Leadership Development Program

Engineering a new career in Central Australia

Ricki Willis
Ricki Willis Friday, May 28th, 2021

Hi, I’m Ricki!

I teach year seven maths and science at Centralian Middle School in Alice Springs, and I can’t emphasise enough how delighted I am every time I get to say that.

In a previous life, I was a mechanical engineer who designed power stations for a living. Now I’m 14 school weeks into my first teaching role, in the thick of the ‘crunch’ that is the Leadership Development Program.

I thought it might be useful to share what this stage of the journey can actually look and feel like. So, walk with me through week five of Term Two!


The ‘office’

“Oi sir, I used to hate you, but we get on heaps good now, aye!”

What a wonderful relationship-win to start the week!

You work 0.8 full-time equivalent in the program, because you’re also studying a Masters full-time. This means you usually get a couple of short days, and Monday is one of those for me.

I pop in to teach a bit in the morning, and then have the afternoon off for some dedicated study time. This was much appreciated this week, because I have two assignments due this weekend!

Alice is loaded with wonderful cafes, so I like to set up shop in Page 27 (because The Goods is closed Mondays!) and smash out a few hours of study after work.

Today I’m thinking about routines and rituals.

I’m a massive morning person; I get up at five-thirty, coffee, stretch, shower, get to work by seven and then blast Pantera real loud in my classroom while I do whatever planning and prep needs to be done for the day or week.

The first few hours of every weekday for me are practically identical, and that consistency helps me to get my days up and running well.

I get in way earlier than everyone else, but it means I’m properly finished when my last class for the day ends and can enjoy the rest of the day for myself.

Teaching is very self-directed in a lot of ways, and I believe it’s really important to build your day in the way that serves you best.


Room with a view 

“Yeah but it’s just a desert, mister!”

The kids might not always appreciate it as much as I do, but I spend every day teaching with an absurdly beautiful view of the Macdonnell ranges right outside my window, and it’s just the best thing ever.

Naturally, I try to spend my weekends camping out there as much as possible as well.

Today is my longest day, with a staff meeting after the last bell, and this Tuesday was pretty challenging as well – lots of energy from the students, and whilst I’ve made some awesome relationship-wins in the classroom lately, there are some I’m still working on.

There’re a bevy of strategies in the toolkit that I can apply to help, and that’s all in progress, so the priority for this afternoon is to get myself from class-mode back to me-mode. To this end, I always either go for a run or ride or spend some social time with mates after work.

Today’s arvo self-care is pizza in the park with Taylor, a dear friend of mine whom I met at the start of this year when she also moved to Alice to start the program here.



Country commuting!

I live about 2km from work, and Alice is riddled with awesome bike paths, so I mix it up between walking, taking the cruiser or taking the fixie. I’ve been on a bit of a cycling kick lately, but winter is coming, and it was 2°C riding this morning, so we’ll see how much longer I manage to tough it out!

They told me that my students would have a PhD in ‘me’ by the end of a year together, and I’ve been dumbfounded by how true that is. You do your best to steer clear of the ‘too far’ questions (“do you have a girlfriend?” “where do you live?” “have you ever…?”), but I spend eight hours of class time with each of my two classes per week and the relationship building is strong in both directions.

It’s gotten to the point where a student can ask Oi sir, are you ok today? and I’ll consider going into an existential spin — what if she’s right and I am having a hard day? What if I just haven’t noticed yet?

The oddball moments and fun conversations are absolutely some of the most fulfilling and fun parts of this gig.

Today I’m thinking more about self-care. Some days you’re operating at 100 per cent while you’re at work, and some days it’s more like 80 per cent because you’re tired or stressed.

In previous careers, I could always get by on those days without feeling like it affected my performance much, but in teaching the difference between an 80 per cent day and a 100 per cent day is astronomical.

Trying to behaviour-manage effectively on those 80 per cent days is a game I like to play as rarely as possible. 

So, my solution has been to be at 100 per cent as often as possible by ruthlessly prioritising my wellbeing via diet, sleep, exercise, and making awesome friends.

I sleep the same eight hours every night, eat heaps of fruits and vegetables, exercise every day and do family dinners with my Alice crew every week. Having an amazing housemate who cooks beautiful dinners every other night certainly helps, too.

It has made a giant difference to how present/centred/grounded I am in the classroom, and my ability to build relationships with the students has improved heaps in the past couple months as well.

I’m also very introverted, so finding solitude amongst all the chaos has been a big priority and a challenge at times.

The solution I’ve landed on is throwing myself headfirst into cardio, and so I’m spending an hour or two running, riding or walking on the trails across the street from my house after work each day.

It really helps me reset and re-centre myself, and I’m getting fitter too; I ran my first marathon a couple of weeks ago.

…and the scenery certainly helps!



Best ‘do now’ I ever did

Thursdays are another slightly shorter day for me.

I’m out at one, which gives me a chance to run some business-hours errands and squeeze in some study if it’s needed.

As often as possible, I finish my Thursdays off with trivia at Monte’s. It’s a weekly monument on the Alice calendar and it really feels like the whole town turns up. What a wholesome vibe every time!

As well as trivia, you can firm up your weekly calendar with Lindy Hop, ‘canoe’ polo, ‘beach’ volleyball, controversial alternative Wednesday night trivia, open mic nights, running clubs…

There’re 25,000 people in Alice, but it punches way above its weight socially because it’s the biggest town for 1,600km in every direction (and is full of beautiful souls).

We managed a misfit crew of 15 old friends, new friends, and friends of friends for trivia, with many excellent hugs to be shared.

I’m happy to brag as well that, out of 30 teams, we won both rounds and scored $140 in vouchers for next time. I should also confess that I personally brought no answers at all to the party.

I’m feeling rejuvenated and recharged and ready for Friday, which is absolutely my biggest workday of the week.



Where the magic happens

My timetable changed after Term One, and now I teach every single period on Friday: five hours and twenty minutes of classroom teaching time made up of a maths double, then another maths double, then home-group and science.

I had expected that this would be a change for the worse, and that I’d be absolutely wrecked at the end of every Friday, but actually they’re often my best day! The doubles are a great opportunity to build a little more relationship-building time into lessons, and having more contact time means you can really dial in where each student is ‘at’ that day, hopefully making for smoother sailing as the day goes on.

This Friday didn’t disappoint: lots of wins and challenges and needs and emotions and many individually tailored fist-bumps throughout. I’ve got a weekly pizza dinner date with my rad housemate Em later to celebrate the week! 

Today I’m thinking about resilience. I talked above about how important self-care is during the program, and there’s a good reason for that.

The LDP is the best thing I’ve ever done professionally, and also by far the most difficult. That challenge is part of the reason I love it, because I’m growing and learning at such an awesome rate, but I’ve been surprised by the ways in which I’ve found it challenging.

Before I started, I had expected that the biggest challenges would be the time management (assignments, lesson prep!) and the occasional behaviour moments like being sworn at and having bins kicked over. Whilst those challenges definitely need some managing, I’ve found that actually it’s the enormous sense of responsibility and my relationship with improvement that have been the hardest things.

I’m self-reflective to a fault; I can finish any lesson and rattle off 10 things that I could have done differently.

In reality, I only have the capacity to focus on one or two of those things at a time, and it can be challenging to just focus on those things whilst not beating myself up about the other, higher-hanging fruit.

Add on to this the privilege that you’re fortunate enough to be working with these young people at such a pivotal moment in their lives, and knowing the potential you have to be a positive influence and role model for them, and suddenly that game of doing your best, improving as well as you can, but not criticising yourself unduly for every little misstep, is actually where the real crunch has been for me.

Happily, the support I’m receiving through this journey is phenomenal.

Through the program, I have a mentor from TFA who is in my classroom or on the phone regularly (and is a legend), and an in-school mentor who observes my lessons and workshops with me every week (and is a legend).

I also want to shout out Centralian Middle School, where I work, for being just awesome.

As well as the formal support systems in place, the year seven team are a bunch of absolute legends; I love them all and I’m so thankful that I have a whole crew of wonderful humans I can go to for advice or empathy when I need it.




What a week! I have to finish those two assignments this weekend, so I’ll have to give camping a miss this time. Around the assignments, I’m still going to squeeze in a couple of long runs, a dinner with friends, a coffee with a mate, and a first date, because there’s always room for life amongst the crunch!

The last thing I want to do is preach going regional with the Leadership Development Program.

I had never been to Alice before moving here in January, and I’m so, so glad that I did. Heaps of the factors causing educational inequity are amplified greatly in regional areas, and so there’s a huge need nationally for passionate people teaching in the country.

On top of that, the LDP presents such a rare and wonderful opportunity for you to make a wholesale lifestyle change, and being able to throw yourself open-armed into a new community is a highlight of the program that I don’t think gets talked about enough.

If you’re gonna do the program and you’re thinking about where you can go, I really deeply encourage you to do so from a perspective of abundance.

Rather than ‘I could struggle in this place because…’, think ‘I could fall in love with this place because…’

You can probably complete both those sentences for pretty much any place in Australia, but which mindset you choose to take with you into a new community will make all the difference in the world to the experience you have.

Go bush; you won’t regret it.

Lots of love, Ricki out!

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