From medicine to the classroom: Teaching the next generation | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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From medicine to the classroom: Teaching the next generation

With many teachers leaving the profession, what drives someone like Ashwita Venkatesh to give up her career as a medical doctor to teach senior psychology and mathematics to high school students?

I think the main inspiration was being able to be a part of the formative years of a young adult’s education,” said Ashwita, who completed the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Master of Teaching as the pathway to her new calling.

Enticing experienced professionals to become teachers is one of the solutions proposed to help solve Australia’s worsening teaching shortage.

“Education to me is extremely valuable, not only for building knowledge but also to help students develop essential life skills. Overall, teaching is a bit of a roller-coaster ride. There are highs and lows but at the end there is contentment and satisfaction,” Ashwita said.

In a recent article in The Conversation, lead author Erin Siostrom, a UniSC Associate Lecturer in Science Education, outlined findings from an international review of 29 studies from the past two decades that examined the experiences of career-change teachers.

The review comes ahead of the release this month by an Expert Panel Review set up by the Federal Government into the next National School Reform Agreement, in part due to concerns about teacher shortages.

“With one of the key items looking at how to ‘improve’ teaching degrees to attract mid-career entrants, this research can tell us much about the people who go into teaching mid-career and holds lessons for policymakers who want them to stay in their new job,” Ms Siostrom said.

“Career change students are increasingly common in teacher education programs,” she said. “And we know that many are interested in making the switch, with a national 2022 survey finding one in three mid-career individuals was open to the idea of teaching.”

The review of teachers worldwide – including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and United States – found mid-career professionals had switched to teaching from a range of diverse backgrounds. More than 140 prior careers were identified.

Like Ashwita, many were motivated to choose teaching after experiencing teacher-like roles, or because they wanted to work with children, help make a difference, or share expertise in a field they were passionate about, such as science.

After completing a degree in medicine in 2010 in India, Ashwita’s medical career involved being a part of an outreach medical camp in Nigeria and providing clinical care to children afflicted by polio at medical camps across rural India.

Moving to Australia in 2014, she facilitated problem-based learning sessions for first and second-year students in Griffith University’s Doctor of Medicine program at the Sunshine Coast University Hospital.

It was here that she realised she wanted to make teaching her career – bringing with her real-life knowledge, insights and medical anecdotes to share with students.

“When I applied to the Master of Teaching program at UniSC, my initial motivation was to continue teaching into the medical program, however I was then presented with an opportunity to introduce senior psychology subjects at St Andrew’s Anglican College at Peregian Springs.

Drawing on her expertise and experience as a doctor, she’s introduced an innovative approach to learning that incorporates engaging case studies that directly link with the syllabus objectives in the senior psychology curriculum.

"Students tend to value having a realistic perspective to their content. When they are presented with real-world examples of clinical practice, this enhances their engagement,” she said.

“Setting up this learning involves a lot of background research, time and effort, but the feedback from students makes it worth it. They say the case studies have also helped them recall content.”

The approach has been described as “cutting-edge” by UniSC Senior Education Lecturer Dr Alison Willis, who is leading an action-based research project with Ashwita to measure its impact on student engagement and learning outcomes.

“We know through this initiative, students gain insight into the real-world application of their learning and develop skills of critical thinking, collaboration and teamwork, and effective communication through classroom discussions of the cases,” Dr Willis said.

Ashwita sums up her experience as a teacher in one word – “hectic”.

“I think there are times when you feel completely under the pump but then there are also those moments where you know you have made a difference to that one child and that makes it all worth it. I think for me receiving a simple thank you note from my students keeps me going.”

In their review, Ms Siostrom and her co-authors suggest that to encourage more mid-career entrants to join and stay in the teaching profession, there needed to be greater appreciation of the unique strengths and experiences that they brought from their previous lives.

“Mid-career entrants come to schools with new ideas and enthusiasm to make a difference and share their real-world and industry experiences,” she said.

“One option is to formally recognise extensive industry experiences or advanced subject area qualifications, such as a PhD in chemistry, that these career changers bring to schools. This could be done with expedited career progression or specialist roles within schools.”

She said schools could also offer increasingly flexible employment pathways, such as job share arrangements or innovative timetabling, for career changers who wanted to maintain industry connections.

“This could allow for school-industry partnerships that benefit students, and let these teachers use their professional experiences to make a difference.

"In doing so, this crucial teaching workforce may feel they are making a positive contribution to their students and be more likely to stay.”

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