On the job with an Associate in the Teach for Australia Leadership Development Program

GradAustralia met with Amanda Neilson to learn about life on the job as an Associate in the Teach for Australia Leadership Development Program.
Erin Delaney
Team GradAustralia
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Amanda studied a Bachelor of Arts/Laws (Hons) at Australian National University (graduating in 2014) and a Master of Teaching (Teach for Australia) through Deakin University, graduating in 2016

What do you do day to day?

Teach for Australia (TFA) is a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to address educational disadvantage by recruiting graduates and professionals to commit to teaching in an educationally disadvantaged school for two years. As an Associate, you are placed in an educationally disadvantaged school after a 13-week intensive training program, and teach in your area of study or work while completing a Master of Teaching with Deakin University.

There is no one ‘typical’ day as a Teach for Australia Associate. You could be spending the day curriculum planning with your domain leaders; rushing from one class to another on a ‘6-on’ day (where you are in the classroom for all periods) with a yard duty thrown in for good measure; marshalling the discus throwers at the interschool athletics carnival; or reassuring your Year 12 students and answering any last minute questions as they enter their final exam for your subject. It’s an exciting, diverse, engaging profession. You are an adviser, a counsellor, a cheerleader, a boundary-setter, and on any given day you can be both the best and worst person in the world (if your students had any say, that is!).

I’ll be taking up a role with The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in mid-2017. The BCG-TFA partnership and their broader, cumulative vision played a significant role in my decision to apply there.

What's your background?

I was born on a farm near Canberra, with much of my early education coming from the land; the chook shed, paddocks, and local pine plantation were my playground. At age four, my parents sent me to the French-Australian preschool, inspiring a lifelong love of French language and culture. At age nine, we moved to Melbourne, and I was lucky enough to attend a school that emphasised the development of the whole person. Sport, theatre and outdoor education were par for the course, and I participated in student-exchange programs to Scotland and France. After school, I moved back to Canberra to attend ANU, changing my degree three times before I settled on a double degree in arts and law, majoring in philosophy. I have had every educational opportunity a person could hope for. However, this fact began to taste quite bitter when many of my friends at ANU described their relative journeys to post-secondary education, some of which were vastly different to and more difficult than my own.

Towards the end of my degree, I decided to burst my comfortable bubble. I moved to Darwin to intern with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (‘NAAJA’), working on welfare rights cases right across the Top End, from East Arnhem, to the Tiwi Islands, to Wadeye in the west. NAAJA was a life-changing experience, and it helped me realise that the practice of law never resonated with me as much as the study. At times, it felt as if we were simply triaging clients who had already undergone significant suffering in their lives. I applied to Teach for Australia in an attempt to do something that I felt was proactive, rather than reactive, and reflected my conviction that as someone who has enjoyed every opportunity in life, I have a duty to use these opportunities to serve the wider community.

Could someone with a different background do your job?

Yes, absolutely. TFA accepts applications from many different disciplines. In fact, my own background (law and philosophy) was quite difficult to find a placement for, which meant that when I first applied I was waitlisted! Over 50 per cent of TFA graduates come from a STEM background, reflecting the need for science and mathematics teachers across the country, and particularly in rural and regional areas. In my cohort, we have an award-winning playwright, a winemaker, and a scientist whose last job was operating lasers on an Australian research base in Antarctica. The qualities that TFA look for — resilience, innovation, humility, collaboration, leadership and determination — are not specific to one set of subjects. The more diversity, the better!

What's the coolest thing about your job?

The thing I love most about going to work every day is spending time with my students. They are both your biggest supporters, and your harshest critics - and that can be within the first five minutes of class! While there are certainly challenging times, especially at the beginning, the positive relationships you build with each of your students are thoroughly rewarding. As a teacher you enjoy both the privilege and the great responsibility of helping these interesting, funny kids navigate new content and skills, and to work with them as they grow into young adults.

What are the limitations of your job?

This job is hard, no doubt about it. While you are teaching a 0.8 load (equivalent to four days per week), you are also completing your Masters of Teaching, and undergoing professional development and mentoring. At the beginning of the program, you will definitely have some late nights planning lessons and creating resources, and weekends tend to reappear towards the end of your first semester (after reports are submitted, of course). The caveat here is that yes, you are responsible to do the best job you can, but you also have a responsibility to take care of yourself, and prioritise your health and wellbeing in those early months to minimise the risk of illness or burnout. One of the great things about the TFA program is that part of your teaching role is support from a Teaching and Leadership Advisor (‘TLA’) who ensures that you have the necessary support and strategies in place.

Three pieces of advice for keen students...

Make the most of your electives to explore things you might not have had the opportunity to do in school, or your first degree. I was always encouraged to pursue the humanities and social sciences when I was at school (thus the degrees in Law and Philosophy), however my best subjects ended up being game theory and quantitative research methods (i.e. statistics), which I took out of sheer curiosity and ended up loving!  

We are often under pressure to achieve a ‘work-life balance’, however when I was an undergraduate I placed far more of an emphasis on the ‘life’ rather than ‘work’ part of that equation. Try to spend as least as much time hitting the books as the bar - and make sure you know the names of both your publican and your librarian.

Join clubs! At university you have a thousand and one clubs and societies, ranging from languages to sports to gaming and everything in between. Even if you aren’t the most passionate member of your group, it becomes a lot more difficult as a professional to find the time to explore new hobbies and interests. Quidditch, anyone?