On being a selfish altruist, if that’s a thing you can be

July 21, 2017 10:27 am

Liz Cullen is our Team Manager for Recruitment and Advocacy. She has a a background in Law/Arts, and is an Alumna of our Leadership Development Program. In this post, she writes about why challenge-seekers in particular can make a meaningful impact with Teach For Australia.

No, selfish altruism is not a real thing and despite having coined it (or claimed to) myself, I’m not even convinced it really makes sense.

But I use it to explain to myself – and anyone else listening – an aspect of my world view: that we have a responsibility to develop ourselves as far as we can in order to do the greatest possible good for others.

After the privilege of development through higher education at university, I had a drive to take the first step into the world of employment in a role where I could keep growing – quickly and in directions I might not gravitate towards naturally.

While other graduate programs seemed to offer all the right opportunities and were snapping up my most accomplished peers, I chanced upon the Teach For Australia Leadership Development Program. I immediately connected with the organisation’s vision and model for impact. Yes, I believe fundamentally in the power of education, and that is should be accessible to all. And yes, the advantages of my education were a lucky circumstance that I could have easily missed out on – and that shouldn’t be the case in a country like Australia.

Moreover, the Program offered me the scariest, most challenging prospect of all: become a teacher (kids? sure…), move interstate (sounds like a good opportunity but I don’t really have a support crew outside of Brisbane?), and make a commitment to confronting educational disadvantage in my career (wow – okay… where do I start?).

To be clear, I am not a thrill seeker. I find horses untrustworthy, have never been to Dreamworld despite being a Queenslander, and a brisk bush walk along a potentially snake infested trail is my idea of a heart-rate raiser.

But I do find challenge a necessary part of my experience of joy and purpose, especially in my work.

Seeking challenge – in service of others – is a unifying identifier of TFA Associates. Associates are selected based on eight competencies, including demonstrated resilience and a strong desire for challenge. We look for individuals through our selection process who have a history of finding or making opportunities to succeed, learn through failure, and work hard.

These attitudes helpfully transfer from Associates into their classrooms and to their students. When I was an Associate myself, many of my students, as the first in their families to make it to Year 12, wondered how ambitious their plans for their ATAR* results could be? Well, how big is the universe? How could I make it safe and fun to try in a class oral presentation, when many of my Year 9 students struggled with a lack of self-worth and harboured an early resignation to the falsehood that achievement wasn’t for them? By modelling it for them!

Pushing ourselves just beyond what we can currently manage, in order to learn and grow, has its own term in education research: the zone of proximal development1 (or ZPD). This is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help . And having a growth mindset as a student, and more generally about ourselves as teachers and people, is essential for stretching our existing abilities.

During the two years of the Program, real challenges abound. And some are so entrenched, so wicked, that they certainly don’t have a sole solution in optimism or even hard work.

It’s not a coincidence that our Associates and Alumni almost universally describe the experience as ‘the most challenging but rewarding’ of their professional – and sometimes personal – lives. For each one, the challenge is different: moving to your placement school community and relocating your life, learning the ropes of a highly-skilled profession like teaching, watching pain-staking lesson planning go to waste, facing defiance and dejection, sleep deprivation, a lack of photo copying budget, realising you can’t do it all or be everything your students need….

And beyond the two years, you’ll have more decisions to make about where and how to challenge yourself. Our Alumni movement is a diverse collective of inspired, committed and empowered individuals. As a group, our Alumni together pull (from vastly different positions) in the direction of educational equity for all. Where your contribution lies within this movement is something only you best can determine.

The challenge of educational disadvantage in our country, and globally, requires us all to commit and contribute the best versions of ourselves. I believe my best self is constantly developing and is shaped by the challenges I choose and face. I know that who I am and the skills I have to contribute are valuable to the issues I care about, but is that enough to get the job done?

Maybe if we all adopt a bit of selfish altruism, our collective efforts can make educational equity a reality. If you think so too, join us.

P.S. If you’re interested in my musing on how to thrive, not just survive, through challenge, you can read my other blog.

1H/t to Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934).
*The university entrance score in the Victorian school system.