March Member of the Month: Suzanne Culshaw


We’re thrilled to celebrate the return of Member of the Month with a chat with the wonderful Suzanne Culshaw; teacher, Research Fellow, Buddhist and regular #BELMASchat host…

Hi Suzanne! First of all, can you tell us about your background? How did you start out in education?

When I was at school, I always thought I’d like to be a teacher, but I was talked out of it by my friends’ parents who were teachers. But fast-forward about 15 years and I successfully applied to do a PGCE in languages at Hope University in Liverpool and haven’t looked back since!

What drew you to your current position?

I have a mix of roles right now, which are both fulfilling in their own ways. I still teach, part-time, which really keeps me grounded in my classroom practice and I do think it allows me to have some credibility when talking about teaching and teachers. I am also a part-time Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire – where I completed my PhD – and am involved in a two-year Erasmus+ project, called ENABLES, with a range of European partners.

It’s a really exciting project as we are exploring arts-based and embodied learning approaches to leadership development, with a particular focus on distributed leadership. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to continue working with one of my PhD supervisors, the wonderful Prof Philip Woods, as well as with other colleagues from the School of Education. We are currently developing a systematic approach to the literature review, which is an exciting piece of work drawing on the leadership literature, not just in education, but also in the wider leadership and management fields. We’re also designing the Action Research Trials right now, which will be an opportunity to explore how arts-based and embodied learning approaches might help strengthen affective attributes of leadership.

What would you say is the best thing about your role?

That’s difficult to choose! I certainly love being in the classroom and sharing my love of languages. And I also love how I have the chance to further develop my doctoral research methodology - collage – in the ENABLES project. I am really enjoying reading a new literature and working closely with a range of partners in Austria, Finland, Latvia and Romania!

What are your research interests?

My PhD explored what it means to be struggling as a teacher and I offer a new theorisation of struggling, which positions it in the wellbeing arena, rather than the field of incompetence and failing. I continue to be so grateful to the School of Education at the University of Hertfordshire who funded this PhD scholarship. Interestingly, the scholarship was promoted via a BELMAS e-newsletter, so there's another reason to be grateful for my BELMAS membership! I remember first contacting Dr Roger Levy, Associate Dean for Research, with my tentative research proposal & not really expecting to get an interview. That's over 4 years ago now!

There are several threads which arose from the PhD findings that I’d like to pursue further, including the perspectives of the two head teachers who took part in my research. I am also interested in exploring the communication aspect of interactions between adults in schools, with a particular focus on compassionate communication, drawing on the non-violent communication work of Rosenberg. There were also some concerning findings from a number of women participants in my study, who shared stories of ineffective support for what I now term ‘gendered life events’ which include miscarriage, maternity and menopause. I’d like to gather cases studies of effective leadership support in such circumstances. Finally, I would like to further develop my work in the field of teacher wellbeing.

As you mentioned, your PhD thesis examines what it means to be struggling as a secondary teacher. What does this subject mean to you and what inspired you to explore it? 

Struggling has become my life! Seriously, though, it is an important topic to explore in depth. I developed a research proposal when applying for the PhD scholarship at the University of Hertfordshire, which was designed to take forward a ‘nugget’ from my Masters findings. In an interview for my MEd, one participant had said “but what about the teachers who are struggling? How must it feel for them?” This quote stayed with me and formed the basis of my PhD.

When I started to review the literature, I found that struggling is used predominantly as a deficit – a problem to be dealt with, by others. It is often associated with failing. My aim was to give teachers who self-identified as having struggled a voice, which had been recognised as a gap in the literature by Professor Yariv, in Israel. I found that struggling is experienced as a temporary, fractured state. Dimensions of struggling include heightened, embodied tensions and a negative emotional mood or tone. It is associated with a reduced sense of controllability and a damaged self-view. Interestingly, I maintain that it can lead to impaired performance – i.e. your teaching can deteriorate when you’re struggling – which counters the prevailing arguments that impaired performance leads to struggling.

Can you tell us a little about how you use collage as a research method and why this process may be effective for struggling teachers?

To be honest, I was rather sceptical about collage to start off with! I can’t really remember now how it came up in a supervision meeting, but I do know that several colleagues in the School of Education at Hertfordshire have used it in projects. I decided to give it a go, by creating my own collage to express what it means to be struggling. I set up a video camera in my office to record the process – as I wanted to feel as certain pressure of being observed, as I felt this is how my participants might experience the process – and set to work on expressing my experience.

This particular form of collage uses arts and crafts materials and it doesn’t involve sticking. As your thinking develops, you can place and move items and so it is both practical and allows agency in the process. What I found was that things were revealed that participants might not otherwise have realised about their experience of struggling. This has ethical implications, of course, and I was careful to offer appropriate signposting for support to all participants. In fact, several did find it quite emotional yet cathartic and a number reported enjoying the process. I definitely feel that collage-creation offers the opportunity to think in a different way; it can encourage visual rather than linguistic thinking and allows you to express feelings and thoughts ‘beyond the spoken word.’

You’re speaking at an event in May for IPDA on teacher wellbeing and its implications for professional development. What drew you to this event? What can we expect from it?

I was asked if I’d like to present on the topic by a colleague in the School of Education, who is also on the IPDA committee! Dr Liz White has been really supportive and I have really benefited from her focus on impact and dissemination of research. The idea is for me to share my research on what it means to be struggling, from a teacher wellbeing point of view, and then for others to share their work. We’re hoping that Masters and Doctoral students will submit abstracts if they’re doing research in the field. The specific focus is the implications of wellbeing for professional development, or professional learning, as I tend to call it. I hosted a Twitter 'Slowchat' on this topic in February and we had over 500 contributions to the chat during that Sunday afternoon, so we’re clearly onto something in terms of a topic people can relate to. If anyone is interested in reading through the chat, you can check it out here: #IPDAEngland.

As a regular #BELMASchat host and an advocate for compassionate communication, are there any topics close to your heart that you feel should be discussed on a wider scale amongst the education community?

I’ve been really lucky to host a number of different #BELMASchats over the past few years, and even mentioned one in my PhD interview (without realising that Philip Woods, who was interviewing me, was the BELMAS Chair at that time!). The chat can be a great way to raise issues about research and/or practice. Compassionate communication is a real interest of mine as I think the way we talk and act with others has a huge impact. I’m a practising Buddhist and one of our key precepts is Right Speech, so it’s a particular focus of mine, although it is incredibly hard! Later this year, I’m off to do a study visit in a school in the States where they have compassionate communication at the heart of what they do, so I’ll be able to see how they do things and bring ideas back. Watch this space!

In terms of topics for future #BELMASchats I think what can work well is to take a very specific focus and hone in on that over the hour. Too many Twitter chats tend to touch upon topics at a pretty superficial level and don’t really get you to engage in deep thinking. I’d like to discuss how leaders can effectively support women teachers who are undergoing what I call ‘gendered life events’ (miscarriage, maternity, menopause in particular). I also think it would be interesting to open up the topic of leaders’ struggling. Of the fourteen participants in my research, two were head teachers. I’d love to broaden that discussion but realise that it’s a sensitive topic which can make people feel vulnerable.

You have been a member of BELMAS for a number of years. Has this had any influence on your research and/or practice? 

I first joined BELMAS when I was doing my MEd in Educational Leadership and School Improvement (affectionately known as ELSI!) at the Faculty of Education, Cambridge. I have been to a few Annual Conferences now and have really enjoyed becoming a true member of the BELMAS community! One highlight was the feedback I received following a presentation I did at the conference in Windsor – thanks Prof Chris Brown! This subsequently led to me getting to know a lovely colleague in Austria, Livia Roessler, who invited me to present my work at her university in Innsbruck! Livia is now a key partner in the ENABLES project I mentioned earlier, so we have an encounter at a BELMAS conference to thank for that! I also enjoyed connecting with an Iranian academic from the University of Sanandaj – Dr Nasser Shirbagi - whose work in the field of sabbaticals is really interesting. I have collaborated with him and a doctoral student of his on a paper and I have an open invitation to visit. Did I mention that I speak Farsi? Which knocked him for six when I first introduced myself!

Suzanne with Dr Nasser Shirbagi at BELMAS Annual Conference 2018

What are your favourite pastimes?

I’ve already mentioned that I’m a practising Buddhist and I particularly enjoy chanting! I love Nordic walking – which is harder than it looks – and regularly walk my cute little dog in the local country park. I’m a keen cook and baker and love how much easier it is now to be vegan!


If you could meet any historical or iconic figure, either real or fictional, who would it be?

What a great question! My first instinct is to say the Buddha because I’d love to know what it’s like to meet an enlightened being. At the other extreme, I’d love to meet Paul Weller and tell him how much his music – from his days with The Jam in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to his more recent work – has accompanied me through my life. I know he wouldn’t accept a knighthood, on principle, but I do think he is an underappreciated living legend.

Can you tell us something about yourself that not a lot of people would know?

Well, Prof Megan Crawford would laugh at this question, as she knows something about me that would fit the bill here. But I won’t mention that. I’ve mentioned Paul Weller. I’ve mentioned I’m a Buddhist. I’ve told you I speak Farsi. What should I reveal...? I am a fluent German speaker, having lived and worked in Southern Germany for more than 10 years, and there are still occasions when I feel more natural communicating in German than in English.



To hear more from Suzanne, follow her on Twitter @SuzanneCulshaw. To read her PhD paper, ‘An Exploration of What It Means to Be Struggling as a Secondary Teacher in England’, click here. To find out more about IPDA’s event on teacher wellbeing, which takes place on Saturday 16th May, follow @EnglandIpda on Twitter or you can register your place here.

A huge thank you to Suzanne for being our Member of the Month – the first in 2020! We thoroughly enjoyed chatting with you and wish you all the best for your upcoming event with IPDA. Hope to catch up with you again at #BELMAS2020!


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