From English teacher to researching teachers’ mental health: How has one informed the other? SHRN Research Assistant Amy Edwards looks back on her career trajectory
The morning rush to the office tests many of my skills – negotiation, encouragement, time management, and weightlifting (of the heavy toddler) into and out of a car. In many ways, I come to work for a rest. It is not unlike my journey to work in my previous job as a lecturer in a FE college, with all the different items and folders I had to carry around, mentally preparing myself for battles to be fought and won (and not necessarily by me!) and wondering when I might get a chance to go to the bathroom, or have a drink. Very similar to looking after a small child.
As a trained literacy specialist I taught mostly English to a range of students during my time as a teacher – primarily to teenagers in college but also working in the community education sector, where I taught in areas of socio-economic depravation where literacy rates were surprisingly low. It would render me most humble to hear these adults talk about how they had built up strategies over their lives to avoid engaging with literacy practices; ‘I’ve forgotten my glasses’ or ‘I’ll take it home to read properly’ being phrases they used over and over again.
Conversations with teaching staff could be painful, heart-wrenching but also incredibly inspiring
It felt like a huge wrench to leave the classroom, but at a time of particularly dire financial cuts it also felt like a good opportunity to try the much-feted higher education sector. My next job was at Cardiff University on the Masters in Educational Practice (MEP) programme, a professional master’s programme for newly qualified teachers in Wales. My role on the MEP afforded me some very enjoyable lecturing on the PGCE programme, allowing me to support and rally the new teachers as they stumbled and galloped towards the end of their year’s training.
When my contract ended I was lucky to take up a post on the WISE project here in DECIPHer, putting me much more into the ‘hub’ of data collection and working with schools to engage them in research. Working on WISE enabled me to look from the outside in at wellbeing in the teaching profession. Having been there myself I knew exactly where the pinch-points were and how conflicted teaching staff can feel about their own wellbeing.
I remembered that I had made an informal arrangement with myself that I was allowed to cry only once a year at work as a teacher, which normally happened within the first week, which really reflected the sector’s attitudes of ‘you just have to get on with it.’ Meeting some of the staff in WISE schools to discuss their mental health only further compounded the difficulty in juggling such a demanding role; some of the conversations were painful, heart-wrenching but also incredibly inspiring.
Accessing valuable, relevant research and data is something that, as a teacher, always seemed to be a golden standard but never quite reachable due to time constraints, workloads or just being simply exhausted
When my current role in SHRN came up, it seemed like the perfect time to step back to academia and learn more about how research is coproduced with schools, and how accessing valuable, relevant research and data, something that as a teacher always seemed to be a golden standard but never quite reachable due to time constraints, workloads or just being simply exhausted, can make a difference to schools and their environments.
Working on SHRN has been heartening to see how teachers respond so positively to the network, and to see how many of them are keen to get involved. Evidence-based practice is the core of teacher training and development in Wales, and it is always encouraging to know that some parts of the teaching population actively maintain the link between teaching and research in their practice.
I will always cherish my time in the classroom, but would I want to face those battles with the added ‘joy’ of being a mum and coping with sleep deprivation, ever-changing demands, constant illnesses and tantrums…? No I would not. When my toddler is older I would relish going back to the classroom, but for now…. Research calls.