Lost your job? How to turn Covid pressure into an opportunity

In these difficult times, boosting your teaching credentials could result in an even better job when you bounce back

January 15, 2021
Teacher blackboard
Source: iStock

Losing your academic job or looking for your first appointment is hard enough at the best of times. During an epidemic, you would be forgiven for thinking your odds of securing a role are dramatically worse. But despite the real stresses we are all under, Covid-19 could offer a unique opportunity to heighten your employability in a sector going through massive changes.

It will take a little more study, and maybe even a change in your research focus, but on the flip side, with luck your current or future employer may even pay you to do it.

An online teaching qualification – combined with some online teaching research – can help shortlist your application post-Covid. As student numbers rise and fall, teachers with recent online teaching qualifications will have the edge.

Making the implicit explicit: improve online learning through ‘presence’

But where’s the evidence that a graduate certificate or diploma in education will really help? After all, in most English-speaking countries − as well as many European Union states delivering teaching in English − a higher education teaching qualification isn’t mandatory.

Perversely, in a great number of countries around the world, you would need some kind of teacher training and government registration to teach anywhere from kindergarten to Year 12 but, to date, universities have only required a higher degree one above the level you’re teaching: a master’s to teach undergraduates; a PhD to teach master’s; or, in some cases, equivalent professional experience, although this is declining.

The main trap for post-secondary teachers in most Western countries has not been the immediate stresses imposed by Covid-19, but rather the longer trend towards casual employment that now sees the bulk of undergraduate teaching done by recent PhD graduates employed semester by semester as student enrolments determine.

To make yourself as employable as possible for sought-after ongoing positions, your teaching needs to be as efficient and well regarded as your research. For better or worse, in the future there is every likelihood we will see the same kinds of rankings applied to individual teachers as we do to institutions. The sooner you start measuring your own teaching performance, the better the arguments you will be able to make to earn longer-term job security.

Learning to teach can be uncomfortable if your guiding experiences in the art came as a six-year-old in primary school − yet many established university teachers still instinctively rely on teaching strategies they learned in primary school. Strategies such as thinking students are blank slates – tabula rasa – to be filled up with your wisdom through endless one-way talk. Strategies such as insisting students don’t use their own learning tools and technology, especially while you’re talking. And talking. And strategies based on an assumption that students have to attend your class at your provider, rather than realising students cherry-pick subjects delivered by the world’s best teachers from institutions everywhere and anywhere.

Imagine studying if Bill Gates personally taught your first lesson in Introductory IT – and that he called you by name. If Hollywood is a guide, it’s a powerful proposition that will make teachers rather than their employers the star of the show. But don’t think it’s all about looks or charisma − survey after survey shows that students rate the teachers they respect.

Some established tertiary teachers feel compromised by having to teach. They argue that increasing class sizes and huge assessment workloads take time away from the very research that will keep their job and aid their future promotion.

That’s exactly what modern teacher training will help you fix. With credible training, your new boss will know you have the skills to manage learning professionally and keep students engaged and retained. It means you’ll have the reliable skills of a good secondary teacher. Many experienced tertiary hirers already use secondary teaching qualification as a de facto benchmark, because on average in most OECD surveys, secondary school teachers competently teach about twice the number of hours as most tertiary teachers.

The skills you need now? Reduce your talking time. Increase student participation. Continuously check learning to make sure every student gets what they pay for, every single lesson. And, vitally, meet every promise the curriculum makes to provide swift feedback to each learner.

In most teacher training programmes for higher education you’ll need to have mentors and peers observe your teaching. This can be challenging and even frightening for some, but if you can stay open to constructive feedback from your colleagues, your teaching skills will improve quickly. And certainly, with the easy ability to record lessons on most online platforms, you may find that if you already do some contract teaching, you’re doing half the work required to get a teaching qualification anyway.

Aligning your research to scholarly teaching can be useful too, to help you in job interviews when you’re up against heavy-hitting researchers who may have little time or interest in teaching. The aim here is to show that your research methods are sound, and to publish the results. Consistency rather than Nobel prize-winning is the key to this stage of your career.

Online platforms, with their informal chat functions, as well as more formal student evaluations of your teaching, provide ready-made data sets. Thoughtful analysis will help you progress your education research in comprehensive university employment, where you are expected to both teach and research in addition to providing administrative services and community engagement.

It often surprises new teachers that many experienced researchers and, sometimes, harassed senior academic executives often treasure their time teaching if they can arrange it. After all, it’s a fine way of getting back to the fundamentals of enjoying learning.

Dr Ian Lang is curriculum director of Reality Learning Hong Kong and Australia and former head of film at the University of Melbourne and Griffith University, Queensland.

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