Linden Wilkinson and Bill Cohen

Connecting this month are two very accomplished teaching alumni - Linden Wilkinson (BEc '73, BTeach '05, M.Ed.(Res.) '08, PhD(Research) '14) and Bill Cohen (BA '04, MTeach '09). Linden and Bill epitomise the concept of life-long learning; over the course of their working lives both have returned to the University of Sydney and completed multiple degrees. In a world where everything changes every day, their continued learning reminds us of a simple, vital truth: our education is ongoing.

In Linden’s case, her education has straddled multiple areas of a study. A relative latecomer to teaching, Linden had already completed a Bachelor of Arts (Acting, NIDA) and a Bachelor of Economics before working extensively in the Australian film and television industry as an actor and writer. Deciding to change streams, she enrolled in a BTeach, graduating in 2005. This marked the beginning of a profound inquiry for Linden into the concept of learning – she has since completed a M.Ed (Research) in 2008 and a PhD (Research) in 2014.

Bill’s pursuit of knowledge has also been similarly sustained; following his passion for anthropology and performance, Bill completed a BA (2004) majoring in the two fields. After graduation, he worked in a variety of businesses managing young people. It was here Bill recognised where his strengths would have their greatest impact: the classroom. He returned to campus and completed an MTeach (2009) and has since taught in both public and private schools; worked as an Education Content Manager for a national education website; and written about technology/education for the ABC as a featured columnist.

1. Could you tell us about yourself, your background, and why you decided to become a teacher?

Linden Wilkinson: I had worked in the Arts as an actor, a writer and an occasional teacher before doing a teaching degree, so I was a very much a late-comer. Once at University after many years in ‘the industry’ I discovered higher learning and took to that like a duck to water. This was completely unexpected. So, really, I thought I was becoming a teacher but actually I evolved into a student instead. And then a researcher. And I think this long journey to teaching has been a fantastic adventure in learning.

Bill Cohen: I grew up in Manly on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. My favourite teachers always managed to blend empathy and a willingness to listen with a no-nonsense attitude and very high expectations.

My dream job has always had three components: I get to laugh every day, I get to learn every day, and I get to do something that makes a difference. After completing my BA, I spent several years successfully managing small businesses, including a food co-op, but I always enjoyed working with the teenagers who I would train, manage and work with, so secondary teaching seemed the ideal path to living an impactful life. My undergraduate degree at USyd had shown me how vibrant student life was, so the MTeach was my first (and only) choice.

2. Could you tell us a little bit about where you’re currently teaching?

Linden Wilkinson: I am currently teaching in secondary schools. However I still consider myself to be primarily a researcher and hopefully I bring that curiosity and that experience into the classroom.

Bill Cohen: I’m the Teacher Librarian at Asquith Girls High School. AGHS is a comprehensive girls school in northern Sydney. We have students who walk to school, some who travel from nearby suburbs or the Central Coast, and some who have moved over an hour out-of-area but commute every day because they love our school community and what we offer.

3. What degree/s did you complete and was there something in particular that attracted you to these courses of study?

Linden Wilkinson: I have now completed five degrees, which is rather a surprise. My first degree was in Economics, which is a whole other surprise in retrospect. My second was a degree in Acting from NIDA and the next three all relate to Education: a Bachelor of Teaching, a Master of Education (Research) and a PhD. All degrees other than Economics are related to Drama: the teaching of it and the making of it. To me the thing that all degrees have in common reflects a desire to understand how the world works – at first I saw it as a force imposed from without; now I’m choosing to understand it as emanating from cultural forces within.

Bill Cohen: My undergraduate degree was a BA with a double major in Social Anthropology and Performance Studies. I arrived at USyd with an open mind and enrolled in courses ranging from English to Anthropology. Anthropology seized my imagination immediately – it’s both the intersection of many other fields of study and a completely unique way of examining the world.

I took the Introduction to Performance Studies in my second year and was similarly hooked – the discipline takes the foundations of anthropology and ethnography and throws in things like theatre, media studies and philosophy. I felt like I was being given a fascinating and unique set of lenses through which to view the world.

When I enrolled in the MTeach my assigned subjects based on my BA were Drama and Society and Culture. I learned that in many high schools the faculties that handle these subjects don’t have reasons to communicate or collaborate, which meant my ongoing drive to create learning experiences that draw from varied fields of study was (in part) a product of being a professional aberration.

The Teacher Librarian role is a specialised position requiring additional postgraduate study, which I’m on the verge of completing via CSU. Being the TL is perhaps the best expression of my desire to work across a range of learning areas – I have a mandate to understand and support what every faculty is doing, and helping students and staff make these cross-curriculum connections is my favourite thing. Also, who wouldn’t want to work in a room full of awesome books and vibrant conversation every day?

4. How do you think your degree has supported you in your professional life?

Linden Wilkinson: My degrees have supported a movement across professional activities, so that I have been able to continue generating ideas with performance outcomes across a range of projects from a variety of spheres including Education, Arts practice and Industry. The degrees have informed approaches to these different tasks, creating valuable theoretical frameworks through which to address a variety of challenges. And studying for so long has meant sharing ideas and experience with other colleagues also on research journeys, which has been and continues to be incredibly enriching.

Bill Cohen: The MTeach is a deeply collegial degree. My group of friends included pre-service teachers for Music, Languages, Textiles, Drama, English, Science and Metalwork. This means I’ve always been able to consider teachers from every faculty as colleagues and also just people who are trying their best and working their hearts out. The final 9-week teaching placement whilst conducting action research also gave me a valuable blueprint for managing day-to-day teaching whilst working on longer-term projects.

5. What are your happiest memories from your time here as a student?

Linden Wilkinson: Highest on my list of happiest memories would be the friendship of other students and staff and of course, the satisfaction of completing particularly the Master’s degree and the Doctorate.

Bill Cohen: One of my BA subjects was Flexible Performance – a Performance Studies unit that required us to (among other things) create and perform a short piece of Commedia dell’arte. No university assessment has ever caused so much panic and laughter in such a short space of time. The MTeach was always about catching up with my group of fellow educators-in-training, especially after we’d been out on prac and had stories of classes that had worked well…or gone rogue!

6. Who was your favourite Professor while you were studying? Why?

Linden Wilkinson: This is an impossible question to answer! Everyone I’ve worked closely with at any level has been fantastic: vocationally-driven, generous and unfailingly encouraging.

Bill Cohen: The enthusiasm and commitment of the Performance Studies faculty was always a source of joy and inspiration. Ian Maxwell and Paul Dwyer had so much energy and would challenge us to consider everything through the lens of performance. Tim Fitzpatrick was so knowledgeable and yet so thoughtful – I have an enduring memory of him comforting a student’s crying child so she could work with her group on an assessment. And J. Lowell Lewis was the epitome of the participant-observer anthropologist: when we studied Ritual and Festivity in Brazil he arranged samba and capoeira workshops for the entire class.

7. What is the mantra you live by and what drives you?

Linden Wilkinson: Depends on the day!

Bill Cohen: One year I received a thank-you note from a student that ended ‘stay ecstatic’. I’ve never forgotten that - teaching places such a broad range of demands on you personally and professionally, and every teacher wants to make sure that they are attending to the academic, welfare and extra-curricular aspects of their job. This means you can find yourself being pulled in a lot of directions at once. When I feel like this, finding the piece of information – be it a crucial concept or a crazy fact – that I can get a little ecstatic about means I’m in the right headspace to do my best work.

8. What advice would you give to students graduating from the University of Sydney?

Linden Wilkinson: Keep in touch. You’ll never know when you might want to return.

Bill Cohen: The University of Sydney’s motto translates as ‘The stars change, but the mind remains the same’. It’s generally considered a reference to the tradition of western higher education being continued in Australia. However, I like to think of it as an encouragement to witness new things and have new experiences. A degree from USyd isn’t a golden ticket, but it’s an accomplishment to be proud of and to use as a launching pad for the next stage of your life. Congratulations, you’ve just graduated from the oldest university in the country – now go and put that knowledge to work under some new stars!

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