Ange Fitzgerald

The astonishing adventures of Angela and Kimberley: this is how it all ends*

Our two authors have told their stories of leaving university life to return to school over three blogs this year. You can read part one here and part two here.

An introduction from Kimberley

Let me take you for a moment into my Year 6 classroom. It’s the last morning of Term 4 and my students have just finished cleaning out their tote trays. They’ve proudly packed their workbooks from this year into their school bags to take home to share with their parents. ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ has just been requested as we set up for some final UNO games and reminisce about primary school and the year that we’ve shared. Our Deputy Head appears at the classroom door and silently hands me a single sheet of paper then leaves. I read it. There’s been a positive COVID case in our school. ‘Calmly pack the students up immediately and drop them to the playground for supervised collection’. I am to return to the classroom to join a staff Zoom. With a heavy heart, masked up and socially distanced, I do my best to farewell my students on their final day of primary school in a way that none of us had ever really entertained.

Some might say this is an unsurprising end to the 2021 school year, and of course, sudden school closures have become widespread in Term 4. Students, teachers, school leaders and parents have come to accept that adaptability is a requisite disposition for contemporary life and schooling. As widely documented and increasingly researched, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on learning and teaching in all education contexts. Since our previous blog posts for EduResearch Matters, we each have spent time teaching remotely as our primary and secondary school students learnt from home for a large proportion of the second half of the year in New South Wales and Victoria. While this has created challenges as well as opportunities, both similarities and differences in our experiences have been highlighted. In this our third and final blog post, we reflect on two of our key learnings from returning to school contexts in 2021, after our years of previously working as teacher education academics.

Learning 1: We are teachers at heart 

Our grappling with our professional identities has certainly continued over the year. In returning to our reference of the ‘departure card test’ in our original AARE blog post, this year has certainly cemented our self-perceptions as being teachers. Not that this has surprised us, but we did wonder if this identity work would be challenging and prolonged. Positioning ourselves as teachers in our respective school contexts has been easier than first imagined, but two interesting elements of this readjustment arose. Firstly, we have both been struck at different points in this journey that we bring a ‘different’ lens to viewing the world of education. Continually seeking research and data to inform our decisions, engaging in reflective practices and actively  inviting critique and feedback may be second nature to us, but these are practices not necessarily embedded in the approaches of our teaching colleagues. Secondly, we have come to realise that imposter syndrome is present in any professional setting. There certainly have been days where we have both felt that our true identities would be ‘revealed’ and that we would be escorted from the school premises at any moment! While we both identify even more strongly as teachers now, the process of fitting into our teacherly skins is a work-in-progress and one that we embrace wholeheartedly.

Learning 2: One size does not fit all

Our respective experiences in a Sydney urban independent boys’ school (Kimberley) and a rural Victorian co-educational state secondary school (Ange) have emphasised the importance of teachers building relationships and having professional autonomy, in identifying and responding to key and immediate priorities for the students that they teach. Student engagement in learning during remote teaching was a challenge that each of us faced, but how we responded to that challenge differed in our contexts, and even from teacher-to-teacher and class-to-class within our schools. Each of us has worked closely with parents to support students this year, but the needs of, and resources available to, our students and their families have differed. An effective solution in one school community may face barriers, or prove ineffective – or indeed, unavailable – in another. As many have argued and continue to argue, our experiences have emphasised that school funding models need to more equitably equip all schools to respond in a timely and contextualised way to their school community needs.

A conclusion from Ange 

At the start of Term 4, I moved into an Acting Principal role at my school. It was quite a whirlwind of a time to take up the hot seat generally, but COVID certainly added some additional spice! The learning curve has continued to be steep, but I have greatly valued being able to bring some of my ‘big picture’ education skills and knowledge to the table to better support my colleagues and our students to achieve their best as teachers and learners, respectively. This role will continue for me into Term 1, 2022. Kimberley will also move into a leadership role at her school in 2022 as Deputy Head of Junior School. As we reflected together on the year that was, we did ponder this question: was it inevitable that we would end up in school leadership roles? In many ways this shift out of the classroom does reflect our educational backgrounds, where we have professionally come from and our relationship with education. We recognise these differences in us in three key ways:

  • A desire to meaningfully contribute to school-wide improvement using wide-ranging data as the evidence-base from which to make decisions;
  • A level of engagement with the ‘bigger picture’ elements of the educational landscape, locally, nationally and globally; and
  • An opportunity to leverage our extensive mentoring and coaching experience with pre-service teachers to transition into instructional coaching opportunities with peers.

While we are not where we thought we’d be when we individually made decisions over a year ago to leave tenured academic positions, in many ways that has been the beauty of being able to embrace our return-to-school journeys and not be so focused on the destination. Anything has been possible and that openness has certainly played out as we have found our place in our respective schools and they have found their groove with us. Bring on 2022! We are ready to embrace our next challenges and see what working life in schools has in store for us into the future. 

In signing off, we would like to thank our academic and teaching colleagues for their support and encouragement over the year. Your positivity about our return-to-school adventures certainly spurred us on and we hope that our sharing of our experiences has been insightful and inspiring for you too.

*for this year anyway

Dr. Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn (University of Technology Sydney and Newington College) started her career as a primary teacher, and after time working as a casual academic and research assistant, took up a tenured academic position at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in 2004. She completed her PhD in 2010. Highlights in Kimberley’s time at UTS have included opportunities to collaborate in leading externally funded research evaluations of science education initiatives, as well as accompanying preservice teachers on international professional experiences to Samoa and Bhutan. This year, she joined the staff at Wyvern House, Newington College as a Year 6 classroom teacher. Kimberley wears glasses in the photo.

Dr Ange Fitzgerald (University of Southern Queensland and Mirboo North Secondary College) is recognised for her experience and expertise in science education, particularly through her explorations of quality learning and teaching practices in primary science education from a number of angles. While she entered higher education as a teacher educator and PhD student in 2007, she has previously spent time away from higher education as an Australian Government-sponsored volunteer in the Middle East. In 2021, Ange was meant to return to the classroom as a mathematics and digital technologies teacher but that’s not quite how it worked out. Ange is not wearing glasses in the photo.

These two teachers left tenured uni jobs to return to the classroom. You’ll never believe what happened next.

Kimberley and Ange shared their back-to-school story in January this year. So, what’s it been like?  How is it working out for them?

An introduction from Ange

As Term 1 ended, a student soiled his pants in my office. When the end of Term 2 rolled around, I was laughing with colleagues about my (in)appropriate response to being told, ‘That wasn’t a fart, Miss’.

How did I respond? “Oh s**t.”

This wasn’t exactly how I had envisaged my re-entry to secondary school! However, before the school year had started, I found myself acting as Assistant Principal (AP) rather than being classroom-based as originally planned and detailed in our original AARE blog post. As someone pointed out early on in my new gig, they hoped I realised that being an AP was all about the three Ds – dickheads, dunnies and disasters. At that point, I thought they’d missed the elusive 4th D: dogs. I had spent significant time in my first few weeks coaxing two wayward dogs (whom I came to know by name) off-site. Humour aside, I hadn’t previously thought much about the AP position in a secondary school. I have been struck by the humility that being the ‘wing-woman’ has brought me, alongside a much-needed reality check of what life in my community can be like for students and their families. It is with a new-found respect that I work to pave the way for more productive learning experiences and improved school engagement for students and teachers alike. Despite this unplanned re-routing of my return-to-school journey, I am grateful for this twist in the road and all that it is teaching me. Kimberley’s return to the classroom has also revealed some unforeseen surprises, one of these being that she now wears a red whistle on her lanyard in addition to her staff ID card and knows the right ‘pattern’ to whistle to signal the end of playtime when she does her weekly Kindergarten lunch duty!

In this second blog post, we reconsider and expand upon four tensions in our return to schools, after resigning our tenured positions in teacher education.

Tension 1: Positioning ourselves as ‘Pracademics’

Ahead of the school year starting, Kimberley received a phone call from one of her new colleagues, just confirming what she’d like the students to call her. It made Kimberley pause. Was the question in relation to whether she intended to use both of her surnames – admittedly, long – or her title as ‘Dr’? Other staff in the school holding doctorates, including the previous principal, used the title ‘Dr’ so as a primary classroom teacher who had earned the qualification, she reflected … why shouldn’t she? In seeking to occupy a ‘pracademic’ role, perhaps using the title would also signal her intention to ‘operate as a bridge betwixt and between research and practice’ (Netolicky, 2020, https://theeduflaneuse.com/2020/01/09/in-education-to-whom-should-we-listen/ ) to her new colleagues and others in the wider school community. Certainly, using the title ‘Dr’ has led to many curious questions from students as well as opening up a range of conversations with colleagues and parents, including those with or undertaking doctorates themselves. But perhaps in other schools, this could have created a barrier rather than a bridge?

Tension 2: The challenge of maintaining currency in teacher education 

In the first few weeks, it was hard for Ange to not run her learning through the lens of ‘What does this mean for initial teacher education?’ She had sharp pangs of guilt upon realising that she had not been preparing her pre-service teachers for the reality of the contemporary classroom. While Ange had maintained strong partnerships with schools, her dawning realisation has been that this is not enough and not the same as being embedded in a school context. Even then, the pace of change is fast. Within this six-month period, for example, a greater awareness of consent education has emerged as an area for teacher expertise. As required through the national accreditation process (see: Program Standard 5.5 – hyperlink – https://www.aitsl.edu.au/deliver-ite-programs/standards-and-procedures), currency in schools is critical. Our experience raises questions, however, about what actually constitutes ‘currency’ and how this might be practicably achieved. 

Tension 3: Recalibrating our professional identities 

Returning to a classroom position for Kimberley has brought the anticipated joys of getting to know and connecting with the 10, 11 and 12 year old boys in her Year 6 class, to be able to create possibilities for engaging learning. But recognising opportunities to make teaching engaging and satisfying for herself as well has been vital in this process, and she’s been fortunate to be working alongside a supportive team of colleagues. How we’ve grown to see ourselves as educators over these first 6 months back in schools has been shaped not only by our own images or expressions of ourselves as teachers, but how others – our new and former colleagues, students and parents – have perceived and constructed us. As we’ve made sense of and enacted our new roles, Beijaard and Meijer’s (2017, p. 177), the notion of teacher identity as ‘a complex configuration of personal and professional factors that more or less influence each other’ has been reinforced for each of us. Kimberley’s decision to move into a generalist primary teaching role was deliberate; she wanted to again experience the daily realities of being a teacher. But her own personal and professional growth has also been fostered by opportunities to coach and mentor colleagues and lead professional learning initiatives within her school, contributing to maintaining her identity as a teacher educator.

Tension 4: Walking the ‘knowledgeable rookie’ tightrope

In the lead up to starting, Ange lost some sleep about her distinct lack of knowledge about process and procedure in schools. While she was intimately familiar with HR requirements in higher education, she had no idea about this new context. What about if she ‘broke a rule’? In working with students and their families, the stakes seemed somewhat higher. While this concern quickly paled into insignificance – it turns out process is process in most situations – there was still a sense from others that with our academic backgrounds, we would have all the answers. This was evident when a term in, Ange’s principal quizzed her on which pedagogical model she subscribed to and she froze. She doesn’t believe in one specific pedagogical model. Ange felt revealed as a fraud! It was a pivotal probing question, which caused her to consider her authentic voice and find strength in being vulnerable. 

A conclusion from Kimberley

At the start of Term 1, in conversation with my principal, he commented that I’d successfully jumped off the academic cliff, and I replied that I believed that my parachute had opened! So what are we each anticipating next? Ange and I can see many possibilities for our own continued growth as educators in our respective schools. Perhaps most importantly, we believe that we can meaningfully contribute both personally and professionally in our school communities. But the realities of being a teacher in 2021, with constant and seemingly growing pedagogical as well as administrative and compliance pressures, have made me question these relentless demands on teachers. Time is a precious commodity in schools, as researchers have highlighted. I now am experiencing first hand the extended time beyond the regular working day that is necessary for me to fulfil my role. As ‘pracademics’, a future challenge for us appears to be to continue to contribute our expertise, and conduct collaborative research from within schools to support sustainable models for change.

Dr. Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn (University of Technology Sydney and Newington College) started her career as a primary teacher, and after time working as a casual academic and research assistant, took up a tenured academic position at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in 2004. She completed her PhD in 2010. Highlights in Kimberley’s time at UTS have included opportunities to collaborate in leading externally funded research evaluations of science education initiatives, as well as accompanying preservice teachers on international professional experiences to Samoa and Bhutan. This year, she joined the staff at Wyvern House, Newington College as a Year 6 classroom teacher. Kimberley wears glasses in the photo.

Dr Ange Fitzgerald (University of Southern Queensland and Mirboo North Secondary College) is recognised for her experience and expertise in science education, particularly through her explorations of quality learning and teaching practices in primary science education from a number of angles. While she entered higher education as a teacher educator and PhD student in 2007, she has previously spent time away from higher education as an Australian Government-sponsored volunteer in the Middle East. In 2021, Ange was meant to return to the classroom as a mathematics and digital technologies teacher but that’s not quite how it worked out. Ange is not wearing glasses in the photo.