How I see it …. reflections on my PhD progress

In my job, one of the most important things in my career has been keeping other people safe, as a nurse, as a mentor and as a teacher. I have always looked out for everyone else, as an educator I help my students to navigate their way through their own study, as a mentor in a youth programme I guide young people to learn life skills with feedback showing that I am competent and capable.

In both of these situations, I have the big picture and I am the guide who is helping others to navigate their way through the quagmire. This week, with around a month to completion of my PhD I have been grappling with some of the same issues my students do. Self-doubt, I have been doubting the quality of my research thus far (four years) and doubting my ability to complete my PhD, in other words questioning my competence and capability.

Many wise colleagues have said obtaining a PhD is not always about just finishing a thesis, it is about the journey you took to get there, showing that you can be an expert in that area and that you are capable of completing research. The problem is when I am immersed in writing it does not feel like the journey is as important as just finishing.

Remembering these comments about the journey triggered me to take a step back and ask myself what I could do to change my doubts. I came to realise that I had been spending 12-16 hours a day writing so that I had time to help out my parents. This meant going back to basics, good sleep, good nutrition and Yoga (which helps the neck and back pain from writing). The thing was, these changes would help me to get back on track but still didn’t fully appease the self-doubt but it did let it take a back seat.

What helped me the most was this morning, at coffee one of my colleagues said, “you can do it, you are doing so well”, “you are almost there”, and I can read a chapter for you if you like. As humans we are quick to judge and critique ourselves and others, to be quite honest, writing a PhD and working in academia requires you to critique yourself and others continually. To have someone encourage and give of themselves without any expectations in return made all the difference and was refreshing.

This has reminded me that progress is not just measured on the finished product, but the journey and I can do a lot of things along the way which can make this run smoothly. Furthermore, encouragement at the right moment in time makes a difference and I plan to ensure that I use these skills to guide others on their academic and life journeys.

Adapting to what is required is key in providing quality education.

Tonight I had a phone call at about 1630 hrs asking for assistance with teaching first aid for a group of young people at 1830.  If there was no one to help the night would be cancelled for around 80 young people.

I agreed and took on a group of around 20 young people aged 13 – 18-years.  We looked at the basics of assessing an unconscious patient, which went well.  However, when it came to assessing a conscious patient, it became apparent much of the learning was rote learning of the process and knowledge of the what and why needed some work.

While practical activities were going on I thought to myself, does rote learning actually still have a place in first aid teaching?  I then asked myself what would first aid education be like without rote learning?

In first aid, learning by rote provides a person with a process to follow in an emergency, which is useful for remembering what to do stressful situations.  For example, for an unconscious patient, we use DRSABC or Danger, Response, Send for Help, Airway, Breathing, Circulation.

I posed a question to the group, is rote learning a process good enough to apply to all situations?

With this in mind, I asked students to work in pairs.  Number 1 is a first aider and number 2 the patient.  The patient was to think of something that is wrong with them, and the first aider asks questions to learn what is wrong.  As expected, the students predominantly used closed-ended questions and a rote-learned process which did not go beyond these.  We then discussed trust and using communication skills to collect information.

I introduced the SAMPLE (Signs and Symptoms, Allergies, Medications, Past History, Last Meal, Events Prior) pneumonic with the rider that they need to find out as much as they can with as few questions as possible.  While doing this using all of their senses to gather information about a situation.  This also went very well with all of the cadets engaging, participating, using teamwork and respecting the needs of each other.  The information gathered was more rich and complete than in the initial exercise.   

Therefore, in doing this exercise, we learned that there is a need rote learning (e.g. SAMPLE), but it is the way we use this and formulate questions and gather information is key.

Another key piece of learning for me today was by way of a reminder that learning can be fun and educational.

One of the younger children (11 years) who had been in the group being taught alongside my group came up as I was leaving.   He asked, are you coming to teach us again?  I replied that I would be happy to fill in if need be but I couldn’t be there every week.  I asked why he wanted to know and he replied that he would be old enough to be in the group I was teaching in two years and he thought that the teaching and learning the group I was with was both “work and fun”.

This reminded me, not only, why I became a teacher for adults and children.  But what I value the most about my day job and volunteer job.  Adapting what I do to meet the needs of learners by providing education in a way that is meaningful for them.




While I taught the 8-10 year old’s the importance of recognizing good and bad thoughts or feelings and controlling the outcome they taught me of an important a lesson too …

Tonight I stepped in at the last minute to teach around 15 children aged eight to ten years.

The subject was health and they had covered the basics like healthy eating and hygiene needs so we tackled our thoughts and feelings.

I asked them if they wanted to work as a large group or two smaller ones and they wanted two smaller ones. We identified good and bad feelings and then I set them a task to script, design and act a play to teach their peers about good and bad feelings. How to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

We have some very strong minded children in the group along with a shy new person with limited english. Initially they split themselves into two groups with different ideas. One group got on with what they had to do, scripted, found roles for everyone in the group, made costumes out of butcher paper and worked as a team.

The second group found it hard to agree on ideas and consider each other in this. I watched the group having trouble and offered suggestions however it was not working out.

The three in the second group wanted to join the others who were working well together well. This group opted to disband. I agreed and they wanted me to get them something to do in the other group. Instead, I suggested they go and ask if there was a role they could have in the others play. Which two of the three did and were readily accepted by the others.

The play and props they designed were impressive for the 90 minutes they had to achieve this. The play centered around bullying at school and every person had a role, even the shy person who only joined that evening.

They learned not only about teamwork, inclusiveness, but also thoughts, feelings and how to manage these.

What I learned was about challenging my own assumptions and stereotyping. The young people had unconsciously put the people who were biggest, loudest and that I felt had the most stereotypically bullying characteristics in the most vulnerable role of the person being bullied. This made me reconsider my own assumptions around this.

I would like to thank this group of young people for being so inclusive of all others no matter their personality, age, gender and culture in this activity. They adapted and included others at the last minute readily and I believe that working together and displaying these qualities at age eight to ten is an amazing achievement.

Vulnerability, openness and honesty are powerful tools in education

​​One of the things that I pride myself in as an educator is openness, honesty and showing my own vulnerability as a teaching tool.

Flashback: The first class I ever taught (In the 1990s) as a brand new teacher and newly qualified in pre-hospital emergency care was to teach first aid qualified adults how to take a BP temperature, pulse and respiration.  As a brand-new teacher, who was yet to build her confidence as an educator, I was focused on trying to know “everything“ in order to prove my worth as a teacher, unfortunately what I didn’t consider was the students, who in reality should have been at the center of my teaching.

Now, with over 20 years experience in teaching (both paid and volunteer) I would love to be able to travel back in time and tell my younger self what I have learnt along the way.

What made me remember my first teaching experience was working with some young people (13 to 18 years) this week, where we were discussing communication styles, needs and processes. I had set up an exercise where students were required to critique the communication in some TEDTalks and chosen one particularly powerful talk with outstanding skills and one where the message was strong but communication skills were less refined.  I started to set up the computer to watch the ted talks and found that I had actually left the text to speech software I have been using turned on. Immediately one of the class asked me why my computer was “talking what I typed”.

One of my strengths is thinking on my feet, adapting to what is in front of me and turning it into a teaching moment, alongside this, I consider myself a confident and experienced teacher who can manage difficult situations in class. However, this one made me hesitate, I thought to myself do I tell them? Do I move on quickly? Do I ignore the comment?

What grounded me was going back to what I consider a fundamental part of my teaching practice – there are no “dumb” questions just opportunities for learning. I stopped the class and explained why I had speech software on my computer and this became the catalyst for a more engaged and in depth conversation around communication, difficulty and abilities.

When reflecting on the situation I remembered my first experience of teaching as the brand-new teacher where, I probably would have moved on and ignored the question.   I compared this to now, where I saw its value as a teachable moment for my students rather than an uncomfortable situation for me.  Interestingly, this conversation allowed me to connect better with these young people, the dynamic changed, it became more about us learning together.  The short video below is of one of the people I was teaching showing me how to use SnapChat.