At this busy time of year, be kind to yourself, learn more about your university and engage with continuing professional development – your students will benefit.
In September, many academic colleagues are fine-tuning their modules. They're developing their teaching materials and tools, and putting the finishing touches to the learning resources they’ll be using to support their students. It’s a busy time of year during which the focus on preparing to teach and the start of the new academic year can fully absorb both our attention and our energies. This is entirely understandable.
However, it’s also a good time of year to take stock, to reflect on how you feel about yourself as a professional educator, and to think about how you are going to develop yourself. In other words, it’s a good time to take a little ‘you’ time – to think about yourself and your own needs as a teacher. Aiming to be a student-centred practitioner, or one who embraces cutting-edge approaches to teaching and supporting learning is a laudable aim, but it isn’t a goal that one normally achieves by single-mindedly focusing on our students. This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s true. In order to maintain a dynamic, creative and enthusiastic approach to student-centred teaching, we need to also set aside some time to reflect on our performance, to think about our own professional development needs, and – perhaps – to refresh our engagement with the research discourse on student-centred pedagogies. Taking time to think about you and your needs is NOT selfish. Rather, it is in the best interests of your students, since if you are clear about your own needs, and address them, your students will be the beneficiaries.
Hopefully, by now you’ll have taken some kind of break or vacation during the summer period. Some academics struggle to do so, but it’s crucial to use these periods away from the hurly burly of university or college life to reflect and to take stock. We all need to re-charge our batteries. Those who fail to do so may pay the price later in the academic year in the form of exhaustion and declining motivation. Burn-out probably beckons for those who repeatedly fail to get away for a week or two during less busy periods in the academic year (and the latter now varies dramatically for academic colleagues working on different programmes or in different roles). All work and no play… Taking time out to reflect is as important for you as it is for your students to occasionally reflect on their own learning.
Most universities and colleges have formal appraisal systems in place these days. These vary both in terms of process and timing, but create an opportunity for reflection – for thinking about what has gone well, what hasn’t, and about goals for the future and professional development priorities. It’s probably not too controversial to say that academics embrace appraisal systems with widely varying levels of enthusiasm; some take full advantage of the opportunity afforded to become a better professional, some do not. So, the first thing I’d advise is to use the appraisal system in your own institution as a mechanism for driving your own professional skills and development – again your students will benefit. Most higher education institutions also provide a range of continuing professional opportunities – either via some kind of staff development unit, or via bought-in CPD provision, or both. Check out the staff development unit’s webpages and/or their brochure now, and plan out the events, workshops, activities and other CPD opportunities you can take advantage of. Normally these are free to the staff member concerned, so don’t look a gift horse in the mouth – again your students will benefit from the skills, new teaching tools, ideas or innovations that stem from your engagement with CPD. Remember, it’s not just you who benefits since CPD often translates into innovation in the classroom and an improved student experience.
If you’ve taken on a new role in your Department or Faculty – such as a leadership role or coordinating role – check out what training is available to support you in that role. In my own university, there is a comprehensive set of CPD opportunities focused, for example, on the needs of course leaders. Similar CPD events and workshops may be provided for those who have your role or job. Or opportunities may exist outside your institution – provided by external bodies such as the Higher Education Academy (HEA), by SEDA or others. Have a chat with your line manager about them. In my own experience, colleagues will often fund attendance at such events if the value of doing so is transparent, especially if students are likely to benefit immediately or further down the line.
Remember too that you work within a large organisation in which there are dozens, hundreds or even thousands of staff employed in specialised learning support roles in a variety of central professional services. These staff are experts just like you, except their expertise is in a different aspect of the learning process. Take time before the start of the new academic year – or in the first couple of weeks of the latter – to learn more about the kinds of support provided by these professional services. If you’ve been a member of staff for some years already, don’t allow your length of service to result in complacency. The range of services, support and resources on offer will probably change in minor or major ways each year, so you will need to re-familiarise yourself in order to be able to guide and advise your own students and refer them, when necessary, to the right service.
I used to take time each year in September to explore the library both physically and online so I was sure I was up to speed on key changes – this always, without exception, paid dividends for me and my students. You may find that a host of new online learning resources have been made available; these might help you to develop your own teaching, as well as providing a new resource for your students to utilise. As professionals, we need to ensure that we update ourselves on the often-subtle ways in which the professional work environment changes – regardless of whether the changes are physical (eg new buildings coming online), procedural (eg new processes), pedagogical (eg a new lecture capture system), or regulatory (eg changes to key policies, codes of practice or regulations). IT Services and other services like Student Services or Estates normally publish detailed information on their own web pages or in e-newsletters, blogs etc, so take advantage of the (relative) calm before the storm during the early autumn to get to grips with what’s changed. Not only will you feel better informed, but you’ll be in a much better position to ensure that your students are well-informed too – that’s a crucial element in the student-centred approach.
This blog was original published on SEDA. Read the original.