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Alumni Stories

Grads 2023: Emily Hills

In addition to working as an Assistant Professor in Teacher Education, serving as Secondary Education Program Director and Co-Lead for the University of Canberra Affiliated Schools Partnership, on Monday, Dr Emily Hills also officially completed her Higher Degree by Research (HDR) journey.

Her thesis, Reimagining Professionalism in the Australian Teaching Context, highlights the opportunity for teachers to reflect inwards as a means of improving their teaching practice.

“You can learn an incredible amount about your professional practice when you're given the time and space to reflect on your lived experience. My method for doing this is through the sharing of narratives,” Emily says.

Professional learning traditionally follows a linear pathway – attend a professional learning seminar, workshop or online course, learn about a topic, then return to work and put your learning into practice.

Emily’s approach encourages a more individualised process – of looking inward, looking at the past and its impacts on the present, then taking meaningful steps to address gaps or blocks.

“This can help teachers address central questions, such as: ‘why do I do what I do in a classroom? Or why am I resistant to teaching this topic?’” Emily says.

“Engagement metrics around learning are largely external. It’s all about standards, results, policy and procedure. Professional learning and development can also be very nebulous and disconnected from the personal.

“Personal narrative is the exact opposite. By drawing out who the teacher is, we can draw connections with how their experience affects their practice in the current day.”

Throughout her investigations, she noted the profound reactions and realisations of those she worked with — they confirmed she was onto something.

“Yes, we need to learn new concepts, but professional learning can also come from within. The people I worked with would say ‘I've never been able to talk about my teaching practice in this way before.’ There were people that would cry,” Emily says.

Being able to tell those stories and use them as a mode of reflection in teaching can be really powerful.

Emily’s journey with UC began with a fork in the road. In 2016, she was working as an English teacher and year co-ordinator at a high school in the ACT.

“I was at a turning point in my career,” Emily says. “My students were graduating from Year 10 and I was worried about what was going to happen the next year, when they moved on to college.

“The opportunity to study at UC landed in my inbox in December of that year.”

Although at the time, academia felt like a major departure from the career she knew and loved, Emily has always had a strong personal ethos for taking every opportunity that comes her way. So, in 2017, she started at UC as a doctoral lecturer.

“I thought, that looks like hard work, but that's never stopped me.”

By nature, the art of teaching is entwined with research. From lesson planning to behaviour management, all aspects of classroom teaching are directly influenced by pedagogy – the study of teaching and learning.

“As teachers, we’re always learning – we’re already reading constantly. The formalised pathway provides that momentum that you don't otherwise have when life gets too busy,” Emily says.

What I've learned through the process of working at UC and completing my doctorate would make me a better classroom teacher.

While the formalised pathway of a master’s by research or HDR might feel out of reach for some teachers, there are other pathways to learn how to conduct their own research.

The Teachers as Researchers program, delivered through the UC Affiliated Schools partnership with the ACT Education Directorate, empowers ACT teachers to conduct small-scale research projects in their classrooms and school environments.

Teachers from participating schools can identify an issue their community is facing, such as low educator wellbeing, and are paired with an academic from UC to work jointly on a scientifically sound research project. It’s a program unique to UC and the ACT, and so far, has wielded impressive results.

“Teachers need to be able to conduct research, it’s fundamental to the profession,” Emily says.

Research doesn’t have to be scary, and it can solve real world and immediate problems that schools are facing – and from my experience, you don't have to look very far to find something worth tapping into.

While the benefits of empowered education professionals have proven to flow on to other educators, students and the larger school community, the HDR journey is an inherently personal one, as Emily discovered.

“The things that you learn about yourself, about what you’re capable of, and the impact that's going to have on your practice, far outweighs any title, regalia or certificate on a wall.”

Words by Kelly White, photo by Richard Poulton.

This September, the University of Canberra celebrates the amazing milestone of 100,000 alumni.

Our warmest congratulations go out to this year’s graduating class, and to all the amazing alumni who have become part of the UC community.

Many of you have already made such an impact in your fields and in your communities; many more will go on to do so. 

We wish you the best and look forward to your amazing future journeys.

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