22 October 2011
Yesterday I sat in a large seminar room with 40 other teachers at the University of Sydney. It was the culmination of our year together on the Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies (Higher Education). Fourteen groups presented on inquiry projects we’ve each undertaken this semester.
When I first started the Grad Cert I assumed the people taking the course would – like me – be newbies looking for practical guidance from the experts. I did find some relatively new to lecturing, but many others had years of experience and wanted to think deeply about what they were doing in their teaching and how to make it better. The opportunity to spend time with all of these intelligent, engaged and curious colleagues who have dedicated themselves to teaching was the unexpected bonus of the Grad Cert. The seminar yesterday was like our very own TED talk – someone really clever thought really hard about something that was troubling them and offered me their insights. I heard much that resonated with challenges I’m experiencing right now and an idea or two that will needle for some time.
We looked to our lecturers as models of good reflexive teaching and as a group of academics we were hard to please, opinionated and highly critical. Our in-class discussions were robust, but like all good disagreements they pushed us to articulate a position. Discussions with peers continued out of the classroom doors and down the stairs and on a few occasions back to the office to colleagues who weren’t doing the Grad Cert.
Over the last year I’ve been challenged to think about my teaching, unpack assumptions about the relationship between teaching and learning and really think about what my job is as a teacher for adult learners. The combination of theoretical, reflective and applied work produced some immediate changes to my teaching and opened up some lines of thought that will take a while to work through. Immediate changes included cutting material and readings to leave more room for discussion, building content around examples – in most cases mine or someone else’s research, and being less afraid to ask students for feedback. Asking students if they get something risks hearing that they don’t, and having to try again, and maybe again. This can be quite a confronting experience. My most painful teaching memory this year is also my proudest – material I knew but wasn’t sure I could teach, that took several goes from different directions before I felt the students go it. When they started making jokes about their epistemological positions I knew we were there! Building up confidence around getting student feedback is undoubtedly a longer term project. I didn’t get a teaching philosophy from the Grad Cert, but it did help me articulate one. Despite reading scholarly texts, and hearing about theories of teaching and more than enough buzz words from University policy, my philosophy was simple and resonated with why I do the research I do. It was a revelation to discover that my teaching philosophy was as much about who I am and what I value as it was about learning and teaching theory.
I took on the Grad Cert this year because I felt I needed some guidance in my teaching. I had been given the task of coordinating and lecturing on four postgraduate units. I was dealing with University bureaucracy, a whole new curriculum and trying to be a ‘good’ teacher. I has been hard work. I worked on weekend days to finish assignments, cursed my colleague Rowena for convincing me it would be a good idea, and had many doubts about my teaching while I worked out what I was doing (a little bit of insight can be a dangerous thing). But in so many other ways the Grad Cert has given me a room of my own, a space to work out what I am doing, how I am doing it and crucially, understand why I am doing it. This has transformed me as a teacher, and perhaps also as a learner.