Teaching: on the front line

August 8, 2003

What is your experience of teaching? Pat Leon asks teachers how they manage

Name: Darren Reynolds

Age: 34

Job: Senior lecturer in environmental science/health at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

Salary: £30,376

Qualifications: BSc in environmental science, (Plymouth); PhD from Cranfield University in the area of environmental pollution.

Experience: After my PhD I stayed on as a research fellow for a year. In 1995, I went to Japan for two years on a European Union postdoctoral fellowship to work at the National Institute for Resources and Environment.

I decided that I wanted to be an academic and worked as a postdoc at the University of Hertfordshire until 2000 before taking up my UWE post. It was a "baptism of fire" as I arrived part way through the academic year. My life until then had been very much research led and I wasn't prepared for the shock of teaching. Luckily, the university had a professional development course designed for "new lecturers" where I picked up a lot of useful stuff, (mostly from chatting to other academics). More important, I had a very good mentor who showed me the ropes and helped me get through that tough first year.

Hours spent teaching: About ten to 14 hours direct contact a week. Then there is the developmental side that is supposedly done "in your own time".

I get a buzz out of teaching but excessive teaching stifles creativity and enthusiasm.

Hours on red tape: Too many. When I was a researcher I never really appreciated just how much. I am spending more time on administrative duties than ever, roughly 12 hours a week.

Hours on research: I have been trying hard to carve out a niche but the biggest obstacle is time. I have one PhD student and a couple of research projects and spend about ten hours a week on research matters. But this is mostly management rather than lab research. After a while your research students tend to ban you from all working areas of the lab in case you muck things up.

Teaching bugbears: Lots, most of which are outside of my control. These include under-resourcing, red tape and high contact hours. I am strongly against the erosion of the student-lecturer relationship through government policies such as the lack of financial support for students, the chronic underfunding of the sector, the low morale of many staff and the huge expansion of students without due consideration to the impact.

How would you solve it? I would make education free at whatever the level.

You have to create a conducive environment to enable effective learning, teaching and research. This is not helped by chronic underfunding. More emphasis seems to be placed on student numbers and dropout rates than on the student experience and personal development. Seeing a student reach and maximise their potential is simply unbeatable and a great feeling. We are in danger of squandering our talent in the UK in terms of students and staff.

Teaching tips: Enthuse and inspire. I love teaching and I love my job. It may sound a bit sad but it's true. I often joke with friends that I am unemployable in any other profession. Three years down the line I am getting emails and visits from ex-students I helped develop. It's great.

The amazing thing is the relationship was two-way and they probably don't realise quite how they have helped me to develop.

Outside interests: I play sports, especially football and hockey. Being a Yorkshireman I am really into cricket and a keen England follower. I am also interested in politics and cannot help but get involved in issues of the day, to my wife's annoyance. I try to read popular science but it takes ages to finish a book. I tinker with the guitar and write songs.

Career highpoints: Getting a permanent position at a university where I am really happy. UWE is a supportive institution, the people are terrific and you can really make a difference. Obtaining my research fellowship in Japan comes a close second. It was a wonderful cultural experience.

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