Scholarship and Practice
A late, stop-start entry to academia
Like many other academics currently in the field of Education, I came to academia quite late. However, unlike my colleagues, my journey was considerably more meandering and varied than the traditional teacher-to-academia pathway. While I had a decade-long career as a high school teacher and school leader, working in government and non-government schools in Australia and the United Kingdom, I also worked as a professional trainer and Organiser for one of Australia’s largest education unions. I also did freelance work as a learning designer for higher education institutions and corporations. There was nothing seamless about my transitions between these roles; in fact, there were numerous times when I was working across all three industries, in a range of different classifications, and often in precarious circumstances. And, at the same time, I was pursuing doctoral studies in civics and citizenship education, and also working as a lecturer and tutor in initial teacher education at two different Australian universities.
This experience—while fraught at times—has provided me with a unique insight into some of the challenges that face practitioners entering the academy, especially within the field of teacher education, and my experience taught me a great deal about how best to navigate the minefield of being both and insider and outsider, often at the same time.
A voice for teachers
Specifically, my role as an insider and outsider, that is, as a pracademic (Susskind 2013), meant that I had both the authenticity and the authority to encourage teachers to act collectively in order to promote the importance of the role and the respect in which they were held by wider society.
As a teacher and a union Organiser, I was anxious about the way narratives related to failing schools, failing education systems and most concerning, failing teachers were becoming common in media discourse (for example, see Barnes and Cross 2018). Teachers were constantly being framed as lazy, apathetic and unintelligent. Australia’s declining results in standardised testing were blamed on ignorant, poorly trained teachers who lacked the desire or ambition to improve student outcomes (Wilson, Dalton and Baumann 2015). It seemed like every politician, think tank and radio shock-jock had a solution that was going to reverse Australia’s decline—all of which they had arrived at without speaking to a single teacher.
What was apparent to me was that the voices of teachers were far too often absent from these debates. In fact, nobody working in policy or the media seemed to be speaking to teachers about their concerns; they were not being consulted about the pressures they were experiencing nor about the raft of changes that had become common in schools and sectors across Australia. This reflected debates about education about which I was passionate. Just as I believed that civics education should be done with students, not to students, so too did I feel that education reform should be done with teachers, not to teachers. And if teachers were going to be part of any kind of reform, then they needed to be empowered in order to have their voices heard. They needed to develop a collective identity and a shared professional identity. The place for that to happen was in initial teacher education programs, and my role, as I came to see it, was to encourage this development.
Narrowing the practice gap in academia
The gap between education academics working in initial teacher education and practicing teachers is well known (see, for example, Vanderlinde and van Braak 2010, or Zeichner 1995). Teachers are often dismissed as being conceptually confused about learning, or unwilling to embrace recent research (Hayes 2014), using debunked theories for little gain. The debacle about learning styles is one example of this: despite limited empirical evidence for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners and the validity of these as ‘learning styles’, many teachers rushed to embrace approaches based on these ideas, and now are unwilling to change their practice to fit with more current understandings of how students learn. Alternatively, academics are quickly labelled out of touch, and the findings of their research of little practical use ‘at the chalkface’ (Murray 2002), and hence they are dismissed by teachers who ‘know what they are doing’.
While both parties acknowledge the presence of the gap between research and practice and the need to work together more closely to reduce its size and improve educational outcomes for pre-service teachers and ultimately students, this gap has so far proved intractable. This is likely due to the complex, diverse, and constantly changing phenomena that influence the different understandings of teachers and academics; any approach aimed at resolving this issue will need to be flexible, localised, and based on individual contexts.
As I began teaching pre-service teachers as an academic, I harboured my doubts about the distance between many of the other academics in the initial teacher education program and the current state of the teaching profession. Some academics had been teachers, but for many this was some considerable time ago. Others had never been teachers at all. While I acknowledge that there is a place for subject matter expertise, I was concerned that the situated aspects of learning to be a teacher were too often ignored in favour of the cognitive ones. I think—and I would argue there is plenty to support this—that one doesn’t simply become an English teacher, for example, by knowing all the works of Shakespeare and having developed a lesson plan or a program of study to teach them. Instead, one learns to be a teacher through the practice of being a teacher: there is something of the experiential model here, and also the apprenticeship idea, but I think it’s perhaps even more complex than that.
Teaching, as a profession, is a dense nexus of knowledge, wisdom and experience—and the best way to get that experience is through actually working as a teacher. Of course, such experiences need to be carefully managed—I’m not advocating for simply throwing students into the classroom—and I also acknowledge the role of the practicum or professional experience is important here; but I think that there was, and is, still too much of a gulf between the theory and the practice of what we as teachers do and how we teach young teachers that.
The solution, of course, is to have more pracademics, like myself, within teacher education programs, not just in specific subject areas, but across the whole program. In this instance, the pracademics serve as a bridge between theory and practice; they can ground academic research in their lived experiences and serve to contextualise the research into teacher’s lives.
Speaking back to the individualist agendas within ITE
I left teaching and joined the Independent Education Union as an Organiser because I believed that teachers needed to work together if they were to restore their profession. It was a decision not without some risk; I was told that it was likely to be the end of my teaching career (“you can’t go back!”) and I must admit it was disconcerting being away from the classroom; but I soon had my teaching ‘itch’ scratched because, almost at the same time I started work for the union, I also started working casually as a lecturer in an initial teacher education program at university.
I was immediately conscious of the differences between my own experiences as a teacher, and more recently as an Organiser, and what was being taught within this teacher education program. This placed me in something of an ethical quandary: how could I communicate to my students the reality of what it meant to be a teacher in New South Wales, while at the same time ensuring that they had the best experience in their teacher training? In a strange contradiction, I felt that I was almost the outsider in this case. Despite having only very recently come from teaching, and still working with teachers on a daily basis, my experiences—which I felt could be of real value to teachers—seemed to be held in little regard by the structure of the course I was teaching.
I also found that I had some serious concerns about the nature of that course. Initial Teacher Education (ITE) in Australia is becoming increasingly regulated; there is a great deal of emphasis on testing and assessment and ensuring that teachers are ‘classroom-ready’ from the moment they graduate. I find this hard to reconcile with my own experience as a teacher and a school leader: no teacher is really ‘classroom-ready’—rather, teaching is something that, for a lot of it, you learn by doing. No training program can cover all of the complex and multi-levelled decisions even the most junior teacher makes on a day to day basis. Good schools and systems recognise this, and provide a range of mentoring opportunities for new teachers to grow into the role. In some ways, the government’s insistence on ‘classroom-ready’ was, I felt, counterproductive.
Such an approach was coupled with an increased emphasis on the Australian Professional Standards for Teaching (APSTs). These were reasonably new, and everything that student teachers did was centred around the notion of meeting these standards at the graduate level. While in and of itself, I don’t necessarily think the standards were that bad an idea, the way pre-service teachers (and indeed, teachers as a profession) are positioned in relation to the standards was another aspect that I found troubling. Within the standards, teachers were framed as autonomous, individual practitioners. It was almost like the developers of the standards expected teachers to work individually. There was no focus on teaching being a collective endeavour, nor about the responsibility of schools to teachers. Instead, there was an emphasis on individual practice, individual content knowledge, and individual solutions to challenging students. This was diametrically opposed to the reality of the profession that I had seen, too. I’d never worked in a school where teachers weren’t willing and determined to work together—from sharing resources to assisting when dealing with challenging students. And my work with the teaching union had only further heightened my understanding that, if teachers are going to gain control of their profession, then the only means they have to do it is via their collective will and shared advocacy. This conversation—and the importance of it—was entirely absent from the initial teacher education programs I participated in, much to my frustration.
I developed a role as a pracademic in this situation, where I sought to problematize the teaching standards. By drawing on my own experiences as a teacher, school leader and Organizer, I presented students with scenarios that tested the APSTs against each other, or other legislation. I introduced students to the notions of work health and safety legislation, and especially the responsibilities of the employer to teachers. And I emphasised—through guest speakers, examples, scenarios and repetition, the idea that teaching is a team sport, and good teachers support others. In this way I felt that part of my role as a pracademic was to resist the imposition of ‘teacher-eat-teacher’ standards and accountability frameworks within the profession.
Problematizing the ethics of teaching
I had become more and more of an advocate for teachers and the role that they played in society; this was motivated by my concern about the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), the increasingly privatised education system, and the general dismantling of the teaching profession from both governmental and corporate sources (Sahlberg 2016). My commitment to these issues expressed itself in my role as an advocate, Organiser, speaker and writer, as well as an academic. I was clear about my subjectivity to my students, and took every opportunity to speak to them about my concerns in this area. However, as I was doing so, I was conscious that I might not be best preparing them to survive in their chosen career.
Teaching, especially for early career teachers, is a difficult and demanding profession. Indeed, that is part of the reason why I speak so forcefully about these topics—in the hope of engendering some change. However, not all teachers share my point of view about either the necessity of that change, or the means to encourage it. This difference of opinion forced me to consider whether I was acting in the best interests of my students.
As someone coming from the profession, I had a stake in the teaching profession and its future—unlike some of my academic colleagues. As someone who was precariously employed, I also knew that I might return to teaching. However, I also needed to be mindful of whether I was providing the best possible experience for my students by discussing these ideas and advocating for them to take action as a collective. While I felt that such advocacy to pre-service teachers was an important part of learning about teaching (and one, as I describe earlier, that I felt had been absent from much of their education), I was also aware that I might be setting up the students for failure and perhaps even reducing their possibility of being an employer. In some ways, it was okay for me to speak about being a rabble-rouser and activist; but for new teachers seeking employment in their first schools, such an approach might actually prevent them from gaining permanent employment, and if that was even a risk, could I ethically engage in such behaviour? Of course, there is also the question of whether I could ethically not encourage them to act like this, too.
While this did cause me some concerns, I realised that my position as a pracademic would allow me to satisfy my doubts and also use it as a learning opportunity for the students: much of my teaching was very much based in the lived experience of teachers. The concerns and questions that this issue raised were part of what teachers were grappling with—and seeking to take action about, in many cases—throughout their working lives. If I wanted to raise the status of the teaching profession and promote the voices of teachers, then I needed to foreground the discussion of these issues—and the knowledge that developed out of them—as a central part in my work in initial teacher education. This discussion itself was a learning opportunity, and I would use it as such.
Conclusion: Finding a space for the pracademic
The three themes that I have outlined above have a degree of commonality. Taken together, they chart some of the learnings that I, as a professional entering academia via the route of precarious employment, have come to understand. They also describe my position as neither insider or outsider within academia—and indeed, I am no longer an insider, nor quite an outsider yet, within the teaching profession. I have tried to outline some of the challenges that I faced as I entered the academy; of course, these challenges are particularly contextual, related both to the Australian education system as a whole and my own personal and professional experience, and I think there is an need for the solution, such as it is, to be contextual as well.
I suggest that rather than arguing about being ‘inside’ or ‘outside’, we use the term ‘pracademic’ as a way to create an entirely new space. Inside and outside are often seen as being mutually exclusive. I would argue that an ‘insider-outsider’ approach weakens both the knowledge of insiders and that of outsiders, and instead I suggest that pracademics (that is, practitioner academics, in the sense that they are still intimately involved and working with the industry from which they are drawn) are a bridge between the two. Indeed, they are capable of providing valuable expertise within specific contexts in a way that is available to neither insiders, nor outsiders.
Barnes, M., & Cross, R. (2018). ‘Quality’ at a cost: the politics of teacher education policy in Australia. Critical Studies in Education, 1-16. DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2018.1558410
Hayes, D. (2014). Why important education research often gets ignored. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/why-important-education-research-often-gets-ignored-33040
Murray, J. (2002). Between the chalkface and the ivory towers?: A study of the professionalism of teacher educators working on primary initial teacher education courses in the English university sector (Doctoral dissertation, Institute of Education, University of London).
Sahlberg, P. (2016). The global educational reform movement and its impact on schooling. The handbook of global education policy, 128-144.
Susskind, L. (2013). Confessions of a pracademic: Searching for a virtuous cycle of theory building, teaching, and action research. Negotiation Journal, 29(2), 225-237.
Vanderlinde, R., & van Braak, J. (2010). The gap between educational research and practice: Views of teachers, school leaders, intermediaries and researchers. British educational research journal, 36(2), 299-316.
Wilson, R., Dalton, B., & Baumann, C. (2015). Six ways Australia’s education system is failing our kids. The Conversation.
Zeichner, K. M. (1995). Beyond the divide of teacher research and academic research. Teachers and teaching, 1(2), 153-172.