Submitting a Doctorate: How I did (and didn’t) do it

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Last week, in a rather prosaic exchange, I asked the nice man at reprographics at the university to print three copies of this – one for my supervisor and one for the examiners – and pass them onto the Education Department. The next I’ll hear anything concrete will be with a date for my viva – weeks, possibly months, ahead. Whilst there’s a way to go before I can change my debit card to ‘Dr. Kell’ and demand my children call me Dr. Mummy (let’s face it – the only reason I really did it!), it is a pretty significant milestone.

Whilst there are some who cast sidelong glances and shuffle off when they see me in the playground (because, let’s face it, it IS a bit weird), most people have been absolutely fantastic. Not just complimentary and interested, but also, there are hundreds and hundreds (some of whom I hope will see this) who were the actual voices without which the thing wouldn’t have existed. And, every now and again, someone very kind side-swipes me with the question, ‘how do you do it?’

Now, my Doctorate is all having children and balancing them with being a teacher/leader/human. So this question always makes me feel a bit as if somehow has just asked me how I became parent to two feisty, sparky, happy, scruffy eight- and six-year-old girls

i.e. not really answerable;

i.e. it just sort of happened;

i.e. I DON’T KNOW!

i.e it depends which day you ask me;

i.e. I suppose it was a bit like this:

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What I can do is dispense with a few myths. I did NOT do it by:

Writing long into the night. I love my sleep. I worship sleep. The prospect of anything less than 7.5 hours per night (or around 10 at weekends) makes me go a bit panicky. I will forever be making up for the hell that was two years with a sleepless firstborn.

Working to a tight schedule. I’m an appalling procrastinator. From cleaning that bit around the taps to grabbing an afternoon nap, because bed was just, kind of, THERE calling me…

Being militarily organised. I’m just not. Never have been. I’ve tried a BIT harder than usual, but thank goodness for technology and cool apps like Zotero. We have a VERY large bag of unmatched socks.

Turning my body into a temple. Erm. No.

So, how then? Or more importantly WHY?! I suppose there was an element of ‘something to prove’. There’s that late-night dinner party question: if you overheard two of your closest friends talking about you, what’s the thing they might say which would be most hurtful?’ (we know how to have fun around here!). But I suppose there is a bit of a fear of being useless or not contributing much and this tweet doesn’t bear much psychoanalysis….

 

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I really, REALLY loved the research. The topic was EXACTLY right for me – I was writing my life, really. Therapy through academia, or something. Interpretevism and mixed-methods research and the qual/quan debate hurt my head, but I loved the feeling of learning something that was genuinely new to me. ‘Choose something you live, breathe and eat for breakfast’ was the best advice every from my first supervisor.

Support. The centrality of this is in the conclusion of my research and the reason my research could actually happen. Other people’s help – emotional and moral, and hours and hours of child-nurturing and buckets of flexibility. There isn’t really a ‘thank you’ that’s big enough.

IT’S IMPORTANT. The response to the research topic went way beyond anything I could possibly have imagined, with, for example 1604 actual written responses to my questionnaire. I still love typing that, because it still seems crazily wonderful. I have had contact with so many people who have generously shared their honest, optimistic, painful stories. It has been a genuine privilege to be a mouthpiece for them. Yes. It’s important.

But I suppose, like many blogs, this is also a bit of a confessional. The ‘how do you do it?’ question makes me feel uncomfortable because it pales into insignificance beside the achievements of – and the challenges faced by – so many others I know. But also, here it is:

IT’S THE MOST SELFISH THING I’VE EVER DONE.

It necessitated weeks and months of mental, emotional and frequently physical absence from those who love me. Where there isn’t the right language for ‘thank you’ just now, there also isn’t quite the language for ‘sorry I haven’t been in touch for weeks/months, sorry I missed your 40th birthday, sorry I’ve been “too busy” to visit since you were ill…’

The kids have done ok, I think.  If I’d believed they were suffering, I would have dropped it immediately. But there are others who, debatably, deserved more of me than they got. And important relationships which were allowed to drift.

Confession no. 2: Imposter syndrome never goes away. I keep expecting a goblin to jump out from behind a tree, cackling hysterically. You, a Doctorate? Hah. Or the viva to expose me for the fraud I am.

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Other doctorate conclusions: self-doubt is not your friend, sometimes we need to put ourselves first, and it’s really important to take ownership of our choices. So both the ‘confessions’ above, ultimately, are prices I chose to pay.

Ultimately, this: would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Apart from my daughters, it’s my proudest achievement. This, from my acknowledgements:

and finally

 

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Open your eyes. A guest blog by Jenny Martindale

“We are only as blind as we want to be”

Maya Angelou

Every lesson counts. Every part. Every minute. Every second. I think I became a little obsessional this half term. I purchased a kitchen style timer so I could consecutively time activities and check my slides in order to ensure transitions flowed as smoothly as swans glide upon water.   Everything must be seamless, smooth: no wasted moments. Every opportunity for learning taken.

Term time it feels that the speed, pace and rigidness of the school day infects every part of your life. There’s never enough time to do things in the way you’ve originally planned. Somehow the vision you had for some amazing teaching and learning experience that would transform and revolutionise the lives of one or more pupils becomes not quite as you’d anticipated. Ambition versus reality…wiser, senior and more experienced members of staff advise with kind, gentle words and realistic, muted enthusiasm. And I have the feeling that they heard this idea before, something similar, many years ago and it may or may not have had some impact. Still I feel it’s a failure; I question myself: is this a moment lost? An opportunity gone.

Holiday time everything seems so achievable. Term time the teaching treadmill starts at break-neck speed from the offset and as a working parent you don’t run alone. Inexplicably there’s two races that run at completely different speeds. It’s taken fifteen minutes for the eldest child to put on their shoes. Why does it seem so momentous? It would possibly be just ten minutes to anyone not a teacher. Yet so many days it seems those ten minutes will make or break the school day.

How can I be more efficient? Where’s the wastage in the day? What time of the day do I work the best? Every holiday it’s the same- evaluate and review. This is achievable and manageable I tell myself. It has to be when you’ve given your heart and soul to a job you love.

So many times I’ve told myself that you’re just looking at this from the wrong angle or perspective. This term I vowed to make more time for those important individual conversations with pupils and valued and loved colleagues and at home, I’d never again wonder how my youngest had grown nearly as tall as the stairgate in what felt like a single beat of my heart.

As usual, with all my ambitious missions, it started off so well… for about a week. Yet, too soon lessons were a sprint to the finish with the seemingly never-ending amount of items to hand out, stick in, label and the imperative checking of progress. The things that make lessons concrete, that are the bones of it.

Yet I often feel I just need a moment longer with that pupil, that colleague, my children. I live in a beautiful chaos of sticky kisses, hear every day from pupils who are seeing the word from untainted eyes and yet I’m fearful of the moments I’ve lost, the things I should have seen.

I’d organised a short time to catch up at lunch time with some members of my Year 7 form. I wanted some precious moments with them, to try and form that important bond that needs to be formed in the first year. They were seventeen of the nicest school minutes this academic year. Listening to their experiences so far, their plans for the future and being able to focus just on them uninterrupted made my term. They asked me as we all raced off to afternoon registration if we could do it again. Of course was my reply. It was an opportunity to give those pupils a moment in the rush of a typical school day, the chance to find their voice, feel their value and worth among so many others.

Despite the initial success of it, the doubts soon crept in. Was it enough? Would it be enough? How often could I do it to make those pupils believe and feel their worth?

There’s so many important things to do, that have to be achieved in a typical working day, how can we find these moments?

If you can find those planned and unplanned moments, to be brave enough to ignore the rising panic in your brain of everything else that must be achieved, I can promise you it will be worthwhile. Because I smile at the toy train filled with baby animals going to school under the dining room table that we made rather than saying the behaviour of a four year old was not acceptable when they were stalling to leave the house. It’s nearly the end of term but I’m still filled with ambition to make the world what a brand new secondary school pupil wants it to be.

If you can give that moment to someone, to look into their eyes and listen, you should take it.