Monthly Archives: February 2013

Whose reality?

Today I was walking through the staffroom at school when a colleague I don’t see much said ‘So what’s it like being back in reality?’ It wasn’t said with malice, or sarcasm, it was meant to be a conversation starter about how I was finding life in the classroom. 

Nonetheless – in the comment lies the gap. The us and them. The ‘real’ world of school teaching and the world of academia. I haven’t really felt the gap too much since I’ve been back at school, most people are interested in the fact that I’m working in both contexts, but no-one had outwardly suggested that one world is more ‘real’ than another. 

The statement though speaks volumes to me of the problems that still exist in education – and at a time dominated by neo-liberalism teachers in schools and teacher educators need to work together to articulate a vision for education that recognises the valuable work that we do. We need to work together to prepare pre-service teachers for their future careers in education contexts and we need to think about the things that unite us, rather than the things that divide us. The us and them construction isn’t helpful – it doesn’t move us any further in our understandings and it only detracts from the bigger issues about how we might speak back to agendas that limit our work to a set of standardised numbers. 

Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the fact that is difficult to understand another’s working life until you have lived it and walked in their shoes. Only yesterday a family member asked if I’d gone back to work yet (um, yes – on the 4th of Jan actually), showing surprise that I would be there as uni students were on holiday. The idea that one world of work is more ‘real’ than another might suggest a lack of understanding about the work of teacher educators and academics – and as anyone who works in academia knows, the pressures and tensions of academic life and teaching are many and varied. The interactions, problems and challenges of teaching at uni, while different, are as real as the interactions, problems and challenges of teaching at school.  Sure I’d forgotten about some of the pressures of school life (and I’m quickly remembering what they’re like), but until I began working full-time in academia I didn’t truly appreciate the pressures that academic life presents. 

When I was a year 12 English teacher I taught the context ‘Whose reality?’ as part of the Creating and Presenting unit – I’m hoping that we might be able to understand better each other’s realities and work to create an education system that brings the knowledge and expertise of teachers and teacher educators together. 


Everyday learning – a shout out to colleagues who inspire me to think

My dad’s a big fan of saying, ‘Well, you learn something new every day’. I never paid much attention to it, but I think that dad is right about it and that this is a message that has soaked into my pores over my lifetime. Today I did some learning and I did some thinking. It’s not always comfortable and it’s not always easy, but it got me musing on the nature of learning and on the colleagues who inspire me to learn more. 

It began with an email from Amanda – I’m mentioning her by name, because all day I’ve been thinking about how much I love working with her – and today I sent her an email to tell her this. I really like the way Amanda looks at the world and at her practice as a teacher educator and academic. She wants to know more about learning and teaching and this is never in simplistic and easy ways. Today she’d sent out some feedback from our GDE (Sec) students from last year – there was lots in this feedback to learn from, with students commenting about what they found positive in their experiences of our courses and what they would have liked to have seen improved, or areas that could have been approached differently. Amanda and I exchanged some emails about the feedback and I was telling her that I was excited about the opportunity the feedback presented to learn something new about my practice. Despite my excitement, there is always a moment of trepidation, something I shared with her in my email today:  

I think there’s always a moment where I think ‘oh god, please don’t let it be horrendous’ but that’s because so much of our professional work as teachers is linked to our personal views of ourselves and our emotions as well – but in a supportive environment these kinds of things can be seen as ways of opening up discussions for learning. I looked at the feedback and thought ‘right, what can I do in my teaching to address these comments? what’s the gap between what I was aiming to do and what might not have worked with the students?” – and I had a couple of lessons with them last year where I wasn’t happy with the way things went so I went in and talked about that the following week – to try and model that idea that we learn through reflection and critiquing what we do. This has been really hard for me to get to as a teacher though – I was always so hung up on being a ‘good’ teacher (I’ve always been ‘good’ at things – what if I’m suddenly not?! shock horror) that I was scared to look at what might not be good – worried that if I opened pandora’s box, who knew what I might find out? That’s so limiting though and so at both uni and school I’ve had to challenge myself as a teacher (and a person!) to make myself vulnerable to learning (and I choose those words deliberately as at the beginning it was a lot more about being vulnerable to learning, rather than open to learning). 

Another colleague, Robyn, introduced me to a quote that reverberates in my brain constantly. It’s from Schute, and I must dig out the actual reference details, but it says ‘One needs to stand in one’s vulnerability in order for it to become a strength’. I LOVE this concept. As a teacher and a teacher educator, it represents everything that is possible, challenging and worthwhile doing in our work. Learning involves risk, it involves being courageous enough to say that there are ways we can do things better, that we all still have so much to learn. 

Today I send a shout out to three of my colleagues, three people who inspire me to learn more about who I am as a teacher  – Amanda, Robyn and Maryann. I feel lucky to work with teacher educators who question the ways things are done, who seek to find ways to do things differently, who challenge me, question me, make me think and inspire me to keep learning. In working with them, I become a triptych learner – vulnerable, engaged and eager all at once.

So, who inspires you to learn and think more? 


Is there a Dr in the house?

So I started thinking about titles yesterday after seeing on twitter that @snarkyphd was asked for proof at the bank to change her title. It made me think about my own switch to ‘Dr’ at the bank and it also reminded me of Pat Thomson’s blog piece on titles – if you haven’t read it check it out here

Before I finished my PhD I couldn’t wait to be called Dr – I thought it was going to be great and pictured myself using it everywhere, all the time. I had visions of it on my credit card and using it to test drive cars I couldn’t afford (huh? did someone else take over my brain briefly – when would I ever really aspire to this as a life goal? this is just further proof that doing a PhD can sometimes result in manifestations of odd behaviour).

As soon as I graduated though and was officially part of the Dr club – it didn’t seem like such a big deal. I ventured off to the bank though and said I wanted to change my title (that car thing must have still been lurking in the deep recesses of my brain) and they replied ‘Yep, what would you like to change it to?’ I told them, they tapped a few keys, made the change and off I went. I couldn’t quite believe that it was that easy – surely after all that work to get a PhD people should actually want some form of documentary evidence that I am in fact a Dr, rather than me just bowling in off the street and telling them. If it’s this easy – why don’t people do this all the time I wondered? (And for a crazy, fleeting moment I thought ‘You mean I could have had Dr on my credit card all this time without even doing a PhD? see point above – even more proof about the irrationality of the PhD brain at work).

Once I officially became Dr I didn’t want to use it in conversation- it was like it had lost the glittery glow it had when I was only aspiring to get there. Or maybe it was due to the fact that once I got the title, I got a full-time job at uni as well and was surrounded in a corridor by other people with it and so it didn’t seem special, it just seemed normal. Meanwhile my family went crazy with it, every letter was  addressed to Dr. Sharon and there was pride bursting out of my folks’ pores.

This year I returned to school to teach part-time and a number of people asked me if I was going to get the students to call me Dr. The answer has always been a resounding no – in the school environment I can’t think of anything worse than being called Dr- I would just feel like such a, well, wanker, really asking a bunch of year 7s to call me Dr. They don’t know what it means or why I would be called that (I picture questions like ‘Miss, I feel sick’- sorry kid I can’t help you) and I also don’t want my school teacher colleagues to think that I’m prancing back in as the university ‘Dr’.  Students will often call all teachers ‘Miss’ as a form of address and so I figured I could live with that – and in French class the students can call me ‘Madame’ so it’s no big deal there. I was embarrassed at the opening assembly when the principal introduced returning staff and when reading the list where I was listed as Ms, changed it midway to Dr. When other teachers call me Dr in the yard, I get embarrassed as well and say there’s no need for that title in this place. But why? There’s probably some interesting unpacking to be done here about cultures of derision and why it might be that I’m happy to be called Dr in the corridors of the uni but not in the corridors of the school.

On all official paperwork I am Dr though, so my students will get reports from me listed as Dr – maybe this will be odd to them and to their parents, but when it comes to written titles I have a whole different perspective (and yes I realise the absurdity of this). I loathe the titles Ms, Miss and Mrs- I hate the way our marital status can be gleaned from our title and so when it comes to written things I always use Dr. It’s my title, I earned it and it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I’m married, single, in a relationship with my tv and a box of chocolate, or whatever. Flight and accommodation bookings, all these types of things are done as Dr, and I often get irate when I’ve only used my initial, turn up somewhere with my husband and he is referred to as Dr – is it 1950 still?

So the use of titles is an interesting issue I think – when, where, how and why we use the title we’ve worked hard to get. As I write this piece, I’m more interested in when I don’t use it and what that says about me and my view of the world …

Finding your voice

An impromptu meeting with my PhD student in the corridor got me thinking about the concept of how we find our voice in academic writing. He’d been having some difficulty writing the methodology chapter of his thesis – he knows what he wants to say but is finding it hard to get the words down in a form, structure and style that he likes. I started thinking about finding our writing voice when he said “I’ve just been reading and re-reading your methodology section as I really like it – I want to be able to do it like that”. We had a chat about this concept and in supervisor mode (that’s an interesting comment – I have a mode for this?), I talked about the need for him to find his authorial voice, saying that while we can admire the writing style of others, we can’t force ourselves to write in a style that doesn’t fit who we are as becoming academic writers. We don’t want to be a tracer, we want to be a creator. 

In a meeting with Maryann later that day the idea of voice emerged again. I was telling Maryann that in our joint paper I could hear her voice as I read – and this was not a bad thing. Her writing voice is thoughtful, honest, warm, engaging and it takes me on a journey each time I read it. I thought my voice clashed with hers. In the paper we were working on my voice seemed clipped and stilted and I felt like I was trying to jam my writing into a nice conventional structure that didn’t quite work. Maryann said she could hear my doctoral supervisor in my writing, and I began talking about the doctoral thesis hangover. 

I think the doctoral thesis hangover comes from the need to support everything I said in my thesis so strongly with what other people had written and researched – now when I write I’m still breaking free from the shackle that screams “ASSERTION” in bold capitals as I write. I remember when I was writing my thesis I kept questioning “When do I get to say something new, something that’s mine?” Now that my thesis is behind me, I’m still building that confidence to say something that’s mine without referencing it to someone else, someone older, wiser, more experienced, more published. 

Last night, I lay in bed thinking about this idea – it bloomed and throbbed, creeping out and filling up the spaces in the dark. I woke up needing the academic equivalent of a bloody mary or an academic hair of the dog – what might it be? I opened a file that contained some half-written papers and I started to read. In them I could hear my voice, the voice that I was struggling to keep quiet while writing my thesis, it was gaining more volume in these half-written, unfinished drafts. So now, I’m sitting at my computer, a cup of tea lays quietly beside me and I’m going to spend the morning singing my song of words. 

What about you? How do you find your voice?Image

Next stop on the writing road trip.

Today I stopped in at the academic equivalent of a roadside cafe – I lay on the floor of my office and stared up at the ceiling. I was hoping for inspiration, for the genesis of an idea that would help move our paper forward. Maryann, my co-writer sat at the table in my office with her computer and a copy of our paper in hand. Feet up I may have been hoping that the force of blood rushing to my head would help with the process although I’m not convinced it did.

Nevertheless, we got there in the end  – well if not there, we got somewhere. Another point on the writing journey, moving from the town of Dead End, population 2 (well I’m sure there are more than just 2 of us there at any given time), to the town of Rewrite where the population is transient, stopping in and then moving on.

The time to pause and think is a central part of the process and today I was lucky enough to have a couple of hours where we could do this. While my to-do list seems to be growing ever longer rather than shorter, for a while I was able to suspend this (and using this makes me think of Bruce Dawe and his beautiful poem Katrina and that line of being “suspended between earth and sky”, but I digress) and just focus on the task before me. Two hours later and I had nothing written down but I had a road map in my head.

Maybe I’ll see you in the town of Rewrite?

Sleep no more…

The sound of people walking home from the pub rouses me from my slumber and I hear their laughter and footsteps echoing away up the road and into the night. I glance at the phone and the illuminated screen reveals that it is just past the witching hour of 3am. Still I lie awake and my mind starts to wander.

Soon I am thinking of the paper that M and I started last year. Why does my mind turn to work in these moments? In the night I miss living by the sea, where the sound of waves rolling in to the shore could distract me from the never ending to do list in my head. Without the sea to drown out the white noise I can lie awake for hours if I wake up in the early hours. This morning though I think of the paper and what needs to be done to make it ‘work’. I’m unhappy with how it is hanging together and the ideas that M and I have argued passionately about seem lost and diluted in the structure of this paper. We were thinking of sending it to an international teacher education journal and during our writing process I applied for a position as an editorial intern and was lucky enough to be selected. I think about our paper with my intern eyes and I am sure that this is not the structure or journal for this paper of ours.

I rearrange the doona and think of how our ideas had emerged in the first place. Walks around the lake talking, coffee meetings in the local art gallery, long emails and a series of text messages. Through all of these our thoughts had crystallised and developed. Why not represent our conversation to understanding in that way? An idea is borne, a journal springs to mind, a structure begins to emerge and I tap on my ipad – the glow casting a mix of both shadows and light.

Maybe academic life appeals as it is like the sea I love so much. There are ebbs and there are flows, moments of crushing heaviness when you feel you might drown and moments of light when you float in the wave suspended by momentum.

I close the cover and the light dims. My eyes become re accustomed to the dark. Let the rewriting begin tomorrow. Image

Week 2 and rolling …

So school started last week and with it my hybrid life for the year. As the school week draws to a close today  (for me at least), I thought I’d take a moment to stop and reflect on what has happened so far – and what lies ahead. Already I see how well organised I need to be to keep up with the demands of my academic work and writing, and organised to fill in the gaps at school with things that happen on the days I don’t work there. There are lots of lessons to be learnt already, but let’s start with the return to the classroom as I share some thoughts from my first day back working with students.

Day three

Day three and I was awake early as not only were students starting today but we were heading to New Zealand after school for my nephew’s wedding. So it was up before dawn to take the dog for a walk. The air was beautifully crisp and across the pre- dawn sky clouds feathered out in the moonlight. Rohan and I talked about plans for the day and always lurking is the first day tension that creeps up on us at the beginning of each school year. This is the first year I haven’t dreamt about school the night before going back. Usually I would have dreams of out of control classes, of students who won’t respond when I ask them to modify their behaviour. It was always these dreams, dreams where I would be challenged and be found wanting. Maybe over the last couple of years this subconscious fear has eased? Or maybe I’ve just forgotten what I used to worry about in the quiet moments. I remember a colleague telling me once that she lived with a low level anxiety under the surface for all of the school terms – I don’t have that again yet, I wonder when or if it will return?

At school when I arrive for the day everything is quiet, the proverbial calm before the storm. Colleagues I haven’t yet seen are warm in their welcomes back to me, and I am reminded again of how staff form some kind of big, unwieldy family. Some you don’t see often, some drive you crazy and some make you at ease just in their presence. Team leaders of subjects I am teaching are helpful, reminding me of things that may have changed since I last did this. They are kind and too flattering, telling me they know I probably won’t need help as I will be amazing. I am overly cautious, reminding them I haven’t done this for a while, worried that maybe I will have forgotten the rhythm of classroom life. I realise that there is an implicit expectation that I will be amazing as I teach at uni in teacher education. I hope I can live up to this. I also wonder if this is actually what they think or if it is just my perception. 

Maybe it will be like riding a bike and although my wheels might creak at first soon I will be spinning freely back on the road. 

I walk back into the room and students start to file in. They are year 7s, nervous, excited, full of conflicting emotions, just like their teacher today. Today I am teaching them French, I begin by giving the students a bookmark to introduce themselves to me and I want them to take this home and use it to tell their parents what they learnt. It is today’s take home message. They are excited and eager to learn the sentence, practising the line and then volunteering to teach some boys who were late as they couldn’t find the room. I move on to completing a mind map about France as a probe for discovering what the students know. It is great to see students bursting out of their seats to give me answers and sharing what they already know of the language. The lesson goes quickly and they head off to house meetings. My return to the classroom has begun. 

Outside the house meetings colleagues quiz me about uni life and not surprisingly about the recent news headlines about drops to the atar required for entrance to teaching. They understand that it is a matter of demand but they are most concerned about the quality of teachers this may produce. Many of the people who mention this were high performing students themselves and are worried about students of lesser ability being able to handle the demands of teaching. They argue that teaching entrance should require an undergraduate degree concerned that students who complete a BEd don’t have the required content knowledge to handle secondary discipline teaching. I think primary teachers would argue the opposite and I’m intrigued about this difference. I wonder what this means for us as teacher educators and what the balance of teaching pedagogy, discipline knowledge and relational elements might be. 

Double English follows and again the time flies as we do some initial work so that I can get a sense of their skills, interests and hobbies. I worry later that I didn’t do a good enough job of dealing with a student who was struggling with her first day of year seven. I tell myself that I will be conscious of doing this better next week- maybe this is what I will need to remember to engage more – that the ethic of care I employ needs to be greater when working with young people rather than adults. I also know that I can be prone to second guessing myself, for being overly critical, for wishing I had done this or said that. 

Soon the school day is ending and I am rushing to the airport to catch a plane and life takes over any of the worries I had about my work today. I am conscious of the performance – and in this new role I am performing for a number of audiences. There are my students, their parents, my school colleagues, school leadership. Then there are my university colleagues, my student teachers and a wider educational audience. Suddenly I am conscious of what I have undertaken and I realise that until today I had been seeing this as my experiment. I realise I have been naive and there is much more to it than that. Still I am not daunted, I don’t yet feel an enormous weight of pressure. I’m interested in what will unfold.

Monday beckons and with it a 6 on day. I fly back from nz on Sunday morning and know that Sunday afternoon will be spent planning my classes and thinking about the week ahead. There are classes to teach, kids names to learn and year 7 orientation camp to attend. School life has started to sweep me up in its wave. 

When I set out to begin this journey, some people said that I might find myself pushed one way or the other, that the circumstances I found myself in might highlight to me the job that I wanted to be based full-time in, or that this might function as the best of both worlds, or that I might find other ways of bringing the two together. I think “they” may be right – already I find myself leaning towards a way of doing things that is different to what I did last year and possibly different to what I’m doing this year. It is only week 2 though – so I’m not going to proclaim I’ve found the answer  – just that I’m thinking, puzzling and exploring over ways of being.