One of the things that drew me to Teach For Australia was the emphasis on leadership skills. I remember one of their industry partners, Boston Consulting Group, saying, “If you can manage a bunch of kids in a classroom on a Friday afternoon, you can do anything in a boardroom.”

I taught at a school in a low socioeconomic area, but the kids that go there don’t think they’re disadvantaged.

The area is a real melting pot of cultures. It has issues with long-term generational unemployment, poverty and crime. So there’s a fair amount of cultural, ingrained poverty and the issues that result from that – such as crime and health issues.

As a teenager I went to a high school that had similar issues.  But my experience teaching was much more extreme.  It included things that I was just not prepared for – like a stabbing in the classroom, for example.

 

I remember one particular student who I had in my class and home group who had a really rough home life.

One day after this student had a flare-up in class, I sat down with him and had a good chat to him about what he wanted to do and why he behaved the way he did. And I really felt like I’d made a really great breakthrough.

Then the next day, the student came to school and just flipped over tables in home group and was straight back to his old behaviour.

I had support with me at school all the time through my mentor teacher, as well as a Teaching Leadership Advisor from the program who would come in to see me.

I went to my mentor teacher for advice and said, “I thought I’d finally got through to him,” and I was really devastated.

He was really good about it – and explained how the student wasn’t rebelling against me personally. It’s just a cycle – and you have to be resilient.

I’m still friends with my mentor teacher. He was really good at keeping me on the straight and narrow. Reminding me why I was doing what I was doing, but also, giving me permission to be let down by it all. Permission to go through the emotional roller coaster that teaching is.

And that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day – being resilient to this time, and the next time, and the time after that. And eventually, you do get through to a lot of them.

I had some great experiences too, like teaching an Iraqi student who spent seven years in detention centres, and he’d come out in Year 9. He only had Years 10 and 11 to prepare him for Year 12.

He wanted to be an engineer. And so I taught him physics. When it was the end of the school year, they had their VCE exams, and he came running up to me when I was just walking down the corridor, in tears – saying he’d passed physics!

I had tears welling in my eyes because I could see he was saying thank you.

And then he said, “I want to be an engineer like you – I wouldn’t have got through physics without you.”

"My experience gave me an enormous respect for teachers."

Essentially, teachers are leading a team of 30 people who sometimes don’t want to be there all day, every day, getting them to do something they don’t necessarily want to do. So teaching as leadership is hugely, hugely underestimated. And conflict resolution is another aspect of that.

You learn to relate to a lot of different people and a lot of different situations. So I think that’s a big one – just empathy really.

A lot of people don’t realise how relevant the skills of teaching are to other jobs and other careers.

Communication is the key skill in teaching and you spend a lot of time communicating concepts to people they don’t understand – so it’s essentially similar to engineering. As an engineer, I spend a lot of my time trying to convince people of things they don’t understand necessarily.

Now I’ve published books for young adults, I’ve been invited to schools to do talks or run writers’ workshops with high school and primary school kids. So I get a little bit of the teaching experience.

My writing still allows me to engage with kids in a creative way – which is something that I really enjoyed about teaching.

Justin’s experience in the classroom inspired him to write a trilogy of young adult fiction: A Town Called Dust, A City Called Smoke, and World of Ash – earning him a table at Comic-Con and the possibility of a TV series. Justin describes his current career as “engineer at the Department of Defence by day, and young adult author by night.”

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