This past spring marked the end of my first academic year as an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta. As every new faculty member well knows, the first year is a stressful one – and cause for reflection. In my case, I had to move to a new city in a new province, adapt to a new working environment, get to know many new colleagues and learn a new academic culture. Despite these challenges, I have realized along the way that I have exciting and rewarding professional responsibilities that very few people have the opportunity to experience. Since day one, my research and, above all, my students and colleagues, have contributed immensely to my sense of satisfaction in my new position.
Before joining U of A, I taught for 12 years at a high school near Montreal, which greatly influenced my understanding of the challenges facing schools across the country. More than my formal training, my school-related experiences have enabled me to learn about school culture.
As a high-school teacher, I spent thousands of hours in a classroom where I taught many teenagers facing social and psychological difficulties. Throughout these relevant experiences, senior colleagues taught me about effective learning strategies and ways to engage with and support my students. Parents, school principals, and school psychologists also had much to offer in terms of teaching me how to foster a sense of school community.
The informal education from these trusted relationships, coupled with my postsecondary degrees, have enabled me to examine educational theories critically and to thoroughly analyze educational policies. I have also developed a clearer picture regarding how we should structure our school system and a method of teacher training that I hope to implement in the future.
My academic and professional background allows me to combine theory and practice, which proves relevant and fruitful for student learning. Mary Leaky, a British paleoanthropologist, writes: “theories come and go, but fundamental data remain the same.” In my view, the essentials of educational research and teacher training should be grounded in the professor’s life and professional experiences.
All of which brings me to the question: Are school-related experiences relevant criteria for hiring academics in the field of education across Canada? I first started to consider this issue when looking at job postings for faculty positions a few years ago, more specifically at the beginning of my doctoral program. I was astonished to find that many job postings in the field of education across the country did not require a minimum number of years working in schools.
In my view, practical teaching experience is the most critical factor in hiring. A faculty member with field knowledge can have a positive impact on teacher training and educational research. On the other hand, professors with no field experience might argue that education is at the crossroads of many disciplines and, in this context, hiring scholars with no professional classroom teaching experience is appropriate. The debate continues.
I was hired in part because I have firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing school principals, teachers, behavior intervention workers and other trained staff at the school level, as well as policy makers outside the school. As a scholar, I have the opportunity to share my knowledge in the classroom with students, colleagues, politicians and scholars. Our future teachers need university professors who understand the relationship between the faculty of education and K-12 teaching on a practical level.
In this context, connecting educational theories and practice is of paramount importance, which is why I believe that Canadian universities should prioritize school-related experiences in hiring. As Immanuel Kant suggests, “experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.”
Dr. St-Amand is an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta.