Five minutes with ... Dr Helen Proctor

26 August 2014

Q. Why did you decide to become an academic?
I was a school teacher for 10 years and had some young children of my own before I decided to do a part-time Master of Education, and it just went from there. I did my PhD and some casual teaching here at the University, and was a research associate on an ARC grant before I was appointed as a full-time lecturer in 2009. It was a mature-aged career change, which isn't that unusual in this faculty – you often get people who have done work in the field who then transition into the academic world.

Q. As a historian of education, what are your hopes for education in the future?
One of the most important issues we have with schooling in Australia is the high level of inequality – inequality of outcomes and inequality of resourcing. I use historical concepts and methods to shed light on complex issues like this. I think the better we understand the history of schools, the better equipped we will be to encourage their best practices in the present, and into the future. My particular interest, going forward, is how schools have historically shaped families, communities and society. We often think about how societies have shaped schools, but personally I think schools are really powerful institutions that shape the way we live.

Q. Does your research influence the way you teach?
Yes, it really does. I'm always using my research in my teaching and it really informs how I view the practice of classroom teaching. Understanding that history, sociology and policy framework really helps me to explain to my students in practical terms how schools operate. I try to engage my students with voices from the past, whether those voices are from the 1920s or the 1990s. This week I used a very fiery speech by a Catholic archbishop from 1879, who was railing against public schools as "seedplots of immorality". I also use a lot of film in my teaching – I'm a bit of a film buff!

Q. Do you have a favourite film?
There's some great films made in the 1940s by the National Film Board of Australia about the education system, which were made for potential migrants coming to Australia. I love those historical documentaries and looking at them as historical documents. I also love Rebel Without a Cause. At home I'm into TV series box sets, including Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Sopranos.

Q. You were awarded the Brown Fellowship for 2010. What opportunities did it provide?
Just after I'd finished my PhD and was ready for my career to take off, I had some unexpected caring responsibilities for a distant elderly relative. When I received the Brown Fellowship after this difficult time, the teaching relief and support it gave me was fantastic. It was such a great boost for me as a then very new academic, giving me the time and confidence to really think about my research program and research agenda in a more systematic way. It also felt like it was an acknowledgement that the research I was doing was worthwhile. The fellowship assisted with work on The History of Australian Schooling (co-authored with Associate Professor Craig Campbell and published earlier this year) and also enabled me to start researching the history of the good educational parent in Australia, which is what my Australian Research Council Future Fellowship will build on when it commences next year. I think my path to this great opportunity really began with the Brown.

Q. What is your advice for early-career researchers?
The advice that was given to me was to try to think about your research as an agenda, rather than going from little project to little project. Try to think about linking projects within your areas of research interest. I tell my research students to think of those big unifying questions that draw it all together.

Q. What are the highlights and challenges of your work?
The academic world is really difficult. It's a bit of a portmanteau job, and it can be very challenging to manage all those different dispositions that you need. But for all of its difficulties, it's just such a privilege to be able to do this kind of work, to do your research and to teach these talented people who are going to be the teachers of tomorrow. It's challenging, but it's not as exhausting as school teaching – now that was an exhausting job!

Q. If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Don't get that perm! [laughs] I probably would tell myself to take work more seriously. When I was 18 I really thought I would go to uni, work for a little while and then get married, and then if I worked it would be a little bit of part-time work for 'pin money'. I just had no concept of the world of work or about being economically independent. I'm really happy with how things turned out, but it's been a non-linear career path and it took me a while to find out what I really wanted to do. My two daughters are now in their 20s and I try to get them to think about their opportunities differently.