Developing one’s teaching ability is rapidly becoming an essential part of being a PhD student. Many universities now offer at least some form of training to postgraduate students who teach, and this is often linked to Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. This is, by and large, a Good Thing: sending new teachers into the classroom without at least basic training is good for neither them nor their students, and development as a teacher is a considerable career boost for those PhD students who want to remain in academic posts. However, PhD students who teach often find that they don’t have the freedom to choose all the elements of teaching that one might wish to develop. Course content, module design, session formats, assessment design and even lesson plans are often pre-set.
This often leads postgraduate teachers to ask, quite rightly: if I can’t change these things, doesn’t this give me a very limited scope in which to improve my practice? If I’m teaching on a course that’s been badly designed by someone else, and it’s that design that leads to poor results, what exactly can I do here? That’s the question I want to answer in this post. Despite the many difficulties faced by PhD students (and others on casual contracts) there are some strategies that you can use to make sure that you get the most out of your teaching.
1. Keep a reflective journal.
This is one of the hardest but most important strategies, as it’s the main way in which you can gather and store information about your teaching practice. After each session, give yourself five minutes to sit down (ideally somewhere quiet), breathe, and think: what went well in that session? What didn’t – and what can I do to improve it for next time? If you have a lot of teaching in one day, you can always do a 60-second lightning reflection, to jog your memory, and go back to the journal later once you have the chance. Keeping a journal allows you to build up a set of information about how you’re improving, where your strengths as a teacher lie and the areas that you still need to develop. This will help you pick the right development opportunities for you, as well as providing a handy set of examples for times at which you need to demonstrate your prowess. It can also be a vital confidence-booster to look back at challenges that you have successfully faced in your teaching.
2. Get ideas above your station.
Don’t have control over the outcomes for your session, or your format? Think about what you would do if you did. It can be frustrating to be stuck teaching in a poorly-designed course, having to deal with difficulties caused by something you didn’t design and have no control over. Use this frustration as an opportunity to think about course design (or whatever aspect of teaching you wish you could change, but can’t). What are the flaws that are causing such difficulty? How might you try to mitigate this difficulty if you could? Note that this doesn’t mean that you should actually implement changes you don’t have authority to: ‘going rogue’ and deviating completely from the course will cause the students a lot of confusion, especially around the time of assessment. In fact, sitting down and thinking about these bigger issues might give you sympathy with someone who you think has designed a ‘bad’ course, as you’ll get a better idea of some of the practical challenges.
Try out new things as far as you can. In class, try out new techniques for group activities, classroom management and encouraging shy students. If you have the scope, experiment with new forms of technology in the classroom. Have a look at the Higher Education Academy’s website for the latest research on learning and teaching in higher education, and search for ideas based around what you can do. You can always seek informal feedback from students (use post-it notes left on your desk for anonymity, if you’d like) without interfering with your department’s official evaluation policy. Record the results of your experiments, and any feedback you get, in your reflective journal (see 1.) so that you have a written record.
4. Take advantage of training wherever possible.
If your institution offers a training qualification, and you have time, go for it! Most institutions offer something less time-consuming than a formal qualification, so get in touch with the Academic or Educational Development team at your institution and see what they have to offer that fits your timescale. Even one-off workshops can be a helpful springboard and a fresh perspective, especially as they usually put you in touch with teachers from a wide range of disciplines. It’s understandable to see training like this as something that can be pushed under the rug in favour of more ‘useful’ commitments such as publications, and it may just be that you don’t have time. That said, training pays off in the long run and helps you use your teaching experience to shape and record your development, so it’s well worth it if you can. Do also talk to other teachers in your department, and ask more experienced teachers for advice: they’re usually happy to give it. Everyone remembers being new and unsure.
5. Know your rights (and your limits).
Because of the constraints on teaching freedom implied at the start of this post, many PhD students or part-time teachers jump at the chance to take on further responsibility, setting assessments, giving large-scale lectures or even convening a module. All these things are fantastic opportunities, but they are also a lot more work. Take the time to think before you accept a sudden increase in responsibility, and don’t be afraid to ask for a higher rate of pay if you’re being asked to go significantly over your remit. Likewise with things that are harder to limit, such as supporting students by email or otherwise. Many (if not most) casual teachers feel pressured into answering emails at any time of the day or night, and universities benefit hugely from this unpaid labour. Don’t be afraid to assert your boundaries: students do have a right to have emails answered within a certain time, but that’s why departments employ full time staff. If you’re teaching on a module for one day a week, and paid for just those couple of hours, it’s absolutely within your right to ask your students to email the module convenor or another appropriate member of staff instead. Don’t let unpaid labour steal the time you could be using for training and reflection (and, er, sleeping and eating).
I hope this is useful to at least some people: please do feel free to add to this and post in the comments. Some of the best examples of teaching I’ve seen have come from PhD students, so it’s important that time and recognition is given to the work that part-time and postgraduate teachers do.
Emma Kennedy, January 2016