Giving up tenure: “I won’t pretend that I’m not a bit scared about this decision.”

By Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn and Ange Fitzgerald

An introduction from Kimberley

It is widely acknowledged that these are turbulent times in the Australian tertiary sector. Many universities are facing significant budget deficits in 2020 and into the near future largely as a result of international students being unable to return during the COVID-19 pandemic. For academics, there is considerable uncertainty as degrees are put on ‘pause’ or discontinued, as workload models are reviewed, as programs are restructured and staff consider a future in a much leaner working environment. In late November, I found myself discussing my own decision to apply for one of the voluntary redundancies that my university was offering as a few colleagues met for drinks after work. As we talked, one of them turned to me as an aside and asked, ‘So, for you, was it the push or the pull?’ 

For some time, as a teacher educator, I’d personally been feeling the pull of returning to a primary school teaching role. I was feeling increasingly distant from the professional everyday realities of my graduating students. An extended time of working from home during 2020 had really brought into focus how the energy of being physically in the same room as my students was vital to my own sense of satisfaction in my teaching. With my youngest child finishing primary school, my connection to K-6 education as a parent also was ending. I’d sat at the Year 6 parent information session at the start of 2020 feeling somewhat envious of his teachers, imagining the many creative possibilities, challenges and opportunities for collaboration. I was envisaging myself with my own class. The pull of primary classroom teaching again was really strong for me, and after 20 years of working in a university, the time seemed ripe – it was now or never. 

It turned out that I was not alone in feeling the pull. My colleague, Associate Professor Angela Fitzgerald, had reached a similar conclusion. For her, a changing context signalled an opportunity to step away from an academic leadership role in the tertiary sector to return to a rural secondary school as a lead teacher. In this blog post, we share four tensions that we are experiencing as we ready ourselves to return to classroom as teachers, not for a semester’s sabbatical but as a result of resigning from tenured positions.

Tension 1: The departure card test

What do you write as your ‘usual occupation’ on your departure card when you are leaving Australia for international travel? We can conclude from a quick straw poll that many Education academics write ‘teacher’. As teacher educators, we continue to see ourselves primarily as teachers, even when others may not position us as such. A strong identity as a teacher is maintained despite the many other aspects of academic work, including research, service and leadership. As we (re)engage in school-based teaching roles, a tension exists in how we may enact the model of a ‘pracademic’ as we straddle the spaces occupied by schools and universities. As such, we see ourselves occupying hybrid spaces. We both will hold honorary positions in our current universities to enable ongoing affiliation, collaborative research and publications. It remains unknown how this will position us or how others will see us as we attempt to bridge or dwell in the boundaries.

Tension 2: The challenge of maintaining currency in teacher education 

As identified in the 2014 TEMAG issues paper, many teacher educators have spent extended periods of time in the university sector which presents a challenge to maintaining professional currency. One science teacher education colleague’s approach has been to teach science once a week in a kindergarten classroom, over many years. We are aware of a number of teacher education academics who have dipped in and out of classroom teaching roles for semester- or year-long sabbaticals, such as Tom Russell, Jeff Northfield, Dick Gunstone  and Jason Ritter. A point of difference here is that we have both taken up ongoing positions in schools requiring us to resign tenured positions, which is a move that makes our situations somewhat more permanent and undefined.

Tension 3: Are you crazy to give up tenure?! 

The tension for us here lies in what others expect as the ‘next steps’ in our academic careers and speaks to what we consider as a decision of the heart. Our respective decisions to leave continuing academic positions usually have been met with positive and polite reactions, which often include sentiments such as ‘brave’, ‘courageous’,  and ‘How lucky is the school?’ At the same time, there has also been a sense of suspicion from others, either implicit – ‘Why are you doing this?’ – or more explicit – ‘I’m sure you’ll be back after a few years.’ In some cases, sharing our decision has opened up conversations with teacher education colleagues who are likewise deliberating on a return to school-based roles or different educational opportunities that speak to their own decisions of the heart. We also have been anticipating possible reactions from our new teaching colleagues when we arrive at our schools. 

Tension 4: Being a ‘knowledgeable rookie’ 

After extended time and varied experiences in teacher education, we feel as though there’s so much we know, but then there’s so much we don’t know. With significant changes in school education since we last held class teaching positions, in many ways we will encounter similar issues to novice teachers; the very novice teachers whom we’ve been preparing for the classroom! So while we do know what to expect, how it will play out for each of us is not yet known.

A conclusion from Ange 

I won’t pretend that I’m not a bit scared about this decision. I am. I have no idea what this experience has in store for me, but that is part of the ‘pull’ in making this call and embarking on a new educational journey. If something scares me, then I have to do it! The ‘push’, for me, would be realising that I am no longer being equipped with the skills and knowledge to deal with the realities of the classroom. But what sort of teacher educator would that make me if that were the case? 

I was sharing with Joseph, my husband, the fear I was experiencing around this push and pull. He looked at me quizzically and reminded me of where I was 12 months earlier. I was delivering a closing keynote address to 3000 teachers outside of Mexico City in a huge convention centre with a front row of dignatires and high-profiled education bureaucratics. He reminded me that many people would be scared of that scenario when I only felt that initial kick of few butterflies. He reassured that I’d probably be ok with a room full of 15-year-olds! 

While it might all be relative, we both have a lot to give our respective schools, but we also have a lot to learn. The relationship is mutual and reciprocal. We look forward to leaning into these four tensions and teasing them out as we engage whole-heartedly in our lived experiences as classroom teachers. While we will be in the moment and tackling all that classroom life throws our way, we plan to capture our learnings, reflect on them collaboratively and share them with you. This is our way of making sense of our reality in transitioning from tenured teacher educator to ongoing teacher, a little explored area in the research body of knowledge.

Dr. Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn (University of Technology Sydney and Newington College) started her career as a primary teacher, and after time working as a casual academic and research assistant, took up a tenured academic position at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in 2004. Kimberley’s PhD was awarded in 2010, engaging her in a case study of how a Year 5 class and teacher negotiated and co-created opportunities for students’ interest in science to develop. Highlights in Kimberley’s time at UTS have included opportunities to collaborate in leading externally funded research evaluations of science education initiatives, as well as accompanying preservice teachers on international professional experiences to Samoa and Bhutan. In 2021, she will be joining the staff at Wyvern House, Newington College as a Year 6 classroom teacher.

Dr Ange Fitzgerald (University of Southern Queensland and Mirboo North Secondary College) is recognised for her experience and expertise in science education, particularly through her explorations of quality learning and teaching practices in primary science education from a number of angles. While she entered higher education as a teacher educator and PhD student in 2007, she has previously spent time away from higher education as an Australian Government-sponsored volunteer in the Middle East. In 2021, Ange will reacquaint herself with the classroom as a mathematics and digital technologies teacher. She will also be responsible for a whole-school approach to the development and implementation of programs informing staff professional learning and student transitions.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

6 thoughts on “Giving up tenure: “I won’t pretend that I’m not a bit scared about this decision.”

  1. Linda Hobbs says:

    Well done, you guys. Enjoy your movement towards a passion revisited and relearned. I look forward to hearing about your reflections on this next stage of your teacher life.

  2. Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn says:

    Thanks Linda. After the few staff induction and PD days I’ve had so far, there is certainly a lot that I’m feeling I need to (re) learn, but I cannot wait for this week to start with my students.

    @PressickK (Twitter)

  3. Hi Kimberley and Ange
    Wishing you all the very best for this move. Thank you for the article and those thoughts on the ways teacher educators sustain a teacher identity linked to school teaching. I always think of myself as an English teacher! It would be great for you to do a follow-up article in 6 months time telling us about the transition!
    Best regards

  4. Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn says:

    Thanks Lucinda and yes, Ange and I certainly are looking forward to writing a follow-up article in 6 months. I have been reflecting on the extent to which our move back into the classroom possibly marks a career change. But like you, I haven’t stopped thinking of myself as a primary teacher during the years I’ve spent as a teacher educator. For example, I always introduce myself to my preservice teachers as a primary teacher when I start a semester with them.

  5. Laura Terry says:

    Bold, brave and brilliant!
    How lucky we are to have you both back in classrooms and teaching.
    Go well!

  6. Michael Terry says:

    Kimberley, if you ever feel the need for a road trip to Mirboo North, I think we would be happy to join you. Great Brewery there. It must be quite daunting to make such a change but the departure card viewpoint makes so much sense, you will always be educators in whatever form that is.

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