The business of possibility

In 2014, Bethlehem and her family moved from New Zealand to Australia for an exciting, though daunting, sea change. Bethlehem knew she would encounter many changes in this new country and, like any teenager, she wondered what her new school would be like.

“There were so many more rules and more processes in place [at the new school],” Bethlehem says. “Back home it was a lot more relaxed.” But she gradually settled into a routine and made friends with a group of girls that she is still close to today.

For Bethlehem’s parents, this wasn’t the first big move. “My parents immigrated to New Zealand from Ethiopia many years before I was born,” Bethlehem explains. “They wanted their children to have access to opportunities that wouldn’t have been available in their home country.”

The value Bethlehem’s parents placed on education instilled in their daughter the importance of working hard for what you want to get out of life. But although Bethlehem knew that getting a good education would greatly benefit her later in life, when the time came for Bethlehem to select subjects to study in senior school, she remembers feeling uncertain: “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at 15.”

Yet, even seemingly innocuous decisions – such as picking a class in high school – can impact our trajectories in meaningful ways. On a whim, Bethlehem decided to study Business Management.

“I kind of just fell into it,” she says. “I didn’t have much exposure to the subject before I started.” As for the teacher, Mr. Toh, “He was very strict. I remember I had certain teachers who were more relaxed and would let things slide – but Mr. Toh was not like that at all.” Mr. Toh literally meant business.

But at the front of the classroom, Mr. Toh was actually somewhat nervous taking on the challenge of teaching a VCE (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment) class in his second year as a teacher.

“There’s a lot more administrative work for a VCE class,” Mr. Toh explains. “Since it was my first year, I also wasn’t completely sure of the standard I should expect from my students.”

Jason Toh is a School Mentor for four current Associates: (from left) Matt Williamson, Priyanca Menon, Scott Young and Rawnak Hamid.

Yet, something must have clicked, because Bethlehem stuck with Mr. Toh for both Years 11 and 12. From the get-go, Jason remembers that Bethlehem was committed and driven. Her work ethic and unwavering dedication to her studies were remarkable. “She was the perfect student in the sense that if Bethlehem wasn’t doing well, I’d know it was because I wasn’t teaching the subject well,” Mr. Toh says.

Bethlehem set goals for herself – high ones: she wanted to get a minimum study score of 40 in all of her subjects. VCE study scores are calculated based on the results of other students taking the exam, with 50 being the top score. Less than ten per cent of all students achieve a 40 or above and roughly two per cent of all students in Victoria receive a study score of 45 or above in a given subject.

Throughout the year leading up to the VCE exam, Mr. Toh was a harsh grader. Bethlehem acknowledges that “this meant that I kept trying to improve. Mr. Toh would always tell us that if you put in the work, the results will come. He would push us to do our best and he made it clear that we could all achieve high results regardless of our background or where we came from.”

For Mr. Toh, working with Bethlehem was also an opportunity to improve his own abilities as a teacher. “I remember asking Bethlehem as she walked out of my class, ‘How’s your second year of Business Management going?’” Jason says. Bethlehem responded, “Pretty good sir,” and she turned to walk away. Then, hesitating, she glanced back at Mr. Toh. “Actually, you’ve improved a lot as a teacher, sir,” she told him with a smile.

All year, Mr. Toh worked to build a positive rapport with his students and eventually even felt able to joke around in his VCE class. On the final day of the Business Management class, Bethlehem and her fellow classmates congregated outside the classroom. “Our whole class made a group decision,” Bethlehem says. “We were all going to do our best [on the exam] and we were all going to elevate our school together.”

Exams can induce nervous energy, and finishing one doesn’t mean the nervousness goes away. But Bethlehem had no choice but to wait patiently for the results. The day before the results were released, it was Mr. Toh who was called in by the Assistant Principal. Luckily, it was to share some good news: Bethlehem had gotten a VCE score of 49 for Business Management.

Mr. Toh had to keep the secret for a day, but when Bethlehem learned the news, she was, of course, overjoyed. “Before I received my results, I assumed I had just made the minimum. I was shocked,” she says. Bethlehem ultimately received a scholarship to study at Monash Business School, her first choice of university. When she got the news that she had received a scholarship to attend Monash, Bethlehem says, “I think my mum cried and then started calling everyone she knew.”

The pact that Bethlehem had made with her peers on the last day of Business Management class was one of Bethlehem’s proudest moments, and she attributes her score to that collective drive. “I know that if my classmates didn’t try as hard as they did, I wouldn’t have gotten the result I received.” For Mr. Toh’s part, there were tough times in the early days of teaching where he felt that he wasn’t making an impact – but the hard work paid off and was incredibly rewarding.

“I’m finally seeing the purpose,” he says. “And I feel like I’m making a real difference in the lives of my students.”

Bethlehem has nearly completed her first year at Monash University and one day hopes to combine her interests in business and fashion to create her own empire. She credits her family, friends and her teachers for “making me feel like anything is possible.”

MEET Bethlehem Mazengia

Former student at Melton Secondary College, a Teach For Australia Partner School

Bethlehem Mazengia was a student in VCE Business Management in years 11 and 12, taught by Jason Toh. She received a study score of 49 in Business Management – the highest recorded score in her school. Bethlehem was the recipient of a scholarship to Monash Business School in her final year of high school. She has an eye for design and hopes to build an enterprise where she can combine her business.

MEET Jason Toh

Cohort 2016, Leadership Development Program

Jason is in his third year at his placement school, Melton Secondary College. He teaches a variety of subjects including Humanities, History and Business Management, and he is the School Mentor to four current Associates. Jason keeps busy in his personal life with a wide range of interests such as Aikido and skiing, and can carve up the dance floor with his suave Latin dancing skills.

This story was originally published in Stories From Our Community (Summer 2018). View the entire magazine online here.

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