Rhiannon Simpson | Master of Teaching (Secondary)

Rhiannon (she/her) is a PhD – Music Education student at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Before her PhD studies, Rhiannon studied a Master of Teaching (Secondary) at the Faculty of Education. In 2019, she was a joint recipient of the John and Eric Smyth Travelling Scholarship. Rhiannon’s research focuses on developing a sense of teacher agency within current policy constraints. She hopes that through her research she can improve educational systems and outcomes, particularly for marginalised populations.

Q. Can you briefly outline your life prior to studying at the Faculty of Education?

I completed my Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) at Ballarat High School, which had a very progressive and innovative music program. After deciding that I wanted to be a music teacher, I completed a Bachelor of Music at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne, and then a Master of Teaching (Secondary) at the Faculty of Education.

I was lucky enough to work as a professional musician throughout my studies and was made an offer to take part in a research exchange program to complete my masters at Boston College, Massachusetts, right after confirming a United States tour. I think working in a related field whilst studying really helps to situate the things you are consolidating in classes within an external context.

Can you tell us what you are currently doing?

I am studying for my Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Music Education full time at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, whilst working as a Teaching Assistant and Research Assistant part time. This semester I will be instructing a course on my own for the first time at university level, which I’m pretty excited about! Before COVID-19 I was still working as a touring musician, but with the majority of venues shut, I’ve spent my free time watching Prison Break with my wonderful girlfriend.

Why did you choose to study your main program at the Faculty of Education?

The Faculty of Education is renowned worldwide for programs that produce progressive and prepared graduates. As someone who specialises in classroom and co-curricular music, access to the new studioFive arts hub on the top floor and all the associated facilities was a huge drawcard. There is a really collaborative culture, and encouragement of interdisciplinary studies, which inspired me to take English as an additional specialisation (this has been an asset!).

What was the most valuable/rewarding aspect of your program?

In the Master of Teaching, the most rewarding part of my studies was building a rapport with students. Whether they are Year 7 music students on practicum, or undergraduate teaching majors as a part of my PhD studies, the ability to illuminate new possibilities, encourage critical thinking, and just get to know those that you have the honour of teaching is incredible. I think at the PhD level, publishing policy briefs and articles that serve to represent the sheer amount you have learned across an extended period is also very rewarding. Sometimes I look over my notes and think, “Wow, look at all these things I have learned, and look at all the things I get to learn in the future”.

Do you mind sharing which scholarship you were awarded?

I was the joint recipient of the John and Eric Smyth Travelling Scholarship in 2019. As someone who grew up in a low-income household, the sheer amount of financial freedom the scholarship has provided is life changing. This is the first time in my life that I have been able to study without working full time concurrently, which has allowed me to solely focus on getting my academic pursuits to a higher standard.

The ability to move to Canada to study at the University of Western Ontario, to work with the most renowned scholars in my field, and not have to worry about how to make rent or calculate how long we can survive off of rice and mi-goreng is something I never considered possible. The scholarship has afforded me similar opportunities to anyone else lucky enough to study at this level, and for that, I will always be eternally grateful.

What inspired you to apply for a scholarship at the Faculty of Education?

I honestly didn't know that I could apply for a scholarship at the Faculty of Edcucation after accepting a position at an international school. Associate Professor Neryl Jeanneret (the Head of Music Education in Arts Education at the Faculty) suggested I look into it over coffee one day, and when I found out that I met the quite specific criteria for the John and Eric Smyth Travelling Scholarship, I thought “Why not”. The application period had actually closed, but a lot of wonderful things in my life have come from asking “What’s the worst that could happen?”, so I emailed the contact on the website and asked if I could apply late. I was out to lunch with one of my friends that I had met whilst studying at Boston College (another opportunity afforded to me by the Faculty of Education) when I found out I had been accepted, and I just cried.

What do you hope is the next step in your life/career?

I’d love to work with teachers in some capacity in the future; be that through teacher education at a university level, professional development, consulting, or policy work. As long as I feel like I can amplify the voices of teachers and those marginalised through education practices, I’d be very happy. My partner and I hope to build a tiny house, which would allow us to move to any job opportunities that come up in Australia after graduation. So, we’ll see!

Do you think that your scholarship will benefit you in the next steps in your life/career?

Undoubtedly! The financial freedom is an obvious one, but additionally, the scholarship represents a recognition of your scholarly potential by an extremely qualified and rigorous committee. Being the recipient of a faculty scholarship demonstrates to future study programs or employers that others have closely examined your work and come to the conclusion that it has the potential to impact the field. That kind of stamp of approval is invaluable when entering any field, particularly as you begin to apply for programs or jobs that are highly competitive.

What change in education are you hoping to bring about/or see during your career?

My research focuses on developing a sense of teacher agency within both formal and informal policy constraints. I hope that an understanding of what prevents teachers from enacting changes that lead to more diverse cohorts of students will bring about changes in teacher education, and policies that impact in-service teachers. If any of my research helps teachers to feel like they have the agency to talk back to policy – particularly to highlight how the needs of those from marginalised populations are unmet within current educational paradigms – I would feel extremely fulfilled.

I think that the ways in which teachers have been de-professionalised, and thus have internalised the belief that they are ‘incapable’ of enacting meaningful change, is something that requires major interrogation. The voices of teachers who have successfully overcome barriers to change, and those of marginalised populations who benefit from such changes, need to be amplified for this to happen; I hope my research can play some part in doing that.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about applying for your scholarship?

Be organised and start early! I had all my documents in a Google Drive folder where they could be accessed by the committee at any time. However, I really wish I’d known about the scholarship further in advance and started curating that folder beforehand. I’d recommend documenting anything that might help you stand out from a pool of other very capable applicants. I keep records of any newspaper articles, podcast/TV appearances, festival gigs and the like, as well as copies of student feedback forms, my placement evaluations and even nice emails people have sent me (with permission of course!).

There will be other people who apply who are just as qualified as you, so highlighting how your unique experiences make you a great candidate is key. Remember they’re not just recognising the potential of your work, but the potential of you as a scholar/teacher/researcher. Show your passion, demonstrate that you have the drive to follow through and let your personality shine in the application!

Can you tell us something interesting about yourself?

I can’t believe it took me a move to Canada to do so, but I’ve started playing AFL (Australian Football League) over here! The recreation centre here at the University of Western Ontario has been offering great fitness videos and the like to help us get moving over the COVID-19 break, which has been very helpful.

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