Post-PhD identity work (Part A – how I became a teacher)

It’s coming up to a year now since I was awarded my PhD. One year into my three year plan to land a long-term academic job rather than short contracts and casual work. Over the year I have struggled with my identity. The transition has been hard work.

Last week I reached a moment (which I have been told is in the life of most education academics who have come from teaching), where I realised that I was soon going to be too far away from teaching to give the best advice on the profession. My work over the past year has pursued the theoretical. I catch myself using jargon more often. I am no longer as quick with the teaching anecdotes. They feel a bit old and tired (they are over 5 years old now). I have just been returned to provisional registration because  I have taught less that 100 hours in the last year.

In the last few days I believe I have reached the edge of a maze. Behind me is the journey I have taken as a teacher. Ahead of me is the work of academia. My decision is to return to school and use what I have learned about transitions and return to the chalk face or to leap into the unknown and try and commit my career to solving some puzzles. A risk I desperately want to make but not yet sure I want to take.

In the spirit of auto-ethnography and writing as inquiry, I believe it is time to do some identity work on myself. I cannot move forward without understanding my personal transition. I feel the cross roads physically in my gut and all jumbled up in my head. In order to better make my decision I need to see things in black and white.

bookI have been reading Thinking with Theory in Qualitative Research by Alecia Y. Jackson and Lisa A Mazzei. The text uses key theorists to think through the same data set in order to massage the data for something new and interesting that is difficult to get through coding. The people who provide the data are first generation female academics. While I am still thinking through the theory side of this excellent text, I think the set of questions they ask of their participants are valuable for auditing my transition.

In this blog I will answer their questions for my own transition. I am not a first generation academic according to their definition. Both my parents attended university. Both teachers. My father had a higher degree. I come from an extended (birth and marriage) family where a PhD is considered the pinnacle of success and many in my family are successful. So I still need to think through the ideas of marginality that are presented in the above text, because apart from being female and a mother, I am far from marginal in academia and may (in fact) unconsciously perpetuate marginality in my practice.

So it is important to put some data down before playing with it through a theoretical lens. Over the future blogs, I would like to play with some theorists and see what I can massage out of my data. Not to be self-indulgent but to play the auto-ethnographic roll where anecdote can be a powerful tool for breaching divides and making the abstract concrete.

The following questions are not taken straight from Thinking with Theory in Qualitative Research, rather they are inspired by them. The questions ask the participants to tell stories about their expectations for career. So here is mine.

1.  Why did you become a teacher? 

I was brought up in a conservative family and alternative school where girls only became teachers or nurses. I realise now that this mentality was archaic for the early 1990s. I think my mother did as well, because I was half-heartedly encouraged to look at engineering, but always told it was good for a girl to have a trade. Something she can fall back on for when she had her babies. Teaching was a trade to my family. Teaching was considered to provide flexibility of hours and workload that ensured I could still be the primary care giver and have a career.

I resisted teaching and instead worked towards international studies because it was a good profession that incorporated my love of the social sciences, especially history. My guidance counselor told me that no one from my school ever got their first preference. I thought I was being clever and put History teaching first, international studies second. I got my first preference. My first preference was at QUT and I had a reason to escape the small town.

So I trained as a secondary teacher.

I’m not sure I ever really committed to teaching because I hated the teaching bit all the way through my degree and for the first five years on the job (I loved the History and Social Science bit). But I was brought up to honour my commitments. It was ridiculously embedded in my DNA. “You always finish what you start, Naomi.” I could hear my father’s Protestant Work Ethic in my ear. I also couldn’t think of anything else I could do that would allow me to be paid for working with History.

But one day I remember having a Year 10 class brutally destroy my love for History. Those of you that have ever been in a secondary school classroom will have some idea of what I am talking about. I walked away from work that day at a cross roads. I stick out the profession or find a new one. If I was to stay I needed another reason to be there.

The situation in the classroom was pretty bleak but as the weeks went on, evidence came to light that the key perpetrators of my horror were actually in a pretty bad place. In fact one of the most difficult students was being online bullied by the other culprits. It was pretty sophisticated bullying as well. Both the police and Microsoft got involved.

Suddenly, I realised that teaching was not about the subject I was teaching but it was about the students. I gave myself an ultimatum. I needed to be there for the students or leave.

I stayed.

Five years after completing my Bachelor of Education, I became a teacher.

In the next few days I will write a post that tells the story of how I developed as a teacher and what led me to academia.






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