Teach For Australia coach Jonelle Heacock gets emotional when she talks about one of her Associates’ transformational moments in the classroom.
An experienced teacher and TFA alumna, Jonelle coaches Leadership Development Program Associates in remote Northern Territory communities during their first two years of teaching. It’s part of the wrap-around support provided to Associates, which also includes a school mentor and academic mentor.
Jonelle recalls coaching one Associate, Oliver Friedmann, who had relocated from Canberra to teach at Nhulunbuy High School in East Arnhem Land and was looking for ways to connect to his new community and his new role as teacher. He was searching for a way to build rigour and really engage his English students to improve their writing skills.
“In our coaching conversations we spoke a lot about values and strengths, and the pockets of hope. That even the smallest actions in the classroom can merely be seeds that are planted for young people that we might not see grow until much later,” Jonelle said.
Building a connection
In collaborative coaching conversations, Oliver identified that his strengths were developing relationships and designing different curriculum that would cater to the interests of his students. He started to see that as he built trust and incorporated his passion for English writing into the lessons, students could see the impacts of their hard work together.
So in his second year of teaching, he decided to “take a risk” and bring something personal into the classroom as part of the students’ work on memoir writing.
“His friend had written a beautiful piece about another friend who had become quite ill, so Oliver brought it into the classroom to see if the students might be interested in reading it,” Jonelle said.
“When they found out it was a story written by his friend, they immediately said ‘we want to read that’. So they read it together. The students were completely engaged, completely silent, and really respected the space. Oliver started to become emotional and really felt the students connect with him in this vulnerable moment.
“We talked about the impact it had on the students, and he felt the students’ interest and desire to improve their own writing skills had improved – as had their results – because of their relationships and Oliver’s willingness to bring so much of himself to the space.
“I cried when we discussed it – I was just thinking, what a moment for this Associate and his students. I still get emotional. The school community has also spoken about how much they value his commitment and contribution.”
A ‘butterfly process’
Relocating to a remote community and starting a new career in the classroom can be challenging for many Associates – Jonelle describes it as “an intense phase of culture shock”.
“It’s not just a new community with different languages and culture, it’s also the school culture and this new identity of becoming a teacher – where they need to decide how they want to bring their values and lived experience to the role,” she said.
“It’s a real butterfly process. It’s the cocoon of transformation, then breaking out and reemerging.
“That is what I enjoy most about my coaching role – watching people grow as educators and sharing those moments where they feel proud of what they’ve accomplished personally and with their students and colleagues.
“It makes me so excited to see the relationships our Associates develop with the people around them, including their students.”
TFA Associates’ Teaching and Leadership Coach, school mentor and academic mentor all work together to support their professional and personal development during the program.
Her coaching role sees Jonelle chartering to remote communities to observe Associates teaching in the classroom, meet with principals and school mentors, and connect with other Associates and Alumni.
“When I do visit schools to see my Associates, program Alumni will often ask me to visit their classes too – they want to share how much they’ve grown and continued to work on the different pedagogical skills,” Jonelle said.
“It’s a testament to the people who choose the program and how dedicated they are to do the work.”