Back to college

7th November 1997 at 00:00
An increasing number of schoolteachers are moving into higher education, as lecturers on initial teacher training courses. But those attracted to the academic life need determination and stamina.

Margaret Brown, professor of education at King's College, London, and president of the British Educational Research Association, says: "It's very difficult for someone coming in with 10 years' teaching experience to catch up with colleagues who have higher degrees and publications behind them.

"Trying to do research and train teachers at the same time is virtually impossible, and for many people there's a long period of feeling guilty about their PhD."

University education departments want former teachers who can offer up-to-date classroom and curriculum expertise, but to progress in an academic career, you must also have at least one higher degree, preferably a PhD, and build up a good track record in research and publications.

As university funding is now largely based on the research profile of individual departments, universities cannot afford to employ people who will be unable to contribute in this way.

Tony Fisher, a former geography teacher who is now a lecturer at Nottingham University's School of Education, has to incorporate study for his doctorate into a hectic schedule which includes supervising PGCE students, liaising with teacher-mentors in schools and lecturing.

Nevertheles s, Fisher thinks the effort is worth it: "I really enjoy working with students and teachers, and I enjoy the research and writing, although it is difficult to find the time to do it when you're faced with turbulence and constant change."

Academia can't be seen as an escape from the stresses of school; Fisher's department is about to face an OFSTED inspection and it is also getting to grips with new targets of achievement set by the Teacher Training Agency for student teachers.

But after 17 years' teaching, Fisher knew he did not want to stay in school and become a deputy head, although he would have earned more. In fact, he took a #163;3,000 drop in salary when he quit as head of humanities to take up his first short-term contract as a lecturer. After finishing his PhD, he will become eligible for a permanent university post,and once he has a good list of publications, he can apply for senior lectureships.

Margaret Brown admits that teachers entering academia in their thirties can find it hard to achieve their potential before they retire. She thinks it can be an advantage for would-be academics to apply for research studentships initially. This allows them three years to concentrate on their doctorates and develop valuable research experience before having to cope with the demands of a university teaching post. Unfortunat ely, the remuneration of around #163;6,000 a year is low.

Roger Murphy, dean of the faculty of education at Nottingham University, says that ideal recruits have already got their doctorates and some publications so that they can quickly get on top of their teaching. He suggests doing a new, more structured, part-time education doctorate (Ed.D), offered by universities such as Bristol, Southampton, Leeds, Nottingham and the Open University.

Alison Millett, a former primary teacher and acting head who is now a research fellow at King's College, started her research career while she was still teaching. She took a part-time diploma in maths education, and then studied for a part-time MA in education at King's College.

After working on a two-year research project on maths in the primary curriculum, she was awarded a three-year research studentship which enabled her to study for a PhD. Although she earns less than a primary headteacher, and is dependent on short-term contracts, she is glad she made the move. "The administrative duties and practical problems, like maintaining the building, were a distraction from what I was really interested in, which was teaching," she says. Nevertheles s, her experience in schools was invaluable as it helps her to analyse good practice and to gain acceptance from teachers she works with.

Anne Sinkinson, who teaches in the education department at the University of East Anglia, believes that former teachers need plenty of support when they enter academia. She was a secondary maths teacher who was seconded to work with the Nuffield Secondary Maths Team and did some teaching at Homerton College, Cambridge, before becoming a full-time academic.

"You need to find someone who will make time to help you to learn the research and publication games," she advises. "When you are starting, you don't even know which journals to target, let alone what to write."

Former teachers are often excited by the opportunity to carry out their own research, yet they feel daunted by lack of experience, says Sinkinson,who recently conducted research into the difficulties they sometimes encounter. Marking degree and higher-degree work and supervising dissertations are also totally new responsibilities for most teachers.

Sinkinson would like to see induction courses specifically to help ex-teachers. Experienced colleagues could, for instance, offer training in research methods and applying for research grants. And universities need to allow new lecturers time to build up research work and finish higher degrees.

"Teachers into Lecturers: an agenda for change", by Anne Sinkinson, in Teacher Development, vol 1, no 1, 1997

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