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WATE PGR 2018 winner: Carolin Debray (Applied Linguistics)

Why did you start teaching? What (or who) inspired you?

I was definitely inspired to become a teacher through some of my own teachers, who have had such a positive impact on my life. I wanted to pass this on to the next generation and do my best to give students the amazing learning experience I have had at university. For me this is also a significant social impact.

What pearls of wisdom have you been given over the years that have helped you with your teaching?

I teach a lot in very intercultural classrooms where language proficiencies can differ and much of the really useful advice I have received on how to teach effectively in such an environment actually comes from language teachers who have decades of experiences with this.

These include the advice to leave extra time for students to come up with questions or answers before picking somebody for a response than I would in less diverse classrooms, and to include more pair and group work in order to minimise face-threats related to speaking up in front of everybody.

One very basic but useful advice I have been given was also that whenever I say something I really want students to remember, then I say it - then pause for a split second - and then say it again slightly louder. The pause ensures students realise that this is important, and the repetition gives them a chance to write it down more accurately, while students who have not been listening get alerted by the silence and then have a chance to catch it.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you started out?

Definitely! It took me a while to develop some good strategies for dealing for example with relatively quiet groups (I now, for example, often use a quick anonymous online test to elicit what content students would like to revise, or to check understanding of concepts).

Another example is how to get students to actually prepare for classes. I now outline in the beginning of the course how/why I have chosen the readings, why it’s important they read it, and how I have taken their worries about time into account. As part of this, I establish a sort of contract of classroom behaviour and preparedness and outline what they can expect of me and what I expect of them in return. Afterwards it’s about actively drawing on the readings in every session.

If you were mentoring a first-time teacher, what three bits of advice would you give?

I would tell them not to expect that it will go perfectly every time. I have given the exact same seminar on the same day to different student groups and with some it worked extremely well and with others it did not. Student groups vary, and it takes a bit of time to figure out which teaching methods work with which groups. But for this reason, it is important to be flexible! Vary your methods and approaches and be willing to revise your planned sessions half way through the module, or sometimes even switch to plan B half way through the session.

What advice/top tips would you give to more experienced teachers?

The advice I would like to give to my future self would be to continue to try new things in the classroom and to continuously engage with new insights into teaching. Even after many years of successful teaching there is always more to learn and trying new things is half the fun!

What new technologies are you currently using to enhance your teaching? What are your top tips for using them?

I’m using online quizzes for different purpose in the classroom, mostly with more quiet groups who seem hesitant to ask for elaborations or revisions. This allows me to check understanding, but also get them to tell me what they are interested in or struggle to understand.

I have also used Moodle a lot and encourage students to use the forum to discuss class content amongst themselves to generate more creative engagement. For this to be effective, students need some initial guidance and incentives for engagement.

While I never thought this would be the case, as I always saw it as outdated, I really came to appreciate the projector a lot to draw up mind maps and make connections between concepts together with the students during a seminar, often by adding to previously prepared diagrams and charts.

What new or future teaching innovations are you looking forward to?

One of the innovations that is about to become established more and more is about how we use and assess teamwork projects in Higher Education. While currently mostly the outcome is assessed, I think we will put more and more emphasis on also making the process a part of the assessment, and some really exciting innovations are made around how this could be done best, for instance regarding how we can use peer feedback effectively in this. I really look forward to this development, it will change the way we do and assess teamwork in HE for the better.

What does winning a WATE award mean to you?

Throughout the last years I have put considerable time and effort into my teaching, because giving students the best education possible is important to me. However, it often seems to be less valued than research and extra time spent on preparing teaching often does not seem to be met with the same appreciation. The WATE awards show that this work is actually highly valued and important – receiving an award definitely encourages me to continue to always give my absolute best.

What do you enjoy the most about teaching? What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is to meet inspiring new students and help them discover their passion! It gives me the chance to learn new things every day through my students!

What are the biggest challenges faced by teaching staff? How do you overcome these?

I think one of the major challenges is managing student expectations in the times of higher fees and a more competitive university environment.

The most important way in which I try to address this is by spending time in the beginning of a course determining students expectations for that module. This requires a careful and continuous needs analysis. At least initially I ask students lots of open questions or get them to write things down on post-it notes. With this I try to find out why they have chosen the course, which content they expect or would like to see on the course and which skills they seek to develop.

I then try to take these insights into account as much as possible and continuously fine-tune curriculum demands with student expectations and interests. At the same time, I try to discuss with them at the beginning what they can get out of the seminars and lectures, what they have to do in order to achieve the aspirations and expectations they have and how they can rely on me to help them achieve them.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

I have definitely learnt a lot from my students regarding creativity and out of the box thinking. They have shown me again and again how a fresh set of eyes helps when looking at ‘old’ research problems.

If you could write a recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher, what ingredients would you need?

My tried and tested recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher:

Before starting: Ingredients have to be fresh and ideally have spent the weekend before enjoying the sun and the open sky, as long hours in stuffy warehouses and artificial lighting will decrease quality.

  1. Take equal measures of motivation, pedagogy and subject knowledge and knead into a dough. Make sure it’s firm but also elastic and malleable, especially in changing circumstances.
  2. While the dough is chilling, mix together a liberal amount of generosity and empathy and simmer slowly. Slow-cooking is absolutely essential for making a good teacher, so avoid pressure cooking at all costs.
  3. Add a good pinch of discipline to the pot and stir until it blends with the empathy.
  4. Roll out the chilled dough into desired shape and sprinkle it generously with curiosity and humility. This will also give the teacher a thicker skin to deal with occasional roastings.
  5. Put dough and filling into the teacher-tin.
  6. Use a brush to spread humour on top. This will also give it colour.
  7. Bake your teacher in a moderate oven until firm to the touch but make sure it does not get burnt.

Additional warnings:
A good degree of independence is highly advisable as too many cooks spoil the broth.

Enjoyed hearing from Carolin? See the full list of 2018 winners and commendees and read other interviews.