Thriving (not just surviving) during the Initial Intensive (or any other crazy-busy time!)

November 11, 2016 10:10 am

Recruitment Team Leader and Teach For Australia Alumna Liz Cullen shares her advice for surviving the Initial Intensive – or any other crazy-busy period of your life.

We call our training component of our two year Leadership Development Program “Initial Intensive” and often the first question you hear from incoming Associates looking to prepare is “what is Intensive like?”

It might seem flippant or deliberately ambiguous but the universal reply I give is “INTENSE. It’s called that for a reason.”

Jokes (hilarious as they are) aside, Teach For Australia Associates must thrive in intense environments – from this period of intensive training, through to the new work setting of their school communities; the emotional pressure of hormone-laced classrooms to the juggling act of almost full time teaching responsibilities alongside full-time masters level studies.

Associates are selected based on eight competencies, including demonstrated resilience and a strong desire for challenge. However, meeting the reality of educational disadvantage on a daily basis and striving to make a positive difference in this work requires more than just the ability to keep your head above water in a tsunami – although that is definitely an achievement in itself worth recognising.

This is something I thought a lot about during my time as an Associate and since, as a youth worker and now as a Recruitment Team member on staff at TFA. It’s not enough for me to just get through or survive. To make the contribution I want to, to be the professional I want to, to see the changes I want to, I have to be better somehow.

So, because this is a blog and Buzzfeed has conditioned me to think of insight and wisdom as a quirky-numbered list, here are my reflections on the subject of what it takes to thrive, not just survive, during intense periods. I hope they are useful.


Keep it in perspective.

Easier said than done, I know. And I actually really admire people who can care so deeply and intensely about a singular issue that their entire world revolves around it – when that issue is world peace, not Karl Stefanovic’s marriage woes. But I find it necessary when faced with a challenge or obstacle or revelation or moment that threatens to swamp my world to remember the relative scale of time and space, over history, globally, in proportion.

That’s not to say the ‘little’ things aren’t important – I passionately believe every moment to every child has a profound effect and should be somebody’s entire world to care about. However, I don’t think it’s possible to sustain this in everything you do so you have to prioritise and categorise somehow.

There is an unhelpful rabbit warren of thoughts to be explored here about the meaning of life and our place in universe, but – if you can manage to keep it together – perspective is your friend.


Draw strength from those around you.

A problem shared, is a problem solved. A cliché, perhaps, but for a reason. Our loved ones are our best support network and we need to use them. Beware the risk of allowing this intensity to transfer and seep in to every aspect of your life, but sharing is caring. Another cliché!

Also, if your intense period is the result of emotional transfer – this was very true for me in the classroom – then draw strength from those who you share that experience with. My more experienced colleagues demonstrated such emotional restraint, grace and fortitude during periods where I was sure the world was ending – I learned so much from them.

My students, who were too often at the epicenter of the unthinkable, stunned and humbled me daily with their vulnerability and strength.

Now for some less existential thoughts…


Name it. Be self-aware and know your triggers.

Speaking of Buzzfeed, I love a good personality test or quiz which gives my ID comfortable labels to use about myself when talking to myself. And, from these, and more reputable versions, I know that I am an intuitive, feeling, emotional being. So when I ‘feel’ like something is intense, it’s an all-consuming feeling that trumps reality.

I would be a foreboding teal colour if I was a character in Pixar’s Inside Out. These feelings usually lead to obsessive list making (without much completion), procrasto-baking, and general defensiveness. I forget that I am actually a competent human, who takes pleasure in my work. And this mode is so much harder to come out of it I don’t realise I’m in it.

Knowing yourself (your tells, your triggers) and being honest with yourself can head off an unhelpful spiral and make the next tip possible.


Plan for it.

Some intense things hit us out of the blue, like unexpected loss or tragedy. But an intensive period in your life is more often than not something you could have seen coming.

You signed up to that class, you committed to that program, you said yes to that request, you made that deadline a reality. So, if you know you are entering into an intensive period, plan to be successful and manage your way through it.

What actions can you take now to lessen the load later? What routines and systems and behaviours do you need to entrench now so they aren’t overwhelmed in the heat of the moment?

Additionally, don’t discount the power of the very small things that can keep you in balance: sleep, hugs, exercise, food, water.

Who am I kidding, it’s all existential…


Living and working in intensity is not the only way.

This is the hardest thing for me to admit, and I think I understand it more than actually believe it, even now. Work does not have to be extremely challenging, stress inducing, all consuming, ever changing (“dynamic”) to have value or purpose or importance. Big changes in our organisations, societies and world can be achieved through meaningful, solid, humble, even pedestrian efforts.

And if you are able to keep your work under control and not live always in intensity, maybe you will last longer and make a bigger and better contribution over time after all?

Some things just need to be done. You grit your teeth and get through them. But not every situation can be handled in this way, nor is that the best route to success. I wish you all the best during your current or next intensive period. Here’s to thriving, not just surviving!