Jump in with both feet...

September 22, 2006

...and prepare to face all those eager students. It's your first teaching assignment and you pale at the thought of standing in front of them - so how do you cope? Mandy Garner consults some first-timers on the joys and pitfalls they encountered, while Ivor Gaber turns his back on the old school to join a very 'new' institution

Starting teaching this year? Heart pounding at the thought of all those students looking up at you in expectation as you impart your wisdom? You've got some advice from the seasoned professionals, but they started aeons ago - before PowerPoint, podcast lectures and mass higher education. What's it like starting now? We asked last year's first-timers to share their experiences and offer a few tips.

Christopher Morriss, a 26-year-old lecturer in the School of Health and Bioscience at the University of East London, says he feels less confident about teaching now than when he started last September.

"You have this false sense of security," he says. "I came from a career as a podiatrist in the National Health Service. Initially, I felt very confident, but as the job has become more involved and I am doing research and teaching it has become more daunting."

Morriss, who is doing a PhD on foot fetishism, didn't have any teacher training before he started, although he had done some educational psychology work in primary schools. He is doing a PGCert and thinks that it is only now that he can benefit from teacher training. "If I had done it early on, I wouldn't have had the experience to reflect on or be able to know if learning outcomes I had set were achievable," he says.

He advises jumping straight in, although he has had a lot of support from his university's mentoring system.

His main problem when he started, though, was not the teaching but keeping on top of all the paperwork, particularly all the policies and protocols relating to the NHS. "It was stressful, but not nearly as stressful as working in the NHS," he says.

Many of those questioned by The Times Higher initially found lectures the hardest part of the job. "Standing up in front of 50-plus students and teaching and keeping their attention - let alone filling them with enthusiasm- was difficult," says Sally Abey, who teaches podopaediatrics at Plymouth University. She is also doing a PGCert and says it has been helpful and "enlightening" but very hard work.

Several of those questioned had already done some teaching at PhD level and were aware of what they were in for. That doesn't make it any easier, though.

Manuel Flores-Romero, a lecturer at the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development at Lancaster University, had not only lectured as a PhD student at Warwick University but had also taken tutorials. But he had lectured to groups of only 60 students, and at Lancaster he had to face two groups of 260 students. Moreover, the material he presented at Warwick was given to him, but at Lancaster he had to update a whole module. It took him two months of working 40 hours a week to prepare the module before he started teaching in January.

He says his colleagues were very supportive, but it was down to him to get the work done. He feels that the past year has been about experimentation, and he has learnt a lot - including what not to do. For instance, he would now try not to put too much information on slides and would focus instead on three or four ideas. The 31-year-old economist also believes firmly in interacting with the students, no matter how many there are.

"One of the advantages of starting teaching in the second term is that you know some of the students and can pick them out and try to use them to encourage others to speak or get the students to do small tasks with each other to break up the sessions." Some of his lectures were two hours long.

"It's hard to get them to concentrate for so long," he says. At first, he says he didn't have the confidence to think of ways to make the sessions more entertaining or to include a break in the middle, but now he has become much more creative, presenting economics ideas in ways that relate to student life. "It helps that I was a student myself just a year ago," he adds, although he says youth can mean that you need to work harder on ensuring students don't think you are just one of them. "You can be too approachable," he says.

For most of last year's first-timers the highlight of the year was receiving positive feedback from the students. But, warns Neil Clarke, who had a one-year contract in Lancaster's department of organisation, work and technology, don't let positive feedback go to your head, "because, no doubt, something more critical will follow".

On the other hand, giving feedback to students and marking were viewed as quite stressful. "I would have to say that marking is by far the most time-consuming and difficult job I've tackled so far," Abey says. "It sounded so easy: a question is asked and they reply with an answer. I realise how naive a thought this was. It would seem there are many ways to skin a cat, and students like to explore them all."

The research assessment exercise was among the gripes, with some finding it a hurdle to progression since they couldn't contribute much at such an early phase of their academic career. But Ralph Fyfe, a geography lecturer at Plymouth, says the planned phasing out of the RAE has resulted in him feeling a reduction in pressure to publish. Clarke says he would have wished for more pressure to publish, and that the lack of pressure only confirmed his feeling that he was a second-class citizen because he was on a temporary contract.

Alastair Kocho-Williams, a lecturer in Soviet history at Leeds University, added that being on a short-term contract also made him feel somewhat adrift. "I feel my place in staff meetings is a little pointless, as I have no real grounds for suggesting change," he says, adding that his job insecurity made him feel less loyal to the university. But for Chloe Peacock, a lecturer in communications studies at Brighton University, being on a temporary contract allowed her both flexibility and freedom from paperwork.

For most first-timers, however, taking up their post is one of the best things they have done. Morriss insists that his students are much less difficult to deal with than NHS patients. "My patients were so demanding. I felt they had ground me down so much that I could not do anything well. But in a year at UEL I have developed more as a person than I did in five years in the NHS."

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