Ingrid Mendes

ACSME Panel: Learning from each other: a tale of two education sectors

Ingrid Mendes Photo

I completed a Bachelor of Science at Macquarie University and began, although I didn’t finish, a PhD in Physics. While my children were small my only paid work was as an engineering draftsman, using a CAD package to produce engineering plans. As the children grew older I looked for something more interesting and decided to train as a secondary teacher of maths and science, with physics as a specialty. I taught at St Aloysius’ College for 9 years, (and during that time became increasingly involved in HSC marking as a senior marker.)

In 2016, while attending a science teachers’ conference I made contact with Liz Angstmann at UNSW, and it was through her that I heard about the one-year position of Visiting Teaching Fellow that was being offered in the School of Physics at UNSW the following year. I spent 2017 in the role of Visiting Teaching Fellow, with part of my job involving teaching of first year physics students and the rest being taken up with developing support programs for schools to help them prepare for the new HSC syllabus, including resources for teachers and students, and an online Graduate Certificate in Physics for Teachers.

In 2018 I returned to secondary teaching, accepting a role of physics teacher at Sydney Grammar School, where I have been ever since.

I must start here with the proviso that my secondary experience (12 years at 2 private schools) is considerably greater than my tertiary experience (1 year at 1 university.) All my comments are limited to these contexts.

Advantages of crossing over

I found my year at UNSW to be a great boost for my career at secondary level – I owe to it my current job at a selective school that values academic achievement highly.

It also gave me opportunity to learn and teach for a year outside HSC curriculum – this was a great relief as I was getting a bit bored doing the same material all the time. It definitely boosted my understanding of many physics topics and how they all fit together. To give an example, HSC physics includes some material at very superficial level on the Schrodinger model, but at university I actually got to perform calculations with his wave equation.

I like to think that I was able to make a contribution to teaching at the university. Running laboratories and tutorials as well as giving lectures, I tried to use all I knew about teaching practices to motivate students and help them engage with their learning. To give one very concrete example of what this jargon can mean, I used my special teacher knowledge and bribed students with lollies to point out any mistakes I made in working out problems on the board.


Schools have a very rigid focus on the syllabus dot points (many times I have found when setting content or exams, the cry goes up “It’s not in the dot points!”) but are more open to adjusting their methods of teaching to find the best ways to support student learning.

I have found tertiary academics in general place less priority on best teaching practice, but was glad to see at UNSW the introduction of education focused roles. This makes more similarities between teaching at tertiary and secondary levels and makes it easier to move from one to other (both ways – lecturers are better prepared for working in a school, teachers are more valued at university.) I have found there is more accountability for student performance at school (which can be good or bad news, depending on how your students have done.)

I found opportunities for creativity in both, and I think there is a lot to be learned by teaching in a variety of contexts. I am very happy in my current school and have no plans at present to return to the tertiary sphere, but I would definitely not rule it out as I very much enjoyed my year of lecturing.