Teaching is a challenging job. The long hours filled with planning and assessment, the constant need to keep up with changes from central government and the ongoing demands from SLT only add to the pressure. It’s no wonder teachers are often talked of in terms of being married to the job.
Despite this, there is an ever-increasing number of teachers and school leaders who seem to be finding time in between teaching or leading a school and their home life to do the seemingly impossible: study for a master's or – even more mind-blowingly – a doctoral degree.
In 2004, as I came to the end of my second year of teaching, I completed a postgraduate certificate in coaching and mentoring practice with Oxford Brookes University.
In September 2021 I’ll be going back to the same university to finish the course and secure the full master's qualification. My reason for doing this is echoed by many educators who are completing or have completed a higher-level degree: because it will make a difference to my practice. You don’t undertake a master's or PhD just for the fun of it.
Studying while teaching: One of the best things you'll ever do
Studying while teaching is hard, and those who have gone through the process conclude that it is perhaps one of the biggest challenges they have ever undertaken.
Firstly, there’s all the reading. Whatever degree you undertake, there is always going to be a high level of reading that has to be completed. But finding time to do that reading can be a mission, especially when you work full-time, have a family or have other commitments that need your attention.
Some might find the time to do the reading on the commute to and from work. Others have the privilege of being given time during the school day to focus on their study – SLT and governors will often see the benefit to the school that comes from research being undertaken by a member of staff.
But if you’re not in this position, then a high level of discipline is required, especially during those times in the year when other school-related business demands your attention. There is also the challenge of getting into the headspace required for academic reading. Quite often, all you want to do when you get home from a busy day in school is – well, nothing.
But when you’re studying for a master's or doctorate, doing nothing is not an option, especially when essay deadlines are looming. The advice given on how best to manage this is to be organised, and to communicate with your school leaders.
Really getting under the bonnet of education
If the work that you’re doing aligns with the school-development plan or feeds directly into your teaching practice, it would be hoped that the powers-that-be within your school will allow you to have a day’s discretionary leave every term in order to give you the space to get some essay-writing done.
The important thing here is that you make the most of that day. Start early in the morning to maximise the time. Switch off social media to avoid distraction, and let nearest and dearest know that on that day, it’s every person for themselves. You are not available.
Despite the stresses that studying while teaching can bring, the majority of teachers that I’ve spoken to said it was the best thing they ever did. They had no regrets – and in some cases, even said they would actually do it again. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.
For many, studying at this level has meant having the opportunity to reflect on their practice. And, for some, this has led to changes in their practice. Those studying doctoral degrees found that the connections they made as a result of their research were invaluable. It provides an opportunity to really get under the bonnet of education.
I think one of the most powerful things that comes out of studying at a higher level is the impact your research can have on the education sector if it is shared widely enough. Over the past few years, education research has really entered into the mainstream and practitioners are becoming more evidence-informed.
Undoubtedly, the more research available, the better decisions we are able to make as educators, because our decisions are based on evidence, rather than just on good ideas. The overwhelming consensus from those who have come out the other side is: it’s worth it.
It seems the tiredness and exhaustion that come as part of the experience are nothing compared with the way your understanding is transformed and your practice enriched. The positives really do outweigh the negatives.
Amanda Wilson is a primary headteacher. She tweets as @AmandaWilson910