Moneka Knight has been teaching at Huonville High, which is located about 40 minutes south of Hobart, for three years now. She graduated from the Teach for Australia program in 2020 and has zero regrets about her career shift from bureaucrat to educator.
The Teach for Australia program was designed to help working professionals transition their careers and place talented, qualified teachers into schools of need.
Speaking to The Mandarin about her experience pivoting from the public service into education, Knight says it was a decision that was driven by altruism. That purpose-driven mission is something she says she shares with other graduates who completed the program to join Australia’s ranks of educators.
“Much of this is about the acknowledgement that all young people in Australia have the right to access a quality education,” Knight says.
“That is one of the commitments we make as people who join the program. We work in remote schools, regional schools, some of our cohort are up in remote Aboriginal communities and in a whole range of different communities where there may be schools that have struggled historically to attract strong teaching staff.”
In Knight’s early 20s she was invited to stay in Samoa as a youth ambassador, where she helped develop and implement diploma-level journalism training for Samoa Polytechnic. Building that qualification up into an undergraduate bachelor degree equivalent took approximately 15 years and Knight was invited back to the country to help the National University of Samoa establish it as a fully-fledged degree.
At the time, Knight had been working in various communications roles for the Tasmanian government for almost a decade. It was her second career, having spent the 10 years prior as a journalist with international stints in China and the South Pacific and the Middle East.
“When I had my second baby I joined the Tasmanian public service and I mostly worked in communications/marketing-type roles,” Knight says.
“Then I got this opportunity a couple of years ago, where the Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Samoa invited me to come back and help set up the journalism degree.”
The public servant took six-months’ leave from her government job to return to Samoa, where she says she found her calling making a direct difference to the lives of others as a teacher.
“I had an amazing experience [and started thinking] when I was overseas ‘When I go back to Australia it would be such an amazing opportunity if I could actually become a teacher’,” Knight says.
“But because I’d been a public servant for 10 years, I had worked my way up quite well within that structure to be earning a good income, so I couldn’t quit my job and study a master’s.”
Early reservations about how she would take on part-time study obligations with her full-time job made Knight reconsider this career change idea. After all, she had already earned a postgraduate degree in international relations. How many more qualifications would she need to gain to do what she loved for work?
Coincidentally, Knight’s father had a friend whose own daughter had just completed the Teach for Australia program that uses a diagnostic process to select applicants for training to obtain a Master of Teaching (secondary)(professional practice) and place them in secondary schools.
“I thought ‘Wow, what an amazing opportunity’. They actually put you into a school and support you to get your master’s [qualification] simultaneously while you’re working and studying at the same time,” Knight said.
“It’s been an amazing opportunity because without it I simply couldn’t have made that career transition from public servants to teacher.”
The NFP’s leadership development program, which includes multiple intensive study sessions, subsidises some of the cost of the teaching qualification its program participants receive, and Knight was one of those in a group of lawyers, dentists, accountants looking to benefit from the program which allowed them to change course and join the teaching profession.
In Knight’s view, training and placing teachers from diverse vocational backgrounds serves to enhance the skills and life experience teachers bring into the classroom. And that ultimately benefits students.
“When you become a teacher, having that professional and industry experience feeds so much into your practice, so much into your knowledge, and the way that you develop your content when you’re teaching these young people to the point of graduation and then they enter the workforce [themselves],” Knight says.
“I think it’s a really amazing value-add for the profession and teaching having people with maturity, life experience, professional experience, and industry experience in a whole range of areas,” she adds.
Since participating in the Teach for Australia program, Knight has worked for a year at a faith-based school, then went to Rose Bay for a year. Once she finished her formal studies, Knight was then sent to Huonville High School, where she has been teaching for three years.
In Tasmania, a new government policy has meant that since 2020 students must complete their schooling until year 12 (or until the student reaches the age of 18) and Knight says it has been an exciting time to be working in education.
“That’s been a really positive opportunity for me to be at Huonville High because it’s the first time they’re offering pre-tertiary programs in English and I am their teacher running that.“
“A lot of these kids would have otherwise struggled to travel up to Hobart College [to study this subject]. Now we are giving them the opportunity to do grade 11 and 12 pre-tertiary programs in their own community.”
For her students, Knight says she hopes they see the example of her own colourful career and can take something from it in terms of what is possible for them to one day achieve.
“I always say to my students ‘The longer you stay in education, the more doors that are open for you’.”
Teaching can be a complex and stressful undertaking – with unique pressures certainly different to the kind of high-performance stress that motivates public servants. So how did Knight take to diving into the deep end as an educator?
“There are a range of different stresses that you encounter that you may not even have thought about, for example, students with complex needs students with behavioural problems,” Knight says.
“But through the Teach for Australia program, you are well supported and you undertake the Berry Street classroom training program, which is a program that comes out of Victoria, about dealing with these situations. We also had three mentors.
“This is an amazing thing as a new teacher because you have a huge network of support. I found that anytime I had problems I had three mentors who I could call on for assistance.”