‘Teaching Skills for Doctoral Students’

After thirty-plus years teaching and supporting teachers, it would be easy to feel you’ve pretty much got it nailed. But, if you’ll forgive me dipping into the often saccharine realm of online quotes for a moment, the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. So I’m happy to share I had been looking forward to the start of the ‘Teaching Skills for Doctoral Students’ (TSDS) course. This is an obligatory course for doctoral students who are required to undertake a teaching load as part of their commitment. I remember at my PhD interview, being told that I would ‘have to’ do this course, despite my teaching experience … as though I might be likely to offer up an objection. Although I’m sure some might, for me, this was a marvellous opportunity to learn about teaching in a phase of education with which I have no experience. What’s not to like?!

flickr photo by Jirka Matousek https://flickr.com/photos/jirka_matousek/8481205571 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The TSDS course, comprising only four afternoon sessions, serves only as an introduction. It isn’t assessed and carries no study credits, so I assume it’s there to make sure post-grads don’t do too much damage to the learning of those for whom they will have responsibility. But that makes it sound like a hurdle to be overcome, rather than an opportunity to be embraced. Our tutor Sylvia clearly held the latter view as she enthusiastically welcomed us to the opening session yesterday. We were quite a disparate group; although all of us are conducting doctoral research, we are at different stages and from an eclectic range of academic disciplines. Sylvia’s opening activity, ‘Name Game,’ intended to help us get to know one another consequently made perfect sense. It of course modelled a technique we could use when we encounter our students for the first time and reminded us of the importance of knowing someone’s name as the first stage in forming a relationship. It also highlighted ‘verbal chaining’ as a memory technique. As a secondary teacher, I never remembered my students names this way; there I had the luxury of meeting them two or more times a week over the duration of (at least) a year. In higher ed., it’s quite possible of course that you might meet your class just once a week for a single semester … or as in the case of TSDS, even less.

During the course of the session, we were put into different groups several times and also set the room up differently. In addition to helping us become aware of the different ways we could use the space and structure the learning, we were asked at various points to reflect on how that felt as learners, and share our thoughts with each other. We were being encouraged in a sense to be both reflective and self-critical, and consider the consequences for our future learners of the choices we make as teachers. Experienced teachers do this quite naturally, though perhaps rarely articulate it to others in the way we did during the session. We also were asked to provide (on three sticky notes) the concerns/fears we had of embarking on our teaching. Some of these were shared, whilst others will be revealed later in the course. My concerns included a worry that my subject knowledge might not be adequate, that I might be bringing inappropriate secondary school teaching strategies into a tertiary arena, and that my digital expectations of the students will be misaligned with their needs and expectations. (I could unpick each of those with a blog post(!), but for the moment will leave them to simmer and see how things develop).

We also covered the more mundane, but nonetheless still important areas, like punctuality, attendance and access to teaching rooms. Ooo, I’ve just thought of another concern! Going into a room after someone else if: a) they’re late finishing or b) leave the room in a poor state. I know I’m not very understanding of other people’s shortcomings in this regard, feeling that that kind of behaviour is disrespectful of colleagues and sets poor expectations of our students. I suspect I’m going to have to develop a more tactful approach, or risk initiating a diplomatic incident. I will certainly have to keep reminding myself of my junior status and that my future prospects may depend on me not upsetting anyone. Another admin-related area I hadn’t yet thought about is that of health and safety, which for a former science teacher is perhaps surprising. When working with students in a lab, safety issues are always at the forefront of your mind, but I had spared little thought to the particular circumstances in a seminar room or lecture theatre. It was helpful therefore to be reminded that our students may be joining us in a room or even building they’ve never been in before, and should therefore, at the very least, be informed about evacuation procedures.

As Sylvia drew the session to a close by recapping what we’d covered and looking forward to the remaining sessions, she asked us each to share something positive we’d be taking away from the session. For me that was easy; I never fail to feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to watch someone else teach. I always learn something, whether the teacher is as experienced, skilled and capable as Sylvia, or whether they’ve just embarked on their career. I think we’re getting better as a profession at providing opportunities to observe one another, even if as a formal undertaking, observation can be a complex issue requiring careful consideration. What I found fascinating though was how Sylvia either told us the reason she had done something in a particular way, or asked us to discuss why she had chosen a particular strategy and the consequent effects on us as learners. It’s a rare privilege to have access to that degree of insight, and not something I ever recall experiencing as a trainee teacher, other than on a few rare occasions after observing an experienced teacher when they found the time to share the rationale behind what I’d just seen. Perhaps there’s value in that sharing for both sides? Certainly for the less-experienced practitioner, but also for the more experienced one in articulating the choices they had made and making them open to scrutiny by someone whose relative naivety might provide a powerful lens?

Can’t wait until next week 🙂

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