The Nomadic Educator
By Erica Cervini
Susan Ledger, the new Dean of Education at the University of Newcastle, has drawn on her lived experiences in rural, remote and international schools around the globe to inform her teaching, learning and research.
One of Susan Ledger’s grandfathers was a Norwegian whaler who jumped shipped in Albany in Western Australia in the 1920s. He fell in love and stayed in Australia. Afghan cameleers also feature in her family’s history.
Professor Ledger, the Dean of Education at the University of Newcastle, is fascinated by her family’s nomadic background and relished moving around the state of Western Australia as a young girl and teenager.
“I’m a country girl,” she says. “I grew up in the wheatbelt [Western Australia]. I moved across to a coal-mining area and then my family finally settled into a port city.”
Professor Ledger, who describes herself as a “nomadic educator”, has taught literacy and language in West Papua, Java. The UK and the Cocos Islands, and Australian First Nations communities including including the Goldfields and Kimberleys. She draws on her lived experiences in rural, remote and international schools around the globe to inform her teaching, learning and research.
Now Professor Ledger has moved across the country to take up the position of head of the school of education at the University of Newcastle, a role she has only been in since January this year. She is continuing her travels visiting educators in various campuses, partnership schools, sectors and regional educational centres around the state.
“It’s fantastic,” Professor Ledger explains. “We’re really getting to know the region. Every Sunday we pick a spot on the map and just drive and explore. Some of the locals say they haven’t been to some of the places we’ve been to.”
A major reason she moved the almost four thousand kilometres from Perth’s Murdoch University, where she was Dean of Education, to Newcastle was to pursue her focus on educational policy and practices that impact teaching and learning to teach in diverse contexts
As a “policy person”, it was time to move to the east coast.
“I needed to come across to NSW,” Professor Ledger says. “Because many of our educational policy decisions are made on the east coast, rather than [in] the west. I was keen to be involved and will always represent the often marginalised voice of the west, rural and remote education.”
It is not surprising, then, that Professor Ledger’s lived experience and advocacy has helped to guide her research on simulation, international education, and education in rural and remote communities.
“I’ve got a lot of lived experiences within diverse contexts where I have learnt how to put myself in other peoples’ shoes in terms of cultural awareness, language capability, responsibility and respect,” Professor Ledger explains.
“These elements help us make connections with community and underpins what we say, do and how we relate to others.”
A research paper Professor Ledger wants to write from her PhD examines the need for people working in international and rural schools to break away from their “cultural bubbles” and engage authentically with local communities. She has already investigated how people cope living and working in international and rural contexts.
As a result, Professor Ledger has used a socioecological model, based on Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ideas on the interaction between personal and environmental factors overlaid with the policy context work of Stephen Ball, to help make sense of the power differentials and complex lived experiences of people teaching in international, remote and diverse schools.
Professor Ledger also researches practices and issues that relate to teaching and preparing education students to teach students with diverse linguistic, cultural and social-emotional needs.
This research led her to introduce a simulation [SimLab] to Murdoch University so students could use it to prepare for their teaching placements. Newcastle also uses SimLab to provide students with experiences they may face beyond the classroom including how to cope with irate parents.
“Because we have a diverse range of placements, the simulated classroom can actually replicate those diverse contexts,” Professor Ledger says.
“And it can certainly replicate a diverse range of students in the classroom. We can construct the simulate classroom to include students with a range of different characteristics including autism, English [as a] second language, learning and behavioural difficulties.
Recent research suggests that 40 per cent of school students may have English as a Second Language in our classrooms, “So how are we catering for that?” She loves to ask questions that challenge current practice, promote continuous improvement and embrace technology.
Professor Ledger, who won a 2019 Australian Financial Review higher education award for educational technology, says SimLab can bolster students’ confidence before they go on their placements.
“That self-efficacy is palpable,” Professor Ledger says. “And I’m pleased to see that other universities are now adopting it.”
It is not only her family’s nomadic tendencies that have influenced Professor Ledger’s career. Her drive to see all students have educational opportunities also stems from her family background.
“Education has provided me with many opportunities. I’m a country girl. I’m first in family with a degree and I come from a hard-working, low SES background,” Professor Ledger says.
“As Dean of Education at Newcastle, I remind our future educators about the importance of access, equity and excellence. All students should have the opportunity to succeed, and I use my life as an exemplar for what education can provide for a nomadic country girl.”