A new book co-edited by Michele Simons reveals her love for research and for debunking misconceptions about education.
-A member profile by Erica Cervini-
Michele Simons knew that if she wanted to pursue research she would have to join the academy. It was a goal she relished.
“I just fell in love with doing research, says the Dean of the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney. “I absolutely fell in love with the process of doing research.”
Professor Simons says a keen sense of curiosity drives her to investigate “phenomenon”. Once she begins digging, the curiosity becomes more intense as she starts to realise what she does not know.
“I just enjoy the quest of being able to learn more,” Professor Simons adds.
One of the most illuminating moments in her research is when she begins piecing together the fragments of her research to form a unique story.
“You start to see what you’re learning and you sit there and realise in just that moment, you’re the only person in the world who knows what you know.”
Writing about the research and then disseminating it are the next challenges in the process of doing research, Professor Simons says. Getting the research into the public domain fills knowledge gaps and debunks myths.
Professor Simons’ new book, Attracting and Keeping the Best Teachers: Issues and Opportunities, which she co-edited, reflects her thirst for doing research. The research for the book also offers new knowledge and exposes misconceptions about early career teachers.
Professor Simons wrote Chapter Six with three University of South Australia academics. The material they use is based on an Australian Research Council linkage project that investigated how South Australian school leaders influence retention rates.
The academics say little is known about school-level factors that shape how early career teachers view their future in the profession. However through their research, the academics “confirmed the importance of school-level, rather than systems-level, retention processes”.
The academics identified major retention strategies – such as modifying early career teachers’ workload – that school leaders use. At the same time, the researchers also point out that in dealing with retention, principals and early career teachers often have competing interests.
Professor Simons says she hopes the book will encourage people to reflect on retention issues as well as prompt debate and courageous ideas about doing things differently.
One issue that became apparent while completing the book was the obsession people have about seeing early career teachers as “problems” that need to be fixed. Professor Simons wants this narrative to change.
“We thought we were doing a good service to call out what we perceived to be an issue, but I think it’s had unintended consequences,” Professor Simons says.
“And, certainly I know from talking to early career teachers when we did our research for our book, these are the people struggling to be teachers and they think they understand what it means to be a good teacher.
“But they’re confronted with this relentless negative narrative all the time that they are hopeless…when we’re learning something new if we’re constantly barraged with criticism and negative feedback, we don’t do very well.”
Professor Simons also believes the narrative about teaching as a life-long career has to change. She questions why society would assume that teaching is any different from other careers where people might spend five to ten years in it before moving on.
Professor Simons says that while the retention of teachers is important, it has been over-emphasised. She believes a more positive approach is to focus on getting first-class teaching from people who may or may not stay in the profession.
“Instead of lamenting, ‘Oh, we can’t get people to stay.’ We can say, ‘Well, what if we would work towards getting five to ten really good, productive years out of every teacher in schools?”’
Professor Simons says an important and optimistic message teacher educators can give people thinking about teaching is to tell them it is a dynamic profession that is changing. It is certainly different, she says, from the one more mature teachers joined years ago, and will change again in ten years.
But Professor Simons adds that the relationship between teacher and student, which is at the core of teaching, does not change. This is what she loves about teaching.
“There is always the pleasure of being invited into the lives of these people as they learn new things, develop new skills and new ways of thinking,” Professor Simons says.
“You get to be a part of people’s lives and that is so precious. And for me, it doesn’t matter how old the learners are whether they’re five or fifty-five. To be engaged in this wonderful relationship is just so exciting and that does not change.”
And neither does Professor Simons’ enthusiasm for research.