Not Sir, not Miss, but Dr - the rise of teachers with PhDs

19th June 2015 at 01:00
Scheme that trains researchers to work in schools is to expand

When Sarah Jhumka is introduced to new pupils, there tends to be some confusion.

"I'm introduced as `Dr'," she says. "Sometimes they think I'm a medical doctor. Some clarification is often needed."

Dr Jhumka, who has just completed a PhD in atomic physics at the University of Manchester's Photon Science Institute, has decided not to pursue a career in academia. Instead, she is training to become a physics teacher.

She is one of 20 doctoral graduates piloting a new route into teaching. Researchers in Schools is a school-based teacher-training programme designed specifically for people who have just finished PhDs. The aim is to place the new teachers into state secondary schools in particularly disadvantaged areas.

"We think it's a hugely untapped resource," says Jonny Sobczyk, the founder of Researchers in Schools. "The doctoral community is a very insecure market - you're probably looking at 10 years of job insecurity. You're going from short-term contract to short-term contract.

"We think that using that research and knowledge in a classroom setting could be of tremendous benefit to education."

There are currently approximately 70,000 doctoral students in the UK, and that number has risen significantly over the past decade. Mr Sobczyk estimates that only one in three PhD graduates will be able to find a postdoctoral job in academia. Meanwhile, the physics department of only one in four schools has a member who actually studied physics at university.

"In science, academia involves two or three years of postdoc, after which you have to look for another one again," Dr Jhumka says. "But I taught at university, and I've been a lab demonstrator, and I knew I liked the teaching aspect."

Leading learning

In May last year, the Department for Education gave Researchers in Schools funding for 20 places. But the programme received 10 times that number of initial applications, including 100 from physicists and mathematicians. In the end, 14 places went to maths and physics trainees, and six to would-be English and history teachers.

Next year, the programme will expand to 100 places; 600 people have applied. Of these, 82 per cent say they would not otherwise have signed up to train as teachers.

"I taught undergraduates," says Calum Mechie, who recently completed a DPhil in English at the University of Oxford, looking at the work of George Orwell. "And I also taught A-level students at an Oxford summer school. I enjoyed that a lot more than the undergraduate teaching.

"The kids who make it to Oxford are really, really good at a certain type of skill, but I'm not sure that skill is learning. It's much more polished and practised than that. Learning is quite a messy and accidental process. It seems to me that there's more actual learning going on in a regular Year 7 class than in a typical Oxford tutorial."

However, Dr Mechie adds, universities take for granted something that schools do not: that learning can be a two-way process. When he was writing up his DPhil, a comment from a teenager he was tutoring cast unexpected light on an aspect of Orwell's writing that he had previously been struggling with.

Dr Mechie points out that, if academics are writing a book about a particular subject, it is assumed that they will concurrently teach a course in that subject. "In university, the relation between teaching and research is taken for granted," he says. "That never happens in schools. That relationship never occurs as a fruitful one."

Researchers in Schools hopes to change this. It guarantees its trainees one day a week to devote to their own academic research, as well as a pound;1,000 research grant. Dr Mechie plans to use his research days to look in close detail at one of the texts being studied by his A-level class.

Dr Jhumka, meanwhile, has slightly different research ambitions. "I hope to be able to do research in education," she says. "Next year, I'll be teaching A-level. So my focus will be research into teaching at A-level: how we can widen participation, especially for students from the backgrounds we have at my school."

The programme was deliberately set up so that the researcher-teachers would be working with pupils from families without a history of university education. Michael Slavinsky, Researchers in Schools' teaching and learning director, points out that the more usual career path for PhDs-turned-teachers takes them straight to the neatly upholstered armchairs of the independent-school staffroom.

"Talent and ability are very evenly distributed throughout the population," he says. "But opportunity isn't. And opportunity helps talent develop. So the opportunity should be evenly distributed as well.

"All schools care about the destinations of their students. So this is one way that we can help them with that."

By definition, doctoral graduates have experience of more than one degree, often at more than one university. "Having a PhD is in some ways a guarantee that you understand how universities work," Mr Slavinsky says. "You probably have a broad range of experiences - and a personal and professional network - in different institutions. And that will benefit the students."

Not all the trainees' former research-mates see it the same way, however. "A common question is, `How long do you plan to stay in teaching?' " Dr Jhumka says. "It's almost a refusal to believe that someone with a PhD will go into and stay in teaching.

"Some did warn me that there's a high suicide rate among teachers." She smiles wryly. "But some people really like the fact that I'm trying to use my research, and use my background, in a more immediately constructive way."

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`It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

Richard Branch completed a DPhil in biophysics at the University of Oxford, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, before enrolling in the Researchers in Schools programme.

But he describes teaching as "the hardest thing I've ever had to do".

"It's not until you actually get up in front of a class, and you have to direct them and challenge them, that all the subtleties and complexities come out," he says.

Dr Branch has always been interested in education. "I started doing outreach work in schools, and eventually became more interested in that aspect of my working life than in the actual physics," he says.

"Most of my academic colleagues think this is a very noble step. I'm not sure I'd say it's noble. But I wanted to go back into that role of helping kids."


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