In Stories from Deans

Travelling Sparks a Passion for Learning

Professor Lauren Stephenson discovered her life-long career in education and a curiosity for research while living and working overseas.

A love for languages and a yearning to see the world opened up a path for Professor Stephenson to enter teaching, a career she had not originally contemplated. She had planned to work in gemmology, but after accepting a job as an English teacher in Istanbul, she became entranced with the intricacies of teaching.

“Naturally, I wanted to become qualified as a teacher,” says Professor Stephenson, the Dean of the Sydney School of Education at the University of Notre Dame University, Australia. “That was the beginning of the journey, really, because I just loved it (teaching). I became so passionate about learning and teaching and it just continued on from there.”

It was also in Istanbul that Professor Stephenson began ruminating about the critical nature of educational leadership. This thinking developed into an all-encompassing professional and research interest upon her return to Australia from living abroad.

“In adult language learning (where Professor Stephenson had worked), you often were approached to take on leadership roles because you were a good teacher, and you didn’t necessarily know very much about effective leadership and best practices in educational leadership. That was the start of my exciting journey into the study of leadership and accepting a leadership role here in Australia fairly early on in my career at twenty-seven,” she says.

“I believe you learn to be an effective leader; you’re not necessarily born a leader. You actually do need to learn leadership skills, and require vast knowledge about the intricacies of leadership.”

Professor Stephenson enrolled in a PhD at the University of Sydney to examine the nature of organisational learning and leadership in education, specifically in higher education. It was her lived experiences and drive that prompted her to undertake this in-depth study.

Professor Stephenson states that although teachers are the “number one” influence on their students’ learning, leaders also have a big impact on learning in educational organisations. She says that her research on leadership is largely motivated by wanting “to make a difference” and a commitment to social justice.

She stresses that leadership competencies can be learned and developed; leadership is contextual and is influenced by culture; leadership development is a lifelong process; leadership is learned best through leadership in action and through reflection on that practice and leadership is based on a foundation of ethics and manifests itself in service to others through making connections to the wider community.

Professor Stephenson’s experiences living and working overseas are case studies of how lived experiences can change a person’s life. This concept of the power of living and learning through experiences has also influenced Professor Stephenson’s research methodology.

“Lived experiences are captured and can resonate with readers on a personal level,” she explains. “Narrative inquiry and collaborative auto-ethnography can provide opportunities to give a voice to people, which is empowering, and also encourages self-reflection in those who are participants.”

Professor Stephenson’s 2018 book, Leading Learning: Women Making a Difference, which she co-wrote with Barbara Harold and Rashida Badri, uses narrative inquiry to tell the stories of five Emirati women who have made impressive contributions to education and leadership. The book is based on ten years’ research conducted by Professor Stephenson while she was living in Dubai for sixteen years.

Professor Stephenson travelled to Dubai to lecture and research at Zayed University, which was established in 1998.

“I thought, ‘Wow, how exciting and what a wonderful opportunity,’ because you don’t get that opportunity very often. It (the University) was starting from scratch.”

Professor Stephenson says there were many ways for engaging with people, organisations and the community at the University. She also explains how there were opportunities for her to have a positive impact on supporting young women.

“The women I taught were very strong, capable, highly intelligent, socially aware, value focused and just individuals who wanted to contribute to their communities” Professor Stephenson states, “and that was inspirational for me as a teacher leader.”

When Zayed University was set up, it only accepted female students but in the last few years it has been enrolling male students in postgraduate courses.

As Zayed was a start-up university, Professor Stephenson, other academics and staff were awarded the opportunity to propose several significant innovations. In 2012, the University introduced iPads for all students and staff and embedded multidisciplinary topics on leadership development across the University’s curriculum.

Professor Stephenson was the Director of the Centre for Learning, Teaching and Assessment as part of her role as the Assistant to the Provost for Program Development. The Centre introduced University-wide assessments of its’ graduate attributes. At Zayed, there were also formal and informal mentoring programs in which students mentored students. This type of mentoring is also very popular at Notre Dame University, Australia.

Professor Stephenson returned to Sydney in 2014 and then held state and national leadership positions at the Australian Catholic University. In September 2018, she moved to Notre Dame to become the University’s Dean of Education in Sydney.

“When you look at my career, a lot of my learning and teaching has been in faith-based organisations whether it be in the United Arab Emirates or in Istanbul or here in Australia,” she says. “What draws me to the Catholic universities is the focus on community, on truth, on academic excellence, inclusion, diversity and social justice.”

Professor Stephenson is attracted to Sydney’s Notre Dame campus because of its “personalised” atmosphere. She sees the Education students walking around and knows them by name. Professor Stephenson believes it was serendipitous and a great honour for her to be selected as the Dean, which has seen her navigate significant leadership challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic this year.

Professor Stephenson studied French, Italian and English at University, and then Turkish when she was living in Istanbul. She is also able to speak some Arabic. Professor Stephenson can’t stress enough the importance of language in people’s lives.

“Learning and knowing a language gives you considerable cultural awareness and insight whether you are immersed in the culture or not. It gives you another way of looking at the world, and enables you to see the world and people’s ways of knowing and being from very different perspectives, which is really enriching as an individual.”


·       Professor Stephenson is one of three editors of the book, Professionalising Your English Language Teaching, released in November this year. She has also written a chapter within this book.

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