From CP to lecturer: two steps forward, one step back

Public health expert Sheila Lally offers a personal reflection on moving from a community practitioner role to senior lecturer.

Transition to Lecturer

In the UK, new university lecturers in nursing, midwifery and allied health professions are generally appointed after establishing themselves as expert clinicians with associated practices and identities rather than the traditional doctoral research route (Boyd et al, 2010).

Professional identity

Assuming a new professional identity (PI) is perceived as a socially constructed phenomenon and a process of reconciliation of various identities (Wenger, 1998). My previous professional identity had been acquired within practice settings as a nurse, health visitor and practice teacher. Wenger’s (1998) communities of practice (CoP) model may have a contribution to make in the development and understanding of professional identity in education and practice. According to Wenger, there is a strong connection between identity and practice and that by being immersed in the social and cultural practices of the new community contribute to learning and tactical knowledge. This, in turn, aids the development and understanding of professional behaviours. Therefore, a CoP forms or is formed around groups of people who share a common interest. The community acts as a vehicle for collaboration, allowing members to enter dynamic relationships, although the ‘newcomer’ may at first operate on the periphery (Wenger et al, 2002; Lave and Wenger, 1991). Wenger (1998) suggests that individuals are motivated to join a CoP primarily to develop a sense of PI and belonging. However, Gourlay (2011) found in her study that new lecturers from practice did not experience a sharing of practice or a sense of collaborative working. Therefore, Gourlay (2011) questions the usefulness of the CoP model for explaining new lecturers’ transitions into higher education institutes (HEI).

As a new lecturer I was motivated to join and engage with a new CoP and to develop my PI as a teacher within a HEI. But in my first year I felt as if I was operating on the periphery and trying to learn the ropes from more experienced colleagues. The demands of the specialist community public health nursing (SCPHN) programme meant that there was little time to engage in ‘exposure’ activities, such as shadowing more experienced colleagues. I quickly found myself participating in teaching activity and supporting students through their academic journey and in practice (Steinaker and Bell, 1979). At first, I felt ‘out of my depth’ and struggled to make sense of my new role (Benner, 2001).

Learning the ropes

Boyd et al (2010) suggests that new lecturers often hang onto existing identities as they find the new HEI environment too challenging. This is something I recognise as during the first few months in my new role I felt a strong ‘pull’ back to practice and my previous role as specialist health visitor for gypsies and travellers. This was a role I enjoyed and had achieved a degree of expert status (Benner, 2001). New teachers often report feeling ineffective and isolated (Boyd et al, 2010; Bathmaker and Avis, 2005). McArther-Rouse (2008) also identified that a lack of understanding of the new organisation’s functioning can be confusing and hamper transition. Jones (2010) refers to this as ‘culture shock’. According to Schein (2005), organisational culture is the pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learns as it solves its problems.

However, feelings of isolation, frustration and inadequacy are a normal part of the transition process (Fisher, 2005) and are often transient. Within my first year of teaching I was given the opportunity to work towards my PG certificate in education; this gave me protected time to reflect on and assimilate new learning. According to Wenger (1998), when individuals bring knowledge from one CoP into another it amounts to brokering across boundaries and between practices. If you are a good broker, then new possibilities arise, which benefits the new CoP. My first year very much involved working on the periphery but I increasingly found I was able to bring learning from previous roles into my new role. I was being asked to teach on modules outside of the SCPHN programme, which boosted my confidence as a teacher. Teaching skills In developing my teaching skills, I first reflected on what does teaching and learning in an HEI involve. According to Chuang (2014), teaching is the fundamental mission of any university. The creation of new knowledge is of little value without the ability to pass it on. Biggs (2003) proposes that teaching is completely student centred. This is supported by Race (2015). He suggests teaching in higher education is far more complex than just ‘lecturing’, that is the expert lecturer delivers knowledge to the ‘novice’ student. According to Race, it is essentially about facilitating learning.

It is important to understand how students learn as they develop their cognitive and intellectual skills. The theory of learning I found most useful was that of social constructivism and social learning theory, such as proposed by Vygotsky (1935), and how this links to the theory of threshold concepts, that is concepts that students often find difficult to grasp, but once they have a previously inaccessible way of thinking about a subject opens up. These are useful in achieving quality learning (Meyer and Land, 2005). Vygotsky emphasises the importance of interactions between the learner and the more knowledgeable peer and that learners’ cognitive understandings were enriched when they were ‘scaffolded’ [supported] by a more knowledgeable other. It also helps to contain a student’s anxiety. In doing this in my seminar groups I find the principles drawn from the humanistic approach, as proposed by Rogers (1983) to be of value. These include being myself and developing a rapport with the students. These principles also ‘fit’ with the underpinning philosophy of social constructivism, which emphasises the importance of relationship building.

I find the humanistic approach also works in larger style delivery approaches to facilitate learning, that is 50-plus students. According to Weimer (2013), nurse educators are in an era of classroom without walls. As methods to teach and learn evolve, the academic paradigm has shifted from teacher-centred to learner-centred environments that include technology enhanced pedagogy and methodologies (Wickersham and Chambers, 2006). The advantage of using technology enhanced learning (TEL) is that it is interactive. The benefits include greater in-class engagement and collaborative learning. Jing et al (2013) suggests using e-technology encouraged students to feel more engaged if an activity-based approach was used. To make my lectures more interactive, I use quizzes and pose questions using digital student response systems, such as Poll Everywhere and TurningPoint. This approach has stimulated the students’ learning motivation, leading to positive feedback.


The theory of CoP and PI have helped me to make sense of my transition into teaching and what it is to be a teacher in an HEI. To date, I have given little attention to other scholarly activities, such as research. According to Andrew and Wilkie (2007), there is a tension between an HEI’s goal of research and the reality of the priorities of teaching for nurse academics. Gouray (2011) found in her study that for new lecturers most emphasis is given to the development of pedagogy rather than research. However, as I enter my second year, I can see my way forward within my new CoP to more participative working and realigning my PI with the new ethos, vision and values until I am fully immersed (Wenger, 1998). This will help me to meet both the teaching and scholarly activity of my role. Using Steinaker and Bell’s Experiential Taxonomy (1979) as a development tool, this demonstrates I have moved from exposure and participation through to identification and internalisation.

Like any transition, the move from practice into academia has not been without its difficulties and at times my progress felt like two steps forward and one step back, but reflecting on and utilising my transferable skills has facilitated my transition by reminding me that I did not start my teaching role as an ‘empty vessel’.

Top learning points

  • Reflect on transferable skills
  • Feelings of inadequacy and isolation are normal
  • Embrace technology to interact with students 
  • Be confident about acquired knowledge
  • Think about your role

Sheila Lally is a senior lecturer in Specialist Community Public Health Nursing at the University of the West of England, Bristol. 


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