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      Work/life experiences of Brookes’ academics


    The reason I did Physics was because it was the subject where I thought I can’t stop now, I need to know more.

    Helen Wilson is a Principal Lecturer in the School of Education. She has been part of Oxford Brookes since 2000, following the 1996 merger of Westminster College with the University.

  • Helen says her parents, neither of whom had enjoyed the luxury of a particularly good education themselves, really valued education. She describes them as supportive without being pushy and thanks to this encouragement she gained a place at a direct grant school.
    Helen has always had a passion for Physics. She says the reason she decided to study it at degree level was “because it was the subject where I thought: I can’t stop now, I need to know more”. After graduating from the University of Birmingham, she proceeded to embark on a PGCE to enable her to teach secondary school physics and chemistry. This career path became apparent to her when she visited her careers officer at Birmingham, who asked her to describe her ideal job:

    I found myself saying I love my subject, I’d like to keep doing physics, I’d like to work with people, I really like explaining my subject. Oh bother, I’m describing teaching.

    During her five years of teaching at secondary level, Helen became close friends with one of the teachers and she said they played an important role for each other, in terms of support. They would compare notes on lessons and talk things through in detail over coffee. She says:

    Mentoring during my teaching career has mainly been through my friends.

    This confluence of friendship and mentoring is something that Helen has experienced throughout her career, perhaps because working with people and having colleagues as friends has always been highly important to her.

    Having a family of three sons was easily “the highlight of Helen’s life” and she decided to leave the workplace temporarily to bring them up. As they progressed through the school system, Helen saw an opportunity for her to put her skills to use again. She started to volunteer at their primary school where she was soon offered a paid job. Helen considers her career break very important because she learned so much through her sons. Helen’s husband who, she says, is totally supportive and very encouraging throughout”, is also very hands-on: they share everything so, for example, it’s a question of whoever gets home first cooks, not separate roles.

    Helen’s Headteacher enrolled her on a course at Westminster College, to develop the teaching of English in the primary school setting. At the same time, some of the Primary Initial Teacher Training students undertook a placement at the school, and through them she heard that their physics lecturer was about to leave. Helen rang up to enquire about this, had an interview, and was then offered a part-time job.

    It was the most amazing, exciting opportunity for me because it was using my science, particularly my physics. And it was using the experience of being a primary teacher. So, it pulled together everything I had done.

    Throughout her career, Helen has made opportunities for herself:

    My philosophy was if there’s an opportunity you say ‘yes’ and worry about it later. So, I’ve grabbed those opportunities.

    Four years after Helen joined Westminster College, it merged with Brookes and she has loved the opportunities that working for this institution has afforded her:

    Being at Brookes has given me the sorts of opportunities I wouldn’t have had anywhere else and I’m incredibly grateful for those. So, for example, I’ve travelled the world with this job.

    She’s been to China, Thailand, Japan, Stockholm working with international schools and attending international conferences.

    I can’t think of how I’d have had those opportunities if I hadn’t been here.

    She has also harnessed this as a chance to keep learning:

    I’ve learned so much by meeting people from different countries.

    Within Brookes she has also taken on new challenges as they presented themselves: for example, the new demands of management that come with being a principal lecturer.
    Helen is motivated by her students. She says:

    Working with students who are going to be primary teachers is fantastic because on the whole they are wonderful people.

    The highlight of her job is seeing her students become professionals. She describes it as “a joy” that “now if I go to almost any school in Oxfordshire I will have trained one of the teachers there and so, as we chat, I hear about how their career is developing”. In addition, she likes to push herself. She says her

    Christian faith influences everything I do… Wanting to do my best and find out what my strengths are and to follow them.

    Thus, she also finds her research extremely exciting. Her current research, on the impact of creative ways of teaching science, has already been highly successful and now has been scaled up with the potential to yield important results.
    Her advice for anyone who wants to be an academic in teacher training is that you need to be a teacher first and to have an active interest in the links between theory and practice. Academia she says is

    An exciting life, although really hard work.