From the very first day of my PhD study, I’ve been keen to seek out teaching experiences.
As a former secondary school teacher, this was one aspect of my ‘past’ that I didn’t want to give up. There’s a lot I love about teaching: the buzz, the variety, the opportunity to be creative and to engage with young people. My aim from the start has been to return to teaching at some point, but in a higher education institution.
I’ve been lucky enough to take some undergraduate seminars and lectures and it’s been a happy companion to my studies. This academic year I also had the opportunity to complete a postgraduate certificate in learning and teaching in higher education (PGCert).
I’d love to say I came to the PGCert with the same optimism I felt towards higher education teaching in general, but I didn’t. I already had a PGCE, to which I had devoted a year of my life, 8 years of teaching experience and an MEd. So I was more than a little miffed at being told this wouldn’t cut it in higher education – that if I wanted a permanent lectureship in the UK, at some point I’d have to do this course. It felt like going backwards. But, ever the precrastinator (it’s a real thing, look!), I decided that if it had to be done, I would just go ahead and get it out of the way.
I was expecting to have to grit my teeth whilst being told things I already knew, with perhaps some modifications for the higher education context. What I wasn’t expecting was to have my passion for creative teaching re-ignited. I wasn’t expecting to be encouraged to innovate, to be a facilitator of learning, to take students out of their comfort zones. I wasn’t expecting to be able to bring my research in to my teaching, and vice-versa; to have the freedom, space and support to develop my philosophy of teaching from the ground up. I wasn’t expecting to be encouraged to question everything I take for granted about what learning and teaching even are. I had thought of teaching in higher education as ‘lecturing’. That had certainly been my undergraduate experience. Lecturers stood at the front and imparted their wisdom; we dutifully scribbled our notes (and likely never looked at them again). But our tutors for the PGCert have shown me that learning and teaching in higher education can be so much more than that.
Last week, as I attended the penultimate teaching day for the PGCert, I suddenly felt very sad that it was coming to an end. I realised that I felt excited about teaching in a way I hadn’t done since my PGCE training 10 years ago. I knew I wasn’t happy as a secondary school teacher but I hadn’t realised how much my growth as a teacher had been stunted by red-tape, targets, disaffected students and constant criticism in a mainstream secondary institution.
The down-side of this unexpectedly inspiring experience is that I wonder whether I made the wrong decision to do the PGCert early. I’m impatient now to get on and teach more, to try out some innovations, to develop my teaching philosophy further, but I need to focus on my PhD. Maybe it would have been better to do the course if and when I gain a teaching position at a university. What if I forget everything I have learned? What if I lose this feeling of excitement and enthusiasm? I can only hope that I will be able to build on the foundations laid this year as my career develops.
What I can say for sure is that I absolutely don’t regret giving so much time and attention to teaching and learning and developing my skills as a higher education practitioner during these past two years. As a result, I have become more well-rounded and confident as an academic. My wings have been unclipped; now, it’s time to fly.