After a long, varied and distinguished career in education, Professor Heather Fehring has decided to call it a day. Her larger than life personality, colourful use of metaphor and undoubted passion for everything she turns her mind to, will be missed by all who have worked closely with her over the years. But it is her valuable contribution to teaching and research at RMIT for which she will be most remembered.
Early in her primary teaching career, Heather became interested in working with children with learning difficulties. This prompted her to complete a BA in psychology at UNE after which she was appointed to an experimental ‘Behaviour Modification Unit’. Realising this was not what she had hoped it would be, Heather then completed a B.Ed at UNE and, on returning to Victoria became a Prep teacher. A short time after this, she was seconded to the Curriculum Branch of the then Victorian Education Department, where she became involved in a research project investigating how children learn to spell. This experience afforded her the opportunity to travel the State as the Department’s resident expert on the teaching and learning of spelling – an expertise that many HDR students have come to appreciate over the years. During this time, Heather also became an active member of the union (now the Australian Education Union) and, as a member of the Equal Opportunity Committee, fought for equal pay for women teachers and family leave for both males and females – things we take for granted now.
Heather’s heightened interest in the spelling process prompted her to undertake an M.Ed at the University of Melbourne, for which she not only earned first class honors but the John and Elizabeth Robertson’s prize for the best M.Ed thesis. However, it was her subsequent experience as a provider of professional learning that motivated her to undertake a PhD on teacher judgement and assessment practices – an interest that continues to this day with the publication of Assessment into Practice – Understanding assessment practice to improve students’ learning in 2017.
Prior to her ongoing appointment at RMIT in 1992, Heather taught into the literacy courses in the B.Ed program at Phillip Institute of Technology Coburg. From 1992 on she contributed to the design and delivery of the literacy courses in the B.Ed at RMIT. In more recent years, her teaching was focused on the research methods courses in the Masters and PhD programs, where she was instrumental in supporting HDR students refine their research questions and methodology. Heather has received a number of prestigious teaching awards including a Garrick Institute Citation for Australian University Teaching in 2006 in the category of Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning: For a decade of sustained and significant contribution to students’ and teachers’ professional knowledge in the field of research and literacy education. In 2008, Heather was the first woman awarded an RMIT VC Distinguished Teaching Award. She also received University Scholarship of Teaching Awards in 2002 and 2006.
Heather’s abiding interest in quality research practice coupled with her commitment to student learning saw her take on a number of senior research roles. At the University level these included Deputy Dean School of Graduate Research (2014), Director of Higher Degrees by Research in the College of Design and Social Context (2012-2014) and Chair of the DSC College Human Ethics and Advisory Network (2008-2012). At the school level, Heather served as the Chair of the School of Education Research and Higher Degrees Committee from 2000 to 2012 and was the Deputy Head Research and Innovation and member of the School Executive from 2008 to 2012.
Heather has had considerable success in attracting a number of funded research projects, including an evaluation of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) Flagship Professional Learning Program: Local Leadership and an ARC Linkage Grant (2006-2010) entitled A Ten-Year Comparative Analysis of Work, Benefit and Skill Trajectories of Parallel Cohorts of Trade and Bachelor Graduates’ Working Lives. She has also been an active and interested contributor to tender applications and is part of the University’s successful bid to be on the Victorian Department of Education’s Research and Analytical Services Panel in 2015.
Professor Fehring has been researching and publishing in the area of literacy assessment for three decades. In 2005 Heather was awarded the Australian Literacy Educators Association’s Medal for sustained contribution to the organisation and was further recognised in 2017 as a Principal Fellow of ALEA. As a result of the ARC project, Heather broadened her interests to adult learning and coaching leading to a co-edited book published by Routledge in 2016 on Teaching, coaching and mentoring adult learning: Lessons for professionalism and partnership.
Heather’s wealth of experience, in particular her expertise in research design, ethics, project management, literacy assessment practices, blended learning, and teacher development, will be sorely missed by the School and the University. But it will be her passion for what she does that will be missed the most.
With thanks to Di for these words. Details of a farewell for Heather to follow.