Disability Practice in the Spotlight
A job ad for a “highly motivated person” appealed to Belinda Wallis, enticing her into a career in student support. But she almost didn’t apply for the role. It was advertised as being for five months only and, knowing she would be overseas for two of those, she was reluctant to throw her hat in the ring. Nevertheless, she was encouraged to apply and was reminded, “you’re allowed to take leave” – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Belinda has been an education advisor, disability at Canberra Institute of Technology’s Pathways College for six years now. She has worked in a variety of areas over that time, beginning as a student before teaching business administration for a few years. She also did some project work with online enrolments, eLearning for industry, student services and student support.
Her current role keeps her on her toes. “Each day is varied. Each student is different. No two days are ever the same,” she says. “The complexity of the issues students present with while embarking on study is varied.”
Belinda’s role lets her work closely with teachers, supporting them in their role which ultimately supports students. It’s something she really enjoys – “showing teachers that there is more than one way to assess which doesn’t undermine the integrity of the assessment.” It can be challenging, she says, but she knows most teachers want to help.
One common issue that has emerged over her time in the role is mental health; Belinda says mental health issues for those under 25 and particularly around 17 years old are significant, interrupting young people’s education at a key learning time. Consistency in health professionals is also a difficulty for some of her young students.
Having seen the difference that reasonable adjustments can make to a student’s life, she believes these should be readily and easily available. She is a passionate advocate for the right adjustments to help students navigate their vocational education path.
She also wishes there was more consistency in funding models across the primary, secondary, vocational and tertiary education sectors, saying that this would make it easier for students to transition through. In addition, she believes that practitioners shouldn’t have to be unofficial quality assurance and control for organisations.
But there have been many highlights over the years, including watching students work towards their goals. These look different from student to student: for some it might be getting out of bed, getting to the car park or classroom and staying in the class. Others set goals around their learning and assessments. No matter what it is, Belinda says seeing where they’ve come from and watching their progress is a good feeling.
“Seeing a student who has been studying or stressing attempt an assessment and then get feedback that they’ve passed is pretty special to witness.”
There’s something about witnessing the whole student journey, from excitement and nerves at the beginning, navigating the usual speed bumps like illness, stress or relationships, through to the ultimate pass and progression, that Belinda finds pretty special.
She counts listening to students and helping them problem solve as one of her favourite things about the role.
“The tortoise really does win the race – slow and steady – each student journey has a different timeframe,” she explains.
She has now been to two Pathways Conferences and hints at some powerful and inspirational presentations and some special moments, particularly from her first event in Canberra which her work hosted. “Those that attended the conference dinner know we gained a conference delegate who happened to be in the right place at the right time!” she says.
Describing herself as a lifelong learner, she has a great deal of respect for the more experienced practitioners in whose steps she follows. “You have so much knowledge, experience and history,” she says, “I was fortunate enough to work with two amazing colleagues who I call friends, and who modelled and let me shadow. They’re a great sounding board and support for you when you have those tough days.”
Now with a wealth of experience behind her in different areas, Belinda is able to offer her own pearls of wisdom to new practitioners. “One of our best assets is our ability to listen to our students. Another is to present information to our students in a way that is meaningful to them to help them make an informed decision that considers their needs with our organisational knowledge,” she says.
The sage words that urged her to try out for the role at CIT go hand in hand with some of the best advice she received when she first started in the role. As Belinda recalls: “Boundaries are important, especially for self-care and to prevent burn out. Be afraid of the calendar that has no appointments; you’re in for an interesting day.
WWMD - 'What would Margaret do" is a post-it note stuck above Belinda's desk - this gets Belinda to stop and think about a situation from another perspective.
Always eager for something new or different to try or explore, Belinda loves going on day trips and holidays in her downtime. That love of learning is a trait that seems to run in the family, as she says she loves spending time with friends and her godsons, niece and nephew, with their curiosity and insatiable appetite to know, learn and experience. Though she says it’s tiring, it’s also fun, giving her “joy, laughter, love and happiness” outside of her rewarding career.
Written by: Danielle Kutchel