A Force To Be Reckoned With #3

Career Stories from ADF Partners

There is an enormous amount of talent, creativity, grit and determination in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) spouse/partner community. Not to mention incredible stories of partners adapting to changing circumstances, making the most of new opportunities that come their way, and not just surviving but thriving in the face of the challenges. Each month we’re going to hear from an inspiring ADF partner who is achieving success (however they define it) in their career life and ask them what they’re doing, how they got there and what’s next.

Sarah Donaldson – Teacher

Sarah D AFTWRV03

Sarah Donaldson is a teacher who currently lives in Adelaide with her RAAF husband and 3 children. She has been teaching for 16 years and is also the co-owner of Joey’s Corner – a coaching and mentoring service for educators. Sarah and her family have lived in Perth, Wagga, Tindal and Amberley and Adelaide. Sarah’s husband is medically discharging from the ADF and they are preparing to move back to Queensland. 

Was teaching something you always wanted to do?

I think so. I am the eldest of four and it seemed a natural choice for me. I think I would have always worked with children in some capacity. I had initially wanted to head overseas teaching but life changes and we adapt.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Watching the connections spark and the silliness that can happen and I can get away with things you wouldn’t in a conference! Out of the mouth of babes’ probably sums it up. There is belly laughter every single day.

If we walked in to your classroom what would we see and hear?

Hopefully laughter, students contributions or pencils eagerly scratching. Rather than see or hear I would hope you would feel welcomed and an encouragement to own the learning that is happening by the student for the student.

What training and professional development have you done to get where you are today?

Teachers are required to complete at least 30 hours a year to maintain their registration but it varies from state to state. A portfolio has to be managed as to the relevancy of the professional development to the teaching standards and there are a lot of out of class commitments. Every posting I start about 2 months out collating witnessed ID and contacting the registration board for the state. The list consists of complete first aid, a health check, mandatory child protection training, a working with children screening, submit to the Department of Education and then the state teacher registration board.

What have been some of the highlights of your teaching career?

Honestly I can’t pinpoint anything in particular. It really warms the cockles of my heart to hear how a child is loving to learn and setting their own goals from our discussions. Helping a family with diagnosis then adjusting and managing between home and school is always a relief. There are highlights every day and every year in teaching depending on which lens you are viewing through. I think that keeping the momentum and passion for teaching has to be a highlight!

On the surface teaching appears to be portable and therefore a great choice for ADF partners. Have you found this to be the case?

Being a teacher has inadvertently been a great choice as it is pretty flexible and there are always going to be schools but there are hurdles in every new state. It may be a national curriculum but every state I start as a graduate again until I provide all my statements of service and they are aligned with that state’s pay scale. Plus long service leave doesn’t roll over. My youngest is turning 11 so if I had stayed with a consistent department it might have accrued. A nice back pay in the end and then a nice tax return yet the bureaucracy is infuriating as each state needs a different format. It is a good way to get to know the area as you drive to different schools, work out traffic and areas.

Has being an ADF partner developed skills/attributes that you think help you in your professional life?

Most definitely. I’m not as nervous approaching new opportunities and happy to try anything new. Maintaining organisation of several possible outcomes, thinking on your feet and adaptability have to top the list. In Adelaide alone I have contracted as a Design and Technologies, Physical Education and Performing Arts teacher. I have really had to learn that, not that it is vanity, but marketing yourself and being selective for your family life to balance with Defence demands is essential.

You might not always have to take the first job, know your capabilities and limits and toot that horn so others know your worth too!

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career/life that you’ve successfully overcome?

As a teacher the postings can be so tiresome to pack up classrooms, say goodbye to your teaching buddies and the students, learn a whole new state system and set of resources. I have always worked in some capacity, usually within a month of a new posting. Plenty of people comment ‘you’re so career driven?!’ as if its a bad habit. I don’t think I’m career driven, I think I am identity driven. Being Defence I find there’s sometimes a perception that as the spouse we maintain what’s going on behind the scenes as much of our life is directed by Defence and that’s it. Teaching in any setting allows me my own space to do more of what makes me happy to the balance of shiftwork, exercises and new communities. I also usually end up contracting at my children’s schools so that made hubby’s time away much easier too! 

What are some of the opportunities that have come your way that you’ve embraced?

With every state there are different allowances for teachers. I am Early Childhood trained which did mean I was trained in 0 to 7 age group but it seems to have extended all the way into the highschool age group. I was able to run a kindy program from home in one state and support Indigenous reading program in highschool. I have implemented several Government recognised Kindergarten programs into long daycares which I think is important for dual working families. I have met a range of teaching buddies who have become lifelong friends and one who I went into business with over at Joey’s Corner.

You mentor and coach other teachers. What are some of the common issues they approach you with?

Joey’s Corner have actually had an influx of international students studying education which was surprising. I think I read education is the 3rd highest grossing import for Australia through universities. So many are just wanting help on how to find relevant research, write grammatically correct lessons and where to start with classroom management. Overseas studies seem to be all theoretical so no classroom contact until they finish their exams. Currently it’s assisting to identify evidence for their teaching portfolios to move from graduate to proficient. Joey’s Corner slogan is #weareinyourcorner to support the quality and passion of educators in the sector.

What advice would you give to someone considering taking up teaching as a career?

Be ready to make a new family every year. The list will be never-ending as you may feel you could always do more but you have to draw a line to find balance in home life. Keep snacks on hand!

Your husband is preparing to transition out of the ADF (unplanned) and you’re moving again as a result. How has being able to maintain your own career over the years influenced how you manage transition? 

When the discharge was discussed it felt like it was time to hit the panic stations defcom6 button. Work ceasing unexpectedly has repercussions beyond career planning. Hubby could essentially be retired at 40 and unable to utilise the last decade of experience. That leaves a void. Waiting for a result regarding financial outcomes and working expectations added time to the recovery process from the anxiety of what would happen. One aspect that was alleviated was the concern of future financial security. I have maintained currency in my career, attained experience which translates to seniority pay scale by working at every posting. The cost of living is covered if the final determination is below current wage. I know I can balance full-time work with the family as we have done so during deployments. Those are small stress adjustments that might not be considered amongst juggling everything else when a life altering changes happens so quickly.

Spouses are used to looking at the big picture of what needs to be organised to keep life rolling with little disruption. No matter what posting where or when the shift happens, there has always been a way to engage. Sometimes the shift in thinking to something new is the hardest to make happen. A spouse might walk into a new environment every 2 years. They have had the restrictions placed on their community involvement and career plans simply by posting to a new location. They haven’t been able to transfer their friends and workplace. They have to construct a new foundation to work from, exploring the local area to gauge possible entry points to the community. They have created a plethora of skills to assess environment possibilities in order to become connected. Networking via their children at parent based groups, scrolling through local fb groups, up-skilling with a connected department, finding free council training, scanning the local papers, applying to all the things and keeping their ear to the ground.

Life decisions, like our final posting, had to be based on logical facts. We couldn’t afford to live near my family in W.A. as we couldn’t apply for a loan until back in location. Moving to a new state meant I wouldn’t have the statements of being in the job for the time required and if the other is on a pension we’ve heard that makes it even less likely. Thankfully I have a permanent position in Queensland I am guaranteed to go back too, a house that we can afford and that really was the most important factor. Shelter and income. No matter what delay may happen with the discharge or the payments from Defence we don’t have to go through Centrelink rigmarole as a stopgap. As I have continued with contracts through this posting there is holiday pay to tide us over. That reduces the angst around Christmas and school holidays. 

There was a great article on the progression of a Defence spouse in comparison to a Defence member that circulated. Gary and I are now in role reversal. I know exactly what I am walking back into, I have teaching buddies, my paperwork is all sorted and I’m aware of the time committments. Gary is currently in the position I usually am at the posting cycle. Uncertain about the financial stability, if there will be any positions that he could do, what training he has to undertake, all variables that affect our family planning. 

 Above all, I know it’s going to be ok as it always has been before. The shift of thinking is that there is always a way to make it work. I am the one saying ‘it will be fine’ now as I know exactly how he is feeling having been the stressee for the past several postings. Even if hubby couldn’t do what he knows, or has restrictions or stipulations on future employment or community involvement, I can help. The resilience mind tricks can be shared.  It looks like the new year will be off to a solid start.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Stay strong to what feels right. . Make do with what you have and if you don’t have it, find it.

How would you like to see your career develop from here? What are your next goals?

I’m currently studying a Grad Cert in Disability Studies with the intention of specialising both in and out of school. I dream of the ease families could access the NDIS more effectively and develop a focused early intervention community hub for those little people who have such spirit or need a voice. If I’m doing the best I can to assist families and graduate teachers in understanding their influence on a little person while having time to keep reading stories to myself, my kids and my students I think I will be content 🙂

Thank you Sarah!

You can learn more about Joey’s Corner here


For more information or support on transition from the ADF:

Defence Community Organisation

Department of Veterans Affairs

Defence Family Helpline (24/7) 1800 624 608 or via email DefenceFamilyHelpline@defence.gov.au

ADF All Hours Support line is provided by Defence as part of the ADF Mental Health Strategy, and is a 24-7 service for ADF members and their families to access mental health advice and referral. Ph 1800 628 036  (or +61 2 9425 3878 outside Australia)

Open Arms – Veterans and Families Counselling on 1800 011 046 for free, confidential counselling and group programs to support mental health and wellbeing.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs At Ease website can help veterans, current Defence members, and their families during challenging times by providing tips, treatment options, and resources for identifying, managing or treating symptoms of not coping.

Employment resources for both ADF partners and ADF members and veterans can be found elsewhere on this website








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