Grace Healy is currently undertaking a professional doctorate in Education (EdD) at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. In this blog post, she reflects on how it is like balancing her doctoral research with her work as a full time teacher.
After completing my MEd (Master of Education) in my Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) year, I swiftly began to miss being actively engaged in educational research. I had already begun to ponder about undertaking a professional doctorate in Education (EdD) when I attended the first annual EdD conference at Cambridge in June 2015. I had been completely inspired by the energy and passion of the educational professionals that presented and attended the conference. Following this, I was able to gain some further insight from EdD students that were balancing their studies alongside teaching successfully. In some sense the combination of studying part time whilst teaching full time raises some similar challenges to those discussed by Ashton Brown in her recent FERSA blog post. I most definitely would agree that I feel as though I am permanently behind schedule with everything. However, my roles as a teacher and doctoral researcher have become inextricably linked.
My role as a teacher of geography informs and provides the rationale for why I wish to undertake my doctoral research. As the focus of my research relates to the challenges and questions that have arisen from my own teaching practice, and the current landscape of assessment and curriculum reform, I am fully invested in my research as a way of furthering my own teaching practice. First and foremost, I know that just being engaged with this research has a fundamental impact on my own teaching, and therefore on the experience of the students that are learning within my classroom. Moving beyond the immediacy of my classroom, I believe that by furthering curriculum research in geography education there is potential to inform and influence curriculum and assessment practice in my department, and the geography education community more widely. This serves as a big motivation for me to get on and complete my doctorate, as I believe that there is scope for me to offer something that is original, significant and rigorous to the geography education community.
At times, reading educational research can lead to some significant cognitive dissonance. The research that I am exposed to often challenges me to consider my day to day practices as a teacher. It helps me to reflect on some of the practices that have become unquestioned and habitual. I have also found that being engaged with, and aware of, educational research has allowed me: to “critically sift” new policies and directives, to embrace the autonomy that I am given, and to more actively contribute to my school community as a teacher, in my pastoral and academic roles, and as a school governor. Within schools, it can sometimes be hard to escape the need to prioritise responding to external changes (whether they come in the form of curriculum or exam reform, or Ofsted requirements), and cope with internal constraints. Though, I think that undertaking an EdD has given me the knowledge (and with this the power and confidence) to think beyond this, and as Bernstein puts it “to think the unthinkable and the not yet thought”.
I recently read Helen Sword’s book Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, which reconfirmed to me the importance of being able to break the mould and move away from being overly concerned about what works for other doctoral students. I sometimes worry unnecessarily about how I should or ought to be doing things, and this in itself causes more problems, especially as part time student. I found the book to be an insightful read about academic writing, which discusses a range of behavioural, artisanal, social and emotional habits, and recognises the diversity in practice.
In my spare time, I do like to collect and reflect upon a quote or two. “If it is important enough to you, you will find away” feels most apt here. At times, I have found it really difficult, but because my doctoral research is important to me, I will keep finding a way. In reality, my way of keeping moving has relied upon the communities I am part of, and their willingness to support me and teach me more about myself. I often berate myself for being further behind that I feel I should be, but it helps to have an extremely supportive supervisor who does not add pressure, and truly understands the demands of being a teacher. Within school, there is always something more you could be doing to be a better teacher and to support students. Whilst I do always worry I am not doing enough, undertaking a doctorate has made me really careful to prioritise what is
important for my students. School commitments take priority, and sometimes I feel like I am neglecting the doctoral programme, but being part of an EdD Research Community and the education community at Jesus College helps. Occasionally it can be overwhelming, especially when there are other professional challenges, but I am extremely lucky to work within a supportive school. Sometimes I am over preoccupied with getting to what is next. The doctoral process for me is about being committed to enjoying the process and about learning to be more patient with myself and in life.
As a full time teacher, with a range of additional responsibilities, I find my school related commitments are plentiful. Recently this has included taking Year 7 on their first social trip, travelling to Malham in Yorkshire for a Year 13 geography fieldtrip, and undertaking the role of a judge at the annual Year 7 Spanglovision competition. This means making it to the library can be challenging. Fortunately, the Education Faculty Library team in Cambridge are beyond wonderful, and do their very best to make it possible for EdD students like me to access their books with ease. By necessity, I do find myself having to borrow books from other libraries, and it always seems substantially more complicated and tiresome! It really is these little practical things that make a big difference as a part time student!
Grace Healy is a second year EdD student at the Faculty of Education. Her research explores the place of substantive and second-order knowledge in geography education in order to strengthen disciplinary practice and rigour in curriculum planning and assessment. Grace teaches at Comberton Village College, where she holds the responsibilities of Assistant Head of Department (Head of A-Level Geography), Assistant Head of Year 7 and Head of Student Leadership. She is actively involved in the Secondary Geography PGCE as a member of the Mentor Panel, and hold positions on the Post 16 and HE Phase Committee, Assessment and Examinations Special Interest Group and Cambridge and District Branch of the Geographical Association. You can follow her on Twitter @GraceEHealy.