primary teaching

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.

Giving up tenure: “I won’t pretend that I’m not a bit scared about this decision.”

By Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn and Ange Fitzgerald

An introduction from Kimberley

It is widely acknowledged that these are turbulent times in the Australian tertiary sector. Many universities are facing significant budget deficits in 2020 and into the near future largely as a result of international students being unable to return during the COVID-19 pandemic. For academics, there is considerable uncertainty as degrees are put on ‘pause’ or discontinued, as workload models are reviewed, as programs are restructured and staff consider a future in a much leaner working environment. In late November, I found myself discussing my own decision to apply for one of the voluntary redundancies that my university was offering as a few colleagues met for drinks after work. As we talked, one of them turned to me as an aside and asked, ‘So, for you, was it the push or the pull?’ 

For some time, as a teacher educator, I’d personally been feeling the pull of returning to a primary school teaching role. I was feeling increasingly distant from the professional everyday realities of my graduating students. An extended time of working from home during 2020 had really brought into focus how the energy of being physically in the same room as my students was vital to my own sense of satisfaction in my teaching. With my youngest child finishing primary school, my connection to K-6 education as a parent also was ending. I’d sat at the Year 6 parent information session at the start of 2020 feeling somewhat envious of his teachers, imagining the many creative possibilities, challenges and opportunities for collaboration. I was envisaging myself with my own class. The pull of primary classroom teaching again was really strong for me, and after 20 years of working in a university, the time seemed ripe – it was now or never. 

It turned out that I was not alone in feeling the pull. My colleague, Associate Professor Angela Fitzgerald, had reached a similar conclusion. For her, a changing context signalled an opportunity to step away from an academic leadership role in the tertiary sector to return to a rural secondary school as a lead teacher. In this blog post, we share four tensions that we are experiencing as we ready ourselves to return to classroom as teachers, not for a semester’s sabbatical but as a result of resigning from tenured positions.

Tension 1: The departure card test

What do you write as your ‘usual occupation’ on your departure card when you are leaving Australia for international travel? We can conclude from a quick straw poll that many Education academics write ‘teacher’. As teacher educators, we continue to see ourselves primarily as teachers, even when others may not position us as such. A strong identity as a teacher is maintained despite the many other aspects of academic work, including research, service and leadership. As we (re)engage in school-based teaching roles, a tension exists in how we may enact the model of a ‘pracademic’ as we straddle the spaces occupied by schools and universities. As such, we see ourselves occupying hybrid spaces. We both will hold honorary positions in our current universities to enable ongoing affiliation, collaborative research and publications. It remains unknown how this will position us or how others will see us as we attempt to bridge or dwell in the boundaries.

Tension 2: The challenge of maintaining currency in teacher education 

As identified in the 2014 TEMAG issues paper, many teacher educators have spent extended periods of time in the university sector which presents a challenge to maintaining professional currency. One science teacher education colleague’s approach has been to teach science once a week in a kindergarten classroom, over many years. We are aware of a number of teacher education academics who have dipped in and out of classroom teaching roles for semester- or year-long sabbaticals, such as Tom Russell, Jeff Northfield, Dick Gunstone  and Jason Ritter. A point of difference here is that we have both taken up ongoing positions in schools requiring us to resign tenured positions, which is a move that makes our situations somewhat more permanent and undefined.

Tension 3: Are you crazy to give up tenure?! 

The tension for us here lies in what others expect as the ‘next steps’ in our academic careers and speaks to what we consider as a decision of the heart. Our respective decisions to leave continuing academic positions usually have been met with positive and polite reactions, which often include sentiments such as ‘brave’, ‘courageous’,  and ‘How lucky is the school?’ At the same time, there has also been a sense of suspicion from others, either implicit – ‘Why are you doing this?’ – or more explicit – ‘I’m sure you’ll be back after a few years.’ In some cases, sharing our decision has opened up conversations with teacher education colleagues who are likewise deliberating on a return to school-based roles or different educational opportunities that speak to their own decisions of the heart. We also have been anticipating possible reactions from our new teaching colleagues when we arrive at our schools. 

Tension 4: Being a ‘knowledgeable rookie’ 

After extended time and varied experiences in teacher education, we feel as though there’s so much we know, but then there’s so much we don’t know. With significant changes in school education since we last held class teaching positions, in many ways we will encounter similar issues to novice teachers; the very novice teachers whom we’ve been preparing for the classroom! So while we do know what to expect, how it will play out for each of us is not yet known.

A conclusion from Ange 

I won’t pretend that I’m not a bit scared about this decision. I am. I have no idea what this experience has in store for me, but that is part of the ‘pull’ in making this call and embarking on a new educational journey. If something scares me, then I have to do it! The ‘push’, for me, would be realising that I am no longer being equipped with the skills and knowledge to deal with the realities of the classroom. But what sort of teacher educator would that make me if that were the case? 

I was sharing with Joseph, my husband, the fear I was experiencing around this push and pull. He looked at me quizzically and reminded me of where I was 12 months earlier. I was delivering a closing keynote address to 3000 teachers outside of Mexico City in a huge convention centre with a front row of dignatires and high-profiled education bureaucratics. He reminded me that many people would be scared of that scenario when I only felt that initial kick of few butterflies. He reassured that I’d probably be ok with a room full of 15-year-olds! 

While it might all be relative, we both have a lot to give our respective schools, but we also have a lot to learn. The relationship is mutual and reciprocal. We look forward to leaning into these four tensions and teasing them out as we engage whole-heartedly in our lived experiences as classroom teachers. While we will be in the moment and tackling all that classroom life throws our way, we plan to capture our learnings, reflect on them collaboratively and share them with you. This is our way of making sense of our reality in transitioning from tenured teacher educator to ongoing teacher, a little explored area in the research body of knowledge.

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. Kimberley’s PhD was awarded in 2010, engaging her in a case study of how a Year 5 class and teacher negotiated and co-created opportunities for students’ interest in science to develop. 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. In 2021, she will be joining the staff at Wyvern House, Newington College as a Year 6 classroom teacher.

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 will reacquaint herself with the classroom as a mathematics and digital technologies teacher. She will also be responsible for a whole-school approach to the development and implementation of programs informing staff professional learning and student transitions.