Couple has a special relationship to learning
Physiotherapist couple Brett and Tania Althorpe share a passion for learning that has seen each undertake Specialisation through the Australian College of Physiotherapists. How they juggled the challenges of study, running their private practice and family commitments is a story of inspiration.
In the year after they met and moved in together, Brett and Tania Althorpe took a year off work and studied their master’s together— Brett did his postgraduate degree in manipulative physiotherapy and Tania in sports physiotherapy.
It was a decision that would set the tone for how the couple would go on to build their lives together.
Before they officially met in 1997, Brett had noticed Tania at monthly professional development sessions each attended while working at separate physiotherapy practices in a multidisciplinary clinic in Perth, Western Australia.
Brett invited Tania to a Hoodoo Gurus concert and ‘pretended to be smart’ (‘I fell for it,’ Tania chimes in) before they moved in together later that year.
To the relationship, each brought with them a passion for learning and knowledge that has continued through their journey; through starting their first private practice together in 1999, through their marriage in 2000 and through raising their son and daughter.
Thrown into that mix was a passion that both Brett and Tania shared in wanting to further their physiotherapy learning through Specialisation at the College—Tania in sports and exercise and Brett more recently in musculoskeletal physiotherapy.
So how did they manage the huge commitment that Specialisation entails while running their private practice and raising their teenage children?
In a word, communication. And making decisions together as a family, says Brett.
‘I guess you’ve got to consider the available time you have, and the support you’ve got around you because it really is a family process,’ Brett says.
‘Everyone in the family has got to be in a position for you to do it. Because if they’re not willing to support and help you, it’s going to be tough.’
Initially the couple had decided to undertake Specialisation at the same time; however, it quickly became evident that was not achievable.
‘To start with, we decided we would do it together because we had done our postgrads that way. But obviously we had no kids or anything back then.
'So we started down that road and then I pulled out and decided that it was just way too hard to do it together,’ Brett says.
‘Tania was teaching at university so she went to do her Specialisation first, because that’s when I was starting up West Coast Physio. So I put effort into that while Tania put effort into Specialisation.
'I’m glad that’s the way that we did it because there’s no way that we could have done it together.
‘Time to study is also time out of working, so when you’re a business owner and you can’t work, you don’t earn any money. So there is that part.
'You’ve got to put a lot of effort into Specialisation. I have a lot of friends who say, “Oh, it’s not worth it”, but it’s a short-term commitment and it is worth it.’
The Althorpe family has been through seven consecutive years of intense study—first Tania completed her two-year Specialisation in 2016, followed by Brett with his Specialisation in 2019, then their son Luke completed Year 12 in 2020 (he is now in his first year of university), and finally their daughter Kate is studying her HSC (WACE) this year.
Brett says the focus on study has meant time apart as a family unit, which can present challenges that need careful navigation.
‘Specialisation is an extraordinary amount of time and effort, and it does come with its fair level of stress,’ Brett says.
‘The impact on the family will be different for everyone as it can depend on what age your children are, when you’ve got kids’ sport commitments on weekends, and dropping off at school, and having to do all of these things.
'For us, because our children were a little bit older, it was a little bit easier.’
As experienced by many who face a career disruption (see feature article on pages 30–35), juggling work, family and study can throw up unexpected challenges that require dedicated planning to overcome.
For Brett, this meant stepping in to effectively solo parent while Tania was studying, which she then did in turn when Brett was studying.
The couple has always worked, and in the early days they worked at different times of the day to meet the needs of their young children (‘When the kids were born, I worked 7am until 3pm, and Tania worked 3.30pm until 7pm,’ Brett says.).
‘The person doing the study needs to be very open with what they’ve got on, and the time that they’re going to have to commit to it,’ Brett says.
‘You need to set times aside and say, “Okay, I’m not going to be available on Sundays” and be okay with that. So you know that between certain times you have to focus on study, and the other person has to pick up the slack.’
While both Tania and Brett were motivated to undertake Specialisation to challenge themselves to become better clinicians and to improve their clinical practice for the betterment of their patients, the Specialisation process itself impacted on each in slightly different ways.
For Tania, she noted a significant reduction in social time, as well as the impact on her family, during her two-year program.
‘You lose your social time but it is also very challenging on family life because everybody else is waiting around for you to finish,’ Tania says.
‘That work–life balance goes right out the window, so you have to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve [from Specialisation] and not be half-hearted about it.
‘Obviously it shows that having been through Specialisation once as a family, thinking it was worthwhile enough to go through again, that it is the right thing from a career point of view.
'I feel that having achieved this that my goals have now been reached, that I’m a better clinician as a result of the experience.
'I feel more confident in what I do, and there have been opportunities that have come up, directly and indirectly, as a result of achieving Specialisation.’
Brett says he found that one of the biggest challenges of Specialisation was exposing himself to peer review. He says there is a certain vulnerability in the Specialisation process that opened him up to learning and evolving as a clinician.
‘It helps you to realise that you can continually evolve in your practice; you don’t ever have to get to that point where you get bored.
'If you get bored, then evolve further, do something different, reach out to someone else, and find what you want to do. The physiotherapy career is so diverse,’ Brett says.
‘I think you’ve also got to have the ability to engage with other Specialists. Going and watching others is a huge learning experience.
'So before you start down the road to Specialisation, reach out and communicate with people you have in your local area and beyond.
'Decide who you want to watch. Watch different people; don’t just surround yourself with the same people you already are.’
Tania says that because she and Brett undertook Specialisation in different areas of physiotherapy, the learnings have been cross pollinated for the betterment of each other and their practice.
‘Brett’s learning and upskilling has been helpful to my practice, although our caseloads are quite different to each other.
'Brett has areas that he really likes working in, with chronic pain, or headaches; I like working with high-performance sport and long-term sporting rehabilitation, and active people who want to stay active, which we both do. So it helped to have both of us go through Specialisation.
'It has enriched my working life because I got some diversity in areas that I hadn’t really studied as intensely in, that Brett needed to for his Specialisation.
‘We both agree that it’s the best thing we’ve done for our professional life. Not only with what we’ve made out of it since, but just how much we enjoy work now, even more than we did before, since we have done our Specialisation.
'I think it’s the strength of our clinical practice, that we’ve always got each other to ask things of.’
As we enter the second half of 2021, both Tania and Brett say they are looking forward to the time ahead when no one in the family is studying.
‘Well, you’ve always got to do more education, obviously. Tania is still teaching at the university and I would like to do some more teaching, but it’s just about finding a balance of that with what you’re doing at work already.’
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