Sunday, 17 August 2014

Things lost in becoming a teacher

Two years ago, I was part of a panel that talked to 2nd and 3rd year University of Auckland health science students at a careers evening. I was the sole representative from the education sector, but also talked to students about my pathway to teaching, including a doctorate, and post-doctoral research in industry (rather than staying in academia). While many questions from students focused on how I got a job post-study, and what the process of a PhD was like, there were a couple of questions about teaching, and one specifically that I hadn't expected:

"what skills & approaches that you developed during your career as a researcher were transferrable to teaching?"
At the time (after feeling stumped and saying what a good question it was!) I replied that to be honest, I couldn't think of many that were that transferrable, mostly because as a researcher you have to be very self-confident with quite a large ego - after all, it is your belief in your own work that drives the experiments that you do (or ask others to do) - it is this belief in yourself that leads to grants being applied for, connections made to other research groups' work and the ability to get through the daily slog of many experiments not working, data not quite matching, until you occasionally get those incredible break-through moments.

Whereas in teaching, there is no place for ego, no place to believe that you are more important than the students in your classroom - after all, the students are the whole reason you are there, and they must take priority over how great you may think you are.

If I were to answer the question now, I would answer the same way about ego, but I do now recognise that many skills I developed during my time as a researcher are so vital to my teaching. Below are just a couple of skills that I believe I gained through research, but now I see are skills we are trying to teach at school (which is pretty amazing!)

  • Critical thinking: Secondary school in my day was truly about rote learning and being right or wrong, and the critical thinking skills that I appreciate now, I certainly didn't develop until postgraduate study. 
  • Resilience: This is certainly something that was built through years of less-than-amazing experimental results (but let's keep doing it anyway, because we believe that the amazing data is just beyond our grasp!)
  • Problem-solving: I pride myself in having a 'number-8-wire' approach to tacking problems, and through having to solve my own practical/experimental setup issues myself, I know how to think laterally around a problem.

So all up, becoming a teacher has resulted in the loss of the 'luxury' of being able to focus so deeply on one specific area of cutting-edge knowledge and understanding (although it certainly didn't feel like a luxury at the time - in fact I still feel being a researcher is an incredibly tough career choice, especially for women.... but that's another post!), the main thing I have lost in becoming a teacher is my ego.... something that drives research but can't drive a classroom.

Love this image I stumbled across, especially with the NZ focus (from ).....

postscript: I want to clarify that ego in research really is necessary, otherwise nothing would get done, no-one would have the confidence to believe that their research could make the difference and to continue despite setbacks. This isn't to say that every researcher is an ego-maniac, simply that the very process of being so closely focused on one small area of work (for which you may be the only person on the planet who is looking into that particular area of interest) leads to (necessary) ego forming.

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