Teaching: on the front line

October 3, 2003

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

Name : Kate Exley

Age : 39

Job : Freelance consultant in higher education.

Qualifications : BSc, PhD in genetics (Liverpool University), fellow of the Staff and Educational Development Association.

Experience : I worked as a genetics lecturer at Nottingham University for three years before becoming a staff development officer. I directed the new staff teaching programme before taking a career break three years ago, which led to a career as a freelance consultant. I've just set up my own company. I have worked for lots of universities and colleges and some research councils, professional bodies and subject centres. My tally is more than 50 institutions.

Hours spent teaching : I tend to run half-day or full-day workshops and spend three or four days a week on the road visiting universities. The rest of the time I work from home.

Hours on red tape : I have to adapt what I do to the quality control mechanisms of the university I visit. Working with new lecturers and postgraduates who teach is a big part of my work. I need to familiarise myself with their local practices and constraints. This is more a case of doing my homework than one of red tape.

Hours on research : I have just finished co-writing two books on teaching that involved a day a week on research.

Teaching bugbear : The people I work with are very busy and sometimes do not prioritise their teaching development. New teachers can get caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to completing mandatory teacher-training courses and doing the research needed to advance their careers.

How would you solve it? Encourage universities to value the teaching role through teaching awards, fellowships and promotions.

These positive actions can help to balance the strong pressures placed on new staff to achieve excellence in research, generate income and gain national and international recognition.

Teaching tips : I always give lots of practical guidance and teaching tactics, alongside the research and educational theory. To keep it real, I try to remember when I began teaching, what it felt like to have classes to prepare and exams to mark for the first time. I think about what I would have liked someone to tell me.

Experienced staff often come along to a teaching workshop with a particular teaching, learning or assessment problem, such as growing class sizes, greater spread of student abilities, adoption of a new teaching approach. I try to help them think through their problems to solve them.

Best teaching moment? When I was running a course for lecturers, a young woman approached me and said: "Hi, remember me?" I couldn't place her. Seeing my puzzled expression she prompted: "You're the reason I'm here."

It turned out that she had come on a career review and teaching workshop that I had organised a few years earlier. The workshop had helped her to decide what to do and encouraged her to seek a job as a lecturer.

That gave me a real glow.

Worst teaching moment? Two spring to mind. Trying to run a teaching session from my mobile phone while stuck for hours on a train. The second happened when I was very new to teaching. I learnt the hard lesson that sayings and expressions do not always travel well. I told a group of North American students that I didn't want to teach grandmothers to suck eggs. They fell about laughing. I later discovered that in the US the saying had close connotations with testicles. I have avoided the expression ever since.

Outside interests : My family and other animals.

Career high points : Being invited by RoutledgeFalmer to write and edit a new series of books on effective teaching in higher education.

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