November 10, 2012

One step at a time...

I wrote a short profile piece for my alma mater intended for current law students and new graduates.  It captures a little bit about my current role, the values which have underpinned my career so far, and a bit of advice for those thinking about their next steps.

Mike Witter, a fantastic educator who started out at Teach For America, then at a KIPP school and now works for TFA, spoke about perceiving one's existential crises (often plural) as "existential opportunities".  I love how such a subtle shift of the language can make all the difference to one's thinking.  So many of my friends and I have been lost post-university.  The ability to see each new decision-making process as an opening towards exciting new paths, rather than as a chance to fret about the myriad of issues neurotic former law students have, is liberating.

It's Saturday night and I'm working on my final assessment piece for uni.  One step at a time... getting there!

What is your current role?   What does it involve, and why do you value it?

I am a teacher in regional Victoria working as part of the Teach For Australia (“TFA”) program which targets educationally disadvantaged high schools.  I teach humanities and legal studies to year 10 – 12 students and am studying to become a fully registered teacher. 

Every work day is different, not least because I am teaching adolescents whose moods fluctuate more than the Victorian weather.  Multiplied by 25 students in a classroom and this definitely makes for some interesting experiences and stories! 

I have learnt an incredible amount since I began teaching in January 2011, both about the nature of educational disadvantage in Australia and about my own capacity to deal with difficult situations.  I have also taken students on some interesting excursions (including to a maximum security prison to speak with inmates), and on a daily basis I attempt to deal with school administration, student truancy, behavioural issues, and disengagement. 

I believe education can transform lives and all students should have equal opportunities for a quality education, regardless of their parents’ income levels.  This is not happening in Australia right now and is especially apparent in the environment in which I teach. 

In my classrooms I see the extent of the obstacles and disadvantages students face with their learning.   Some of my students have been pushed through the educational system despite extremely low literacy levels; some live in cyclical poverty and are affected by emotional trauma and suffer the associated volatility; others are young parents, live surrounded by violence, and have no proper support.  Teaching in this environment is meaningful, humbling, and challenging.

While acknowledging that education may not be a panacea for disadvantaged students, it can be crucial in influencing their future opportunities.  I value the work I do with TFA because I have an opportunity to help in closing the education gap.  

What types of values have underpinned your career?   How have you been able to express these values in different work environments and activities? 

 Since we are naturally influenced and affected by our external circumstances, it is important that my values are aligned and not inconsistent with my career.

I believe in the importance of integrity, sincerity, empathy, respect, and compassion.  Beyond this, as a teacher I am learning to be more patient (far beyond what I would normally put up with), calm in the face of a whirlwind of chaos, confident in my creative abilities when nothing goes to plan, and to follow my intuition when reading a class to anticipate what they want to do, or will not budge on doing, next.   

What advice do you have for current law students and new graduates who want to “make a difference” through their careers?

Because of your tertiary education, especially as a law student, you are in a position of privilege.  Associated with this privilege is perhaps the expectation that you will pursue career paths which may not align with your actual interests or passions. 

What I mean by this can be illustrated through my own story:

I worked at the corporate law firm for about two years and learnt from many brilliant lawyers at the top of their field.  Nonetheless, it is a reality of working in such a firm that one is exposed to very high pressure situations and many extremely late nights.  I questioned whether preparing for construction litigation or drafting banking documents was what I really wanted to be doing: while I was willing to work very hard, I wanted to do this in an area I was passionate about. 

The corporate law path did not seem to fit me and while I knew this intuitively during law school, I became complacent and perhaps almost resigned to working in such a prestigious firm.   Consequently, I spent a lot of time feeling lost about where I wanted to be.  This pressure was exacerbated because I had spent the past seven years studying to become a solicitor, and had also internalised others’ expectations of what I should be doing. 

However, I am not the only one who has faced this career dilemma; I came across many people who appeared disillusioned in the corporate world and public sector.  I was inspired by other people and their journeys in trying different things and not being so constrained by their own and others’ expectations of themselves. 

The solution is certainly not as simple as having one’s passion magically appear one day.  But there is nothing wrong with being “lost” – if anything, it made me think outside my comfort zone and, being in the environment and head space I was in, drove me to reflect on what I valued and what priorities were important to me.  Ultimately, this helped in making more informed decisions, including to join TFA. 

If you are unsure of what you would like to do you should first consider and reflect on what is actually important to you.  Be honest with yourself and be brave enough to take the risks you need to get there.  This can be confronting and difficult, but there are many opportunities to making a difference.  Enjoy being lost and trying different paths.  

I encourage you to look into the TFA program which is targeted at recent graduates and aims to better educational outcomes for disadvantaged children throughout Australia

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