Professor Marnie O’Neill

1. Why, how and where did you enter the field of education?

If you want to go right back to the beginning, I was a country kid, four girls in a small country town with a small family farm. I had parents who valued education; there were books, if there was a dancing teacher in town, we had dancing lessons, we all had music lessons, and a very strong parental line that you finished school and you did as well as you possibly could – not unreasonable expectations, but high expectations that you would do your best. In a country town at that time, girls became teachers or nurses; we all four of us became teachers. My parents were Depression generation, and teaching was seen to be a reliable and sustainable job, given up after you got married. It was also the only financial pathway to university for us at that time. So there were economic pressures, rural economy, parents who valued education, but as well, a strong, I wouldn’t say a sense of vocation, but I certainly didn’t want to get a job in the local town in the bank or in the post office. The question was a bit about what kind of teacher would I be; would I be an art teacher or a home economics teacher, or an English teacher – when they taught me how to fold handkerchiefs for the fourth time, home economics was not for me! So, I was always a convinced reader – I read everything that there was, and my mother had to go to the town library when I was a kid, and say ‘well look, let her into the adult section, please!’

So, I had strong parental influences, but after I got into teaching I really did have some strong mentors – people who I worked with in my first appointment in a pretty tough school, and they weren’t all English teachers – one of them was, but one was a history teacher, one was a maths teacher, one was a manual arts teacher; they were people who helped me to survive in that first really tough year. They mentored me, picked me up, gave me advice – just being associated with them I think, was a real connection with the kids. I had a couple of superintendents of English at that time, right from the beginning when I was in teachers’ college, the superintendents in that day and age were hugely supportive and knew you personally and offered you career advice. I said to one particular woman, Nancy Richards, ‘I’ve done a teachers’ certificate; I think I need to go back and do a DipEd, but I was going to do my Masters in English Literature’, and she said ‘go and do your Masters degree’, I did the DipEd later when I was in the curriculum branch but, there were key people throughout my time with the State Department of Education who again, mentored me, offered me advice, and encouragement. So, that period I spent with the State Department of Education was a very strongly formative time for me.

2. Was there anyone who influenced you? Why?

I think that there were two sorts of influences. As an undergraduate, I had some outstanding academics in the English Literature department (as it was then) who taught me how to think – John Hay, Jeanna Bradley, Veronica Brady were inspiring literature teachers. I also always seemed to be in tutorials for part-time students, so I was often working with mature-aged students, which seemed to me an advantage. John Hay and Bruce Bennett were also the examiners for Leaving Certificate English, and were pioneering a new syllabus and examination format, so I got involved with that. They convened a team of multiple choice reading comprehension item writers and we worked with Richard Bell and Graeme Withers from ACER, and that provided a different kind of intellectual discipline at the same time that, as a beginning teacher, I was struggling with my unruly Basic Level English students.

3. What were your original goals or aims?

Specifically, I guess, I was an English teacher; I wanted to light the cultural flame for kids, because I had had such joy out of reading. I also had an appalling teacher in Year 11 and 12 at school, and the way he treated a couple of kids in our class and the approach that he took to teaching English and literature just made me so angry that I thought anyone can do better. But apart from those specific things about being an English teacher, I seriously believed in education as an opportunity to control your own destiny.

The thing I wanted most passionately for kids was to have choices with what they did. I saw education as offering that, particularly as in my first 2 or 3 years I worked in low SES schools where giving kids an opportunity seemed to me to be the most important thing. I encouraged kids to stay on in Year 11 and 12, when they might have otherwise left. It was a real shock to me, a real personal crisis, I think when I realised with the economic downturn in 1979-80, that it wasn’t necessarily the best thing for some kids to stay on at school. If the middle-range kids left school and got an apprenticeship, they were more employable that way than if they’d stayed on to Year 11 and 12 and were two years older, two years more expensive and two years less competitive on the job market. It was a real shock.

4. Could you outline the milestones or highlights of your career path to date?

In my third year of teaching, I was appointed Acting Senior Master (sic) of English to a senior high school in the bush. The rule about women being forced to resign from the education department if they got married had been abolished only in 1972, so there were very few women with permanent status plus the seniority to win promotional appointments. I think I was the third woman in the state to get that kind of appointment, and I was so angry and quite unappreciative because I had things I wanted to do – I had plans for my next year in the school where I was. I was so cross that I applied for promotion in my own right that year, and I won my first preference in the substantive position the following year, so I had a rapid career rise in those early years. They were so short of teachers and so short of talent that I don’t think that it was remarkable; then I got into the Curriculum Branch and I spent 5 years there which was a really terrific privilege.

There was Schools Commission funding for the Language and Learning projects; I was lucky enough to work as a research assistant with Nancy Martin on a study of English teaching in secondary schools. It was my first experience of qualitative work (most research in the Research Brach was number crunching of various kinds), so I learnt a lot from Nancy – it probably set the pattern for my approach to research – not that as a mathematically challenged person I could have done quantitative research, even if it could have answered the questions I was interested in. I worked with key people and like-minded people; we bounced off each other and we were given a fair degree of free rein in the State Department. People like Jo-Anne Reid, Jon Cook, Ken Thompson, John Cox, Maurie Jones were really formative influences; as a team we did PD for teachers across the state, looked after the Advisory service, wrote newsletters, as well as spending a lot of time with colleagues from other learning areas. You couldn’t help thinking that you were pretty lucky. So that was the Curriculum branch. From there I went into another inner-city type school for a year as head of department. When I was invited to teach pre-service English Education at UWA the following year and I said no, because again, I had things in mind. School went on holidays, and they rang me up again in mid-January and I’d had more time to think and so I said yes.

I came to UWA in 1981. By then I had already been President of the English Teachers’ Association in Western Australia, and run a national conference. I was then asked to nominate for Publications Officer and Editor for the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, so I was the first person elected to the National Council from Western Australia. I had 5 great years with that, editing English in Australia. Being on the National Committee, broadened my outlook and gave me a different perspective; it was again, a really developmental kind of experience. At the same time I won Schools Commission funding for a Project of National Significance on students gifted and talented in English, which I did with Jo-Anne Reid. I was also Chief and Supervising Examiner for TE English in Western Australia and at that time you ran a team of 70 markers in a closed marking situation. You got to interact with a lot of the senior English teachers and movers and shakers in the field, and you had to think about stuff that you haven’t really necessarily dealt with tightly before; so that was a great experience as well. At the same time I was working with people like Bronwyn Mellor and Annette Patterson, and publishing the Reading Fictions and Reading Stories; I was working with Jo-Anne Reid and Derryn Hammond on an autobiography book for senior schools. Then one of my Grad Dip students, Pippa Tandy, produced a resource file that I thought we could turn into a resource book, and so we did two books based on Halliday’s functions of language with an experiential approach to interactive teaching and learning.

It sounds a bit schizophrenic, but we were all writing resource materials for classroom use as well. Consciously trying to translate research theories into classroom practice was a whole new ballgame. And it was exciting, and working collaboratively in that way is a joy. Then I took time out and did a PhD which really arose out of some of that professional experience, especially the TEE examining. I wanted to look at the cross-cultural problems of reading comprehension and challenge the assumptions about ‘right resonse’ to literary texts. I still worked fulltime, but I had a year’s study leave due so I went and collected the data in Saskatchewan and came home vis the university of santa Barbara, where I had a chance to do some professional development work based around the work that Bronwyn, Annette and I had done for chalkface Press. From mid- ’91 to Easter of ’95, apart from teaching fulltime, I was writing a PhD. Long service leave gave me the chance to get it finished, and when I came back from that, I was asked to become Director of Teaching and to put into place a new GradDipEd, which took 2 more years of my life, but I think that was a real achievement – not my achievement, but the achievement of the team that put it together and made it work. After that I came back from another study leave (which was really recuperation time, although I collected a huge amount of research data) and was asked to coordinate the EdD.

Then I put my hand up to be Deputy Head and Deputy Dean, so when Roger Slee took leave to go to Education Queensland, I inherited the hearth as it were. I’ve been Dean and Head ever since, survived a University restructure which saw Education emerge as a single school faculty, watched the transnational program established by Keith Punch really take off, despite SARs and terrorism and seen the School earn a really positive Review and Research Assessment. My contract as Dean ends on December 31, so I’ll have some time to see whether I am still an academic or not.

5. What are you most proud of having accomplished over your career so far?

The first thing really, is the students that I’ve worked with – you look back and think of all those Grad Dip’s that you’ve taught, and to see where they are now; what they’ve done with their lives is amazing. And they come back – I’ve worked with a wonderful woman who’s just finished her PhD in Study of Teaching, a course she wrote for Year 11 and 12 kids to encourage them to come into teaching, and it’s going to be a stunning thesis, so it’s them. Another one has just come back from Canada with his PhD half-finished – looking at teaching as an area of giftedness, so I’m looking forward to helping him finish that.

In terms of curriculum development, I guess the revision of the GradDipEd, and having it implemented successfully made a difference to the status of teacher education in this faculty. More recently, working with a colleague, Tom O’Donoghue, to reconfigure our research based EdD, which we have taken successfully into the transnational market. There’s a real buzz in being involved with the research that doctoral students do – real research about the profession, and about things that might make a difference for kids.

6. Did you ever see yourself as a future Dean of Education?

You would have to be joking! I came here to the university on secondment in 1981, had 2 years’ secondment and then a series of short-term contracts – one year, three years, 2 years – I was told once that my contract wouldn’t be renewed, such were the requirements, for 13 years. I wasn’t able to apply for a promotion, and the successive Heads of Department told me that I had been seconded, and as I had not won my job in open competition, I would never be eligible for promotion. In those days, Heads of Department seemed to be pretty much a law unto themselves, and in no way accountable for the ways in which they treated individuals. The University undertook a review of all contract staff, and in 1994 I applied for tenure – not guaranteed, they were very careful to say, you have to earn this, but at least I was given an opportunity to apply, which had nothing to do with my Heads of Department at the time. Once I achieved tenure in 1996, I was promoted to senior lecturer; I’ve just been promoted this year (2004) to Associate Professor, so being a Dean or Head wasn’t on my list of aspirations. But in fact, I think that the only time I’ve ever applied for anything and got it was that senior master’s job back in 1973 – the rest of it has all been accidental, really. If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would not have said that I would ever be a Dean of Education.

7. When did you start to see yourself as an educational leader?

When you look back at those milestones that we outlined before, you’d have to say that I would be dim not to have seen myself as an education leader from quite early on, but they were just things that were there to be done and I enjoyed doing them; it wasn’t really until I became Director of Teaching in 1995 that I think I saw that this was something new that I had to get right and make it work. The other things I had to make work too, but they were things that other people that had been there before me had set in place; there were practices in place, there were structures in place – I just sort of inherited the mantle. I think other people saw me as a leader, but I didn’t.

8. Looking back, do you think your understanding of the relationship of practice and research in education has changed over time?

Yes I do. I once thought that, at the beginning of my career in the university that the research-teaching nexus was about making other people’s research available to students, encouraging them to be aware of research in the field, and helping them to apply it in their own practices, and in some ways it didn’t occur to me that what I was doing was really research with a capital ‘r’. But in the late ’80s, I did come to the understanding that doing your own research and having control of it and having an agenda in it that you could then impart through your teaching was going to give you more traction, with the students and with your own sense of what you’re doing. I think that it’s important to encourage students at whatever level – but certainly the pre-service students – to see themselves as researchers, as classroom researchers, as action researchers, and to move from a perceived notion of critically reflective practice into that action-research driven professional. One of the things I really enjoy is that first contact with research students, because they come with their own idea. Helping them to realise it as a research project without taking away their ownership I find really exciting – it’s like being given a gift every time. There may be times when you wish you hadn’t accepted it, but usually it’s a good experience.

9. How do you think the general education community views educational research?

I think pretty sceptically in many ways. As a Curriculum Branch person, you’d often get the response, ” Well, you’re not in the classroom anymore so you wouldn’t understand.” The first time that happened, I was speechless, because I’d only been in the Curriculum Branch three months or so, but I simply had to get used to the reality that sometimes research didn’t have much currency in the day-to-day realities. It also became apparent to me that teachers need time off from those demands to get their head around changes that might make significant impact on their existing practices. Although we know that, education systems seem to be peculiarly unable to act on that knowledge. Curriculum change, school restructuring since the early 70s, but even more so in 80s has been pretty incessant, and I think that there was (maybe still is), a bone-weariness that produced the bandwagon discourse of resistance amongst teachers, particularly.

In the general community, I think the scepticism about social research is quite widely spread; ironically maybe because it gets more popular press coverage, and competing and conflicting findings are reported, people become cynical about trusting any of it. Being social research, much of it deals with issues of which individuals have direct experience, so they tend to challenge the findings on the basis of their first-hand experience, or that of their social or family network. Frequently the experience has been frustrating or painful, and therefore people may be more apt to be critical, especially if they observe that there is frequently very liitle social change as a result of all this research.

Despite my remarks about scepticism, I’m still concerned that perhaps teachers and parents are very eager to sign on for a panacea, whether it’s numeracy or literacy or ADHD or whatever. I can understand the sort of desperation that comes from dealing with difficult kids and their learning problems on a daily basis, that you do look for anything that might work. Perhaps in those circumstances people are not in a position to be more critical of it because they are so busy with the daily requirements of teaching and parenting, that they are prepared to try anything that might help, and access to other disinterested information may not be available.

10. What do you feel are the current issues facing Teacher Education?

I think there are really some pragmatic issues and I think that from my observation, every institution that has teacher education is facing the prac-funding and places crisis. That’s a really pragmatic thing, but I don’t know anyone who is not desperate for places in schools, and who is not looking both ways as to how they can pay for it. I think another issue is the baby-boomer retirement that’s looming – we’re going to be left with a big deficit in schools in terms of experienced teachers and middle order management and that will affect universities in terms of teaching practice, of having in the schools a body of informed practitioners. The other big issue is the whole question of professionalism and status – I don’t think it will necessarily be resolved by Boards of Teacher Registration, although we all have them – I don’t know if it will necessarily be resolved by national standards. I don’t think we’re going to get consensus, but I’m not sure that the one-size-fits-all approach is the answer anyway. There’s a whole set of questions about what constitutes professionalism and standards, and how to maintain it in the teaching body, how to promote the notion of life-long learning and professional development, what constitutes quality professional development, and who ought to provide it and how it should be certified that is not simple to resolve. I understand the reluctance about academic qualification paper-chase stuff, but I also am deeply sceptical of Mickey Mouse kind of two days here, two days there professional development that is not well-structured or well thought out: a box full of tile pieces doesn’t always make a great mosaic. In the last thirty years we have learnt some things about what constitutes quality professional development, but it is expensive. I don’t see the willingness of either the various levels of government or of the community to invest in quality professional development in the education sector. It’s frustrating, because in some of the environments that I work in offshore, there is that willingness, both private and public, to invest in education and professional development.

I think that the shortage of teachers is not driven by lack of numbers enrolling in teacher education programmes – we’ve had them coming out our ears until this year (2005). It is driven by disenchantment which I think is a serious, serious matter that is affecting quality recruitment in the first instance, and retention in the profession in the second. I think the whole question of a career pathway of appropriate rewards, beyond those first 10 years where you get an annual salary increase, is a serious question we’ve got about teaching.

11. What do you think the future of Teacher Education in Australia holds?

How many inquiries into teacher education have we had in the last 40 years? Most of them telling us that pre-service teacher education is not good enough?

t the moment, we have a one year end-on Grad Dip, but it’s an overloaded course – they do 60 points, and I know that there are many places now that have a two year end-on of one sort or another, or who have a combined degree structure of a BA/BEd which we do, or a four year degree. Now, I think that those days are numbered; we do have to look at a two-year end-on programme, an MTeach or a postgraduate Bachelor degree – I think an MTeach will be more saleable. I think we do have to look at five-year teacher education, because of the increasing demands on teacher expertise, and expectations about what schools should be able to provide.

But, if you’re going to ask people to invest five years of their HECS fees, or their fee help or however they pay for it in preservice teacher education, then you have to pay them appropriately when they graduate, and you have to have a career path structure. You can’t just say ‘well, look, this will take five years, and there’s not going to be any particular reward at the end of it’. Intrinsic rewards are always valued, but they don’t pay the mortgage. I think we have to address the question of professional development; life-long learning for teachers, so that there is a structure available for people to plan out their career paths and to have a prospect of managing a career. I had a great opportunity, because my career was very varied and I think that people need to have that in front of them. What I think is happening, and this is not based on anything other than anecdotal evidence and observation, is that young people are not seeing teaching as a career, they’re seeing it as a start; they’re seeing it as something they can always fall back on, and there’s a good deal of evidence that young people are coming in, they’re teaching for a couple of years, they’re getting together enough money to go off overseas and do something, or stay and try something else, and then they come back for two or three years, save up money and then go off to the next career or wherever it is they are going. They can be very competent teachers, but they’re not seeing it as a career path, whereas the institutions who are not universities perhaps, but the employing authorities are not seeing that; instead of having people coming through to leadership and management positions, who have the experience behind them, they’re going to have a critical shortage in those middle leadership positions. Whether Teacher Registration Boards, their requirements to maintain contact with the profession and to maintain registration in order to be employable will make sufficient difference, I do not know.

12. What are your views on the current Australian Tertiary sector?

I think there’s a constant and incremental demand to do more with less; I know that the realities are that universities can’t expect to be milk-fed forever, but I think that the increasing requirements to get out there and make your own money, however you make it, is a problem for the general university sector. The incredible demand for accountability reportage and form filling takes up a lot of time and resources – it takes up time from academics who are in roles like mine who not only keep filling in annual reports for this that and the other thing, but it is an enormous drain on the institution as a whole, because senior administrative people are spending a huge amounts of time doing that as well. The constant pressure to compete for everything from research grants to awards for quality teaching and learning is a vicious cycle where there is less time to actually do it well, because of the constant requirement to demonstrate that you are.

As for making teacher education a national priority, that’s not a favour. It means that we’ve got the lowest HECS rate in the entire sector; it doesn’t match the cost of doing teacher education. It goes down well in the public domain because the general public says ‘oh look, isn’t the government wonderful, they’re really addressing the needs in nurse education and teacher education!’ Well, how about funding it appropriately!

13. What do you think the sector’s immediate challenges are?

From a student’s perspective I think the rising class sizes are a problem, and there are still issues of equity and access; the notion of the educational entitlement sounds nice, but combined degrees, and degrees like medicine, law and one or two others simply are already well outside the size here. If I were a student, I’d be worrying a bit about what that meant for flexibility in planning my undergraduate work and getting into a position where I could, in effect, get a job. For academic teachers, again large class sizes, disposable income in the faculty, and maintenance of quality, time to do research (I don’t know anyone who doesn’t say ‘when do I fit it in?’), funding for research, and the amount of time you spend on accountability as an academic teacher are all challenges. Maintaining an infrastructure, being able to keep buildings in good enough repair to deliver quality university teaching and research, continuing to recruit high quality academic staff because of international competition will be ongoing problems for the foreseeable future. We are now paying for that period in the 80s where PhD graduates couldn’t get an academic job so they went elsewhere. Where is the next generation of academics going to come from? Also, budget management, priorities to increased funding for non-government resources; how you do that? Do you exploit international students, bid for professional development and training courses which are money-in, money-out government tendered, bid for research tenders that don’t cover real costs, so the whole question of managing an institutional budget is an issue? I’ve mentioned the time that the institution spends on reporting accountability, and then the question about what the university is – our institution, because it was the first one in Western Australia, was required to be a comprehensive university and has a commitment to that, but there are inequities of funding and revenue raising. How far you go with economic rationalism and saying that if you can’t pay your bills, you’ll just have to close your doors – what value do you put on a school of Philosophy or that sort of thing which isn’t necessarily economically viable, but has a contribution to the university as a whole, and to the community as a whole? If it’s all just driven by economic rationalism, then where and how is the intellectual contribution recognised? I think what’s shifted is that universities are now not necessarily seen as a well-spring of intellectual activity for the community at large and that worries me.

14. What do you think your faculty’s strengths are?

We’re good teachers. We’ve got a great Grad Dip program and we get incredible feedback about that from the students. But even from our higher degree students and our international students and transnationals, we get outstanding teacher ratings. With our international program, we have more higher degree students off shore than we have on shore and our research training scheme students are 33% of our enrolment. Keeping up the quality of supervision with that sort of load puts a tremendous demand on staff. I think it is to their credit that they do provide high quality supervisory support, but I do wonder how long their effort can be sustained. We do get our HDR students finished in a timely way, and they do good work. Despite my whinges about research, we’ve got an outstanding Centre for Attention and Related Disorders, which not only does good research, but offers a community service as well. When the Graduate School of Education was reviewed we had just done a local (Australian) benchmarking exercise with good results. We then participated in a benchmarking exercise using the RAE model in Britain – and we had one UK academic who had been on that particular project for some time and one from Sydney assess us – and they both gave us a 5 which rated us equally with places like Oxford and so on. So, that was great, and we just had a school review come out extremely well, and somewhere in all of this, we still find time to service community commitments, so the School is trading well above the bar.

15. What do you consider to be the most important attribute of graduates from your faculty?

To be able to think critically, and they come out self-directed: they can work in teams, and they do work in teams very well, but they can set an agenda for themselves as well, and I think that they have a commitment to education, to service, to doing it better.

16. Are there any other questions you’d like us to ask other deans, or have you anything else you’d like to add?

Again, there’s the question of financial viability and sustainability, and we are financially viable because we go and teach off-shore, and we have to that. If we have to make half a million dollars clear profit to keep our doors open, I wonder what the Deans in other institutions, particularly those who have a big, or who are reliant on a big pre-service teacher education programme; how do they make ends meet, and how long can you go on doing it?

University of Western Australia, 29th June 2004

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