Full time teaching and doing a PhD: researching my own students taught me a lot

By William Simon

I am a full-time high school teacher and part-time researcher, doing a Doctorate of Philosophy, trying to make meaning in an ever-changing world. My aim these days is to use my experience to enrich the learning of the ‘screenagers’ I teach.

Anyone wanting to embark on a  similar pathway or is curious about my struggles might find my story, and humbly offered advice, of interest.

The teacher part comes before researcher

I have taught full-time in a variety of schools both government and private in NSW and Tasmania since 1984. I was born in the dying days of the Baby Boomer generation, which according to sociologists concludes in 1964. My generational peers have, allegedly, redefined the three Rs: we are responsible, respectful and reticent. Such traits make us ideal academic researchers apparently; in stark contrast to the children we are presently teaching in schools.

Students today are permanently plugged-in to an interconnected world, are highly competitive, seemingly pragmatic and adaptive. They would like to view themselves as both self-reliant and highly ethical in their consumerist choices, although sadly, the latter does not extend always to their choices with technology.

Professionally as a teacher I have always maintained that the best way to keep abreast in your chosen field is by participating in an ongoing review of relevant research and literature. Teachers routinely carry this out, either as something that is officially prescribed by a university course or as a self-devised professional learning program undertaken by many teachers annually at their own school.

I would like to think that to a large extent, all teachers are researchers who constantly look for ways to improve their pedagogical practice by researching the nexus between what they teach and how students learn.

The children we teach are also researchers

Ironically, the Generation Z we are currently teaching, are also amateur researchers accustomed to amassing huge chunks of data and information but, unsurprisingly, many are lacking the ability to meaningfully and critically harness such riches.

These Googlephiles, for instance, seem to disregard all searches that are not located at the top of a page; viewing these as unworthy. They live in fear that they will find themselves in a dark spot without Wi-Fi connectivity.

Researching my own students taught me a lot

By far the most advantageous aspect of a teacher as researcher is how closely you will monitor what your students are saying in your own classroom. Historically, I have always kept ‘good’ examples of my students’ work and I have a long association with academic researchers who have made great use of such samples of work and who have worked with me collaboratively in a number of academic projects. Back in the early 1990s, I was advised by a thoughtful Faculty Head in my second posting, to keep a record of ‘all’ samples of work from my classes, not just the good ones. This catalyzed for me the importance of collecting, scrutinizing data and basing my teaching on the findings from such data. By extrapolating useful information, based on evidence from students’ work, you will be able to reorganize what you are teaching them depending on their demonstrated needs.

Relationship between full-time teaching and researching

Goldoni, writing in the mid-18th century, was on the money when he remarked that it was most arduous being ‘the servant to two masters.’ This sentiment is pertinent today to the researcher who is also a full-time teacher. The alertness of mind that is needed to carry out both tasks to the best of one’s ability and with the exactitude and dedication both deserve is a given. Finding a happy medium here is not an option because you do not want either jobs to be compromised. And let us not kid ourselves. A PhD candidature is a full-time job even if one is deluding oneself that they are doing it on a part-time basis!

The relationship between research and teaching is a two-way street. It is hoped that by being able to translate theoretical work into the classroom the work of researchers can be validated and acknowledged and perhaps even be remunerated. Teachers on the other hand, are best suited to make informed decisions about what kind of research can best meet the needs of an ever-increasingly diverse school population.

Your school-life can also be enriched in practical ways by your ‘researcher hat’. Even if the school does not grant you any study leave, it can still provide you support by photocopying endless drafts and printing a plethora of invaluable material in the course of literature review. On the other side, access to expensive databases like Taylor & Francis Online through your university account is a godsend. The opportunity to plunder the richness of such databases for my own schoolwork has truly benefited many of my students, particularly in their own independent studies.

The importance of building professional networks

Professional networking is paramount in one’s work and professional status and something which is encouraged and nurtured, not only through online services/apps, such as Linked-in, but also by attending conferences and workshops in one’s areas of expertise. Younger researchers often overlook the importance of establishing professional networks that will be beneficial for their future careers and lives.

Paying respect/homage to more established researchers in one’s field is far from kowtowing but a clever move that will be mutually beneficial. Younger researchers should consider themselves fortunate if they can find and cultivate trusted mentors, and must not underestimate the importance of networking with other researchers. Mentors and fellow researchers can often provide fresh insights into your work, which can enhance the perspectives of a sole researcher.

Practical advice

I have some practical advice for anyone who is trying to combine researching with full-time teaching. (I wish someone had given me this list before I started.) Hopefully some or all of the things on my list are useful.

  • Hugh Kearns (2008) advises, and I couldn’t agree more, that it is wrong to wait for a moment of clarity before you start writing. An apple may never fall on your head! By far, the best way to gain confidence in writing your thesis is by eschewing procrastination and actually start doing it.
  • Learn to touch-type, too, because this has been an efficient way to multitask since 1888.
  • When you are writing make sure you do this in a place you have designated as sacrosanct, such as your study at home. Partners, dogs, and especially offspring, are forbidden from crossing this threshold.
  • Also make sure you physically disconnect from distractions, such as social media and your phone. When working, I switch my iPhone to ‘airplane mode’ to ensure that nothing gets through.
  • Save all your work on Googledocs or iCloud so that it is always available to you wherever you are. I always make back-up copies of all my work and when I reach a milestone I make a hard copy as well.
  • Do not delete anything permanently. Make sure you save all drafts of your work and that such files are appropriately named. You might end up discarding thousands of words from the first draft you show to your supervisors, as I have done, but these thousands of words can be rescued at a later date and be reworked into publishable academic articles.
  • Forget technological devices when making notes in lectures. The most professional tool available to researchers and to school students is an old fashioned A5 spiral notebook. This generative note-taking, according to researchers Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), relates to “summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping”. I carry mine everywhere and I think it is a courtesy which is appreciated by university supervisors. At my school, I refuse to explain anything unless a child has a notebook in which they are going to record my recommendations.
  • Become a devotee of Endnotes because this will ensure that your bibliography and your in-text citations are always acknowledged and up-to-date. Most universities run courses in this but I have found that it is best to pay for one-to-one tutorial with a tech-savvy user.
  • Learn to ask the right questions with your supervisors because this is a way of showing that you are in control of your own research. Do not become socially-friendly with your supervisors because when they start tearing your work to pieces you will feel devastated. Instead, make friends with staff at the postgraduate office and the Library. In addition, consider forming ‘a study group’ with other researchers. Avoid the temptation of sharing your research with family and friends, unless your partner is the Vice-Chancellor.
  • Familiarise yourself with the end-product as early as possible. Reading through completed theses will make you familiar with the tone, register, syntax and vocabulary which is considered appropriate in academic writing. Hopefully it will also demonstrate to you that you need not sound pompous and that clarity is all. Also, seek help with how to write a literature review very early in your candidature from the university’s post-graduate research centre.
  • All the anxiety, fear, trepidation, exhaustion, stress and insecurity you may be feeling at various junctures in your candidature are real. Never forget this. Don’t be hard on yourself. You have never done this before, so every facet of the experience of being a doctoral candidate is unique and new. So now apply this to the school scenario. Yes, you might have taught algebra and Pythagoras theorem for the umpteenth time in your school life but learning these processes is new for the students in front of you.
  • Increasingly, supervisors assess your work online, which poses a unique problem. When you are not physically writing on paper, what you write and the tone of what you write, can both sound harsh and judgmental and can catapult you into a state of catatonia. I have learnt from this bitter experience and ensured that when I assess students’ work at school I balance my comments by providing them with both ticks and exhortation, as well as practical ways of improving their work.
  • Consider your pastoral and emotional needs whilst you are a doctoral aspirant. Your supervisor is simply too busy to see you as ‘a person with needs’ and your emotional well-being will probably never be addressed by them. Some think that if they had the persistence to get through, so should you. A handful will be too judgmental to be of any help to you, in which case think about changing supervisors fast. And the rest are too busy to care. Kearns, suggests that a PhD is 90% persistence and 10% intelligence.
  • Expunge all non-essential activities from your professional life because being a doctoral candidate, on top of your full-time work is a cannibalistic time-vortex. Accept the fact that for the time involved in academic research you will become something of a social pariah. Rethink the definition of friendship, and even though this might sound heretical, freeze your social media accounts. I have personally talked to a handful of friends over coffee how my study might affect our friendship socially and begged for their forgiveness and understanding, when I enrolled.
  • Stop volunteering for tasks, activities and excursions for which you have given so freely of yourself in the past. Contemplating academic research, in addition to the duties required of you as a full-time teacher can identify you either as a masochist or an extraordinary human being. I choose to believe the latter. Do not accept any non-paying engagements like acting as a ‘critical friend’ for curriculum development processes or continuing your proactive work as treasurer for your professional teaching association. This also means scaling down or abandoning ‘parent’ duties like coaching football for your son’s school team. Getting home cleaning help and an ironing person also absolves you from your share of the house chores.

Being ‘the researcher’ at your school, or with friends and associates, can be a delicate process

I have been mindful of the delicate relationship between academic work and trying to collect data at one’s school. Some colleagues might be resentful of your scholarly efforts or might not see value in what you are doing, especially when considering the ‘real’ problems facing them at school with unruly students or systemic demands. Or they could be competing with you for recognition, arguing for instance that their own MBA studies is far more useful than your ‘archaic’ PhD.

Another area that has been crystallised for me as a full-time teacher and researcher is one which Graham Peek recognizes as affinity difficulties. This relates to the intrapersonal problems that could be encountered when conducting research through friends and associates, and especially, when the action research, or case studies, are enacted in your primary place of employment. Whilst some researchers of course rely on friends and associates to provide access to potential sources of data, the objectivity of such data could be compromised, particularly when one needs to extrapolate in a certain light whether the findings reflect badly for the people who were kind enough to provide the subjects of case studies and so forth.

I concur with the advice of professional researchers, such as Ed Pultorak, Jane McCarthy and Martha W. Young (2006) that teachers as researchers need to navigate through their own professional learning and find efficient ways that produce positive results. Not only for themselves and other teachers but also for their students and their schools.

Ultimately, applying what one learns as a researcher in the classroom scenario results in an equalizing effect. By insisting on principles of objective research, a multidisciplinary approach and academic integrity, your students will learn to be better informed and more critical. In addition, they learn to value rich learning that is embedded in sound theoretical meaning, and not something that has popped up as a search on Google instantly. And I think that is an invaluable lesson to impart to the ‘screenagers’ of 2016.


William Simon


William Simon is Head of the English Faculty at St Michael’s Collegiate School in Hobart. He is studying for his PhD at the University of Tasmania. He is passionate about teaching and empowering people to reach their full scholarly potential. William is committed to issues of social justice, participation, fairness and to internationalism, especially different paradigms and ways of thinking. William is an ardent fan of Jane Austen.

8 thoughts on “Full time teaching and doing a PhD: researching my own students taught me a lot

  1. GB says:

    Thank you for your tips William – I am considering a PhD and your article is a good heads up as to how it will be for another end of the baby-boomer period child. 90% persistence and 10% intelligence is a good reality check!
    Do you feel now that you are better able to analyse and critique educational practices better since embarking on your study?

  2. William Simon says:

    Hi Gb, Yes i think doing a PhD really enables you to cut through what is important and what is ephemeral and of little scholarly value. There is soooo much happening in education and everything new is always promoted as ‘the best innovative’ thing but in reality good educational change takes time and focussed planning.

  3. Keith says:

    Hi William,
    Thank you so much for this article. When I began my Ph D (almost finished now), I was teaching full time, and I found myself nodding in agreement to so many of your comments. The thing that surprised me most was the interest that so many students showed in my work – they genuinely wanted to talk about what I was doing! Your tips are excellent!

  4. William Simon says:

    Thanks Keith, another tip is to celebrate your achievement (single malt whiskey for me) as you cross each milestone –
    I also found that trying to communicate what i was trying to achieve in the phd to anyone who showed interest, including students, helped me to clarify my own thinking.

  5. Jayne Parry says:

    I agree that there’s much to learn from our students. Recently as an EAP lecturer I was working with students and liaising with their supervisor. I found that I learnt how they became confused as they tried to understand the structural and formatting conventions of their school of study and how these related to general academic conventions. I hope that through discussing the reasons for the order of the main ideas in the introduction with the supervisor we all learnt how the content knowledge should be integrated into the moves of their introductions.
    From what I noticed I can as you say include what I have learnt into my future teaching and research into discourse structure.
    Just about to start my EdD and reading your post has encouraged me. Thanks for the advice.

  6. William Simon says:

    Glad you found it helpful Jayne – as authentic learners we, educators, are accustomed to allow the journey of learning to impact on our findings but i have found that academia, more or less, wants you to formulate a ‘finding’ and then go ahead and prove it.
    Conducting a Literature Review early on in the proceedings is imperative in clarifying what has already been said and how, you, as an academic postulant, is standing on the shoulders of others. All the best.

  7. Sarah Dowden-Parker says:

    Dear William
    This has been a valuable read! There are so many themes that you touched on that resonate for me in your article. In particular, in my role of teaching preservice teachers, I notice how difficult it is for them to learn about learning and apply it to their own teaching context. I’ve always wondered why is it so difficult to put ourselves in the position of our students (whether they are teachers, screenagers, babies or kids). How can teachers engage and build on student knowledge instead of imposing knowledge? You’ve answered the question! Sharing our experiences as a learner is a really safe, facillitative “way in”. It allows reflection without judgement. Thankyou.

  8. Claire says:

    This is a timely read as I have just started a PhD myself but flipped (FT study/PT work). I appreciate your suggestions. All the best with your doctorate. I’ve sent a LinkedIn request as per your advice as I’d like to hear how you progress and manage the study/work balance. Cheers, Claire

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