Friday, 17 May 2013

Looking back, and looking forwards

This week I really enjoyed my job. I got to spend the best part of two days in conversation with a group of like minded individuals all keen to share their opinions on a topic that mattered to us all: becoming a better teacher.

I was working with friends and colleagues, Nathan Pike (the Higher Education Academy Biology lead), Lesley Morrell (@bioscience mum, a fellow Hull Biologist) and Neil Morris (@LT_tech_HE) to host an event on behalf of the HEA for 18 academics new to teaching. The event participants came from across the UK HE sector, and had had their own educations in a wide range of international settings (curiously the imminent Eurovision Song Contest was a key topic over dinner!). But they had at least one thing in common - they all to some extent described starting out in teaching as being difficult because it was sometimes terrifying, always involved too much to do in too little time, and was at times a pretty isolating experience. My favourite explanation of the feeling that being new can engender was that in the first year you work hard to get through it but don't realise you might not be getting it right. Then in the second year you know what you are doing isn't right but don't know what to do about it, and then in the third year it all falls into place! Beautifully encapsulated by one of the participants as being unknowingly incompetent; knowingly incompetent; and, knowingly competent (thanks for that Rachel).

And over the course of the conversations that we shared I began to realise that when I started out myself I would have probably thought and experienced the same things - but I needed this event to be reminded of that fact. 

This realisation that we need perhaps to reflect on where both we and our students are on our personal learning journey when we think about our teaching is one of the themes that I regularly include in workshops with new teachers. It is an important part of my own philosophy of teaching. Essentially I think that we have to realise that our 'expert status' today is different to that of the students that we work with. 

At one level that's easy because we can see the difference between ourselves as teachers and them as students very clearly. But that isn't the comparison that we need to make. Too often I think we are tempted to compare our students to what we imagine we were as students ourselves - and of course all too often we then bemoan the fact that things ain't what they used to be. I think though that it is essential that we remember that we were not average students (if we were we wouldn't be HE teachers now).

 Of course I realise that there is no such thing as the average student, all students are individuals, but the point I'm trying to make is that perhaps by comparing them to an idealised image of ourselves we may sometimes have an unrealistic expectation of our students.

 Can we really remember what we were like as students? Are we comparing like with like when we compare the 18 year old product of the current school system with ourselves (in my case the product of a system 25+ years ago). Things certainly aren't want they used to be, for many students I suspect they are a lot tougher than we realise. 

What is important surely isn't how students (and new teachers) compare to some rose tinted ideal of yesteryear, rather that we do our very best to use our experience and enthusiasm to learn in partnership with them to support their learning - wherever that might take them.

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