’s been involved on that program with us for a couple of years now. She will run a session with the kids and talk about the healthy eating and mental health side of things.”

So, it was appropriate that Apps, along with NRL educator Alan Tongue, and Brydens Lawyers NSW Blues coach Brad Fittler, was on a Zoom call with Payne to talk about her becoming a finalist for the NSW Teacher of the Year.

“I’m sitting there, and they told me I was in the running for the NRL’s national award and that I was a finalist,” Payne said.

“Then there was a pause, and then they said that in fact I’d won it!”

Payne is the 2021 NRL Teacher of the Year having won the award from 69 nominations from across Australia.

“It was a big shock,” she said.

“My husband Lachlan was in on it – he knew because he was filming it all. I feel very lucky.”

Payne is also grateful for players like Apps to visit the classroom, where not just the girls are glad to see her.

“The boys or the girls, it doesn’t matter – they just love it when Kezie comes in,” Payne said.

“She also comes in and helps run a leadership day for the kids about to go up into Year 6.

“And it doesn’t matter what gender, or if they’re into sport or not, they just really look up to her.

“The opportunities we get at school through the NRL to give some insight into these experiences that will help them in life, doesn’t just go to the sporty kids but everyone as part of a team at school level.

“Team spirit doesn’t just apply to sport. They learn so much, whether they have a love of rugby league or not.”

As part of her Teacher of the Year prize, Payne can choose the NRL Grand Final, or an Ampol State of Origin match in 2022, to attend.

Payne’s three daughters Charlotte 14, Eadie, 12, and Jimmi, 10, will certainly have a say.

“I have three girls that are full-on, mad rugby league supporters playing for the Kiama Knights,” she said.

“I know they’d love to go to State of Origin. But we’ll wait and see.

“Charlotte follows the Cowboys, Eadie goes for whoever is winning, and Jimmi is a Penrith fan, which is a good time for her right now.”