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WATE PGR 2018 winner: Nat das Neves Rodrigues (LDC / Chemistry)

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

To me, teaching was initially a very practical thing – a way of complementing my PhD stipend, in truth. It was something I always enjoyed doing, but there was no particular inspiring prompt to do it. It wasn’t until I furthered my teaching training (by attending the APP PGR programme led by Sara Hattersley) that I started actively thinking about what I was doing, what effect my teaching practice was having on students, and closely evaluating what was happening in my teaching sessions.

Sara opened my eyes to a whole world of teaching and learning that I was not aware of, and from then on I found out I had a passion for teaching and started actively seeking to improve and innovate with my teaching practice. I now teach out of keen interest in teaching and learning, commitment to my students and a desire to help others realise and achieve their full potential.

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

Not sure I have been given any particular pearls of wisdom… I think the different people I have interacted with in a teaching and learning context have each shared their perspectives and thus each opened my eyes to another dimension of my own teaching which eventually immensely enriched my practice.

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

I wish I had had more formal training earlier – I feel I could have served many of the students I taught in my first couple of years of lab demonstrating much better and, since I would have started my teaching practice development journey earlier, I would now be a better teacher and would have achieved more. I wish I had been encouraged to think about my teaching practice and engage with professional development when I started teaching.

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

First, trust in yourself. I have met many teachers whose main concern regarding their teaching is their ability to help others, a self-doubt that tells them they may not be serving their students appropriately. I would argue that there are no bad teachers, so long as they pay attention (and that would be my second bit of advice). Pay attention to what you are doing in the teaching room and in preparation for it, pay attention to your student’s reactions and to their development.

In summary, be a reflective practitioner, turn off the ‘auto-pilot’ and become proactive about your teaching. Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve, why you are trying to achieve that, how you are proposing to achieve it and, in the end, if you have indeed done so. I think this is essential to be a successful teacher.

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

Keep learning! If you feel comfortable enough with your teaching so that you feel like you’ve cracked the problem – you need to go back to the drawing board. Teaching is a dynamic, fluid, ever changing thing, if for nothing else, because every single student is different and, consequently, each student cohort has different needs. Don’t let yourself slip into ‘auto-pilot’!

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

I tend to use mainly polling technologies as a way of engaging students, stimulate learning and monitoring the effectiveness of my teaching; I don’t have a favourite, however. My top tip would be to reflect carefully on the purpose of technology in a given teaching activity, as it should be there to serve the student by enhancing learning but it can easily become a distraction if its purpose is not clearly defined.

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

I am very much looking forward to the break from ‘traditional’ teaching that is bound to take place in the near future. The demand is there and the higher education sector will soon have to catch up – for universities to train well-rounded professionals that are able to cross subject boundaries to find innovative solutions to the world’s problems. I think this is only possible within more open, interdisciplinary and proactive teaching and learning environments targeted to develop skills and critical minds. While I don’t think ‘lecture style’ teaching will ever not have a place within a university context, I believe and am excited for the revolution that is coming where we re-think how we teach, focusing and placing the teaching weight on more practical approaches; in essence, lab activities and seminars will not ‘serve’ the lecture, rather, the lecture will serve the seminars and labs.

What does winning a WATE award mean to you?

I am extremely honoured to win the WATE award – it is a recognition of my commitment to teaching and to my students which I very much appreciate. In fact, even just being nominated is an honour because it tells me I am making an impact on people around me and that is a big part of what I work for. Being shortlisted confirmed that my teaching efforts are also appreciated by the University and its representatives and I am very glad I am helping the University of Warwick and its students reaching their goals. I am proud to be part of the Warwick teaching and learning community and having my contributions recognised and celebrated is extremely rewarding.

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

The best part of teaching is undoubtedly the ‘Eureka’ moment: the moment when working with a student and they have a breakthrough in their understanding. I enjoy working with students individually or in small groups so that we can get to the root of their questions and really work to develop deep learning together. I enjoy it when students are clearly engaged in the topic, asking and answering their own questions, and I love being part of that process, guiding them in rearranging prior knowledge to accommodate new one and reach their own conclusions.

The best part of my job as a teacher is helping students realise that they can, there are no barriers to them if they embrace the learning process, and also helping them achieve their full potential.

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

From experience and from listening to other teachers in the higher education sector, the main complaint is obviously always time constraints, but that also seems to stem from a lack of recognition or understanding of the whole dimension of teaching. Teaching that is tailored to student needs and that is inducive of meaningful learning, that will contribute to the development of well-rounded academics and individuals is difficult and takes time, training, effort. Only in recognising this will it be possible to allow academics to allocate the appropriate time to engage with good teaching practice, and it is also then necessary to appropriately recognise the teaching staff who excel at this. Right now, I am convinced good teaching staff are working at improving their teaching practice at the expense of their own time, trying to balance the very challenging pressures that are put on academics in order for them to progress in their careers. If we want excellent teaching, we need to give teachers time and space to grow as teachers, innovate and excel.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

My students have taught me a lot about myself and how I learn. It was through teaching them that I learnt to embrace my own struggles with learning something new and, therefore, it is fair to say that my students have made me a better researcher and challenged me to think about other aspects of my research and my career I would not have considered had they not been in my life.

In addition, in more than many occasions they have asked me questions from a perspective I had not considered, forcing me to evaluate scientific problems again and again, strengthening my understanding and challenging my assumptions. Once again, teaching my students has contributed to my development as a researcher and a professional.

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

Ingredients for the perfect inspiring teacher:

  • Respect for others
  • Ability to reflect, self-evaluate and adapt
  • Passion for their subject
  • Enthusiasm about sharing knowledge with others
  • Openness to perspectives different from their own
  • Awareness of the wider societal context within which they teach
  • Commitment to their students
  • A supportive environment within which the teacher may work, grow, innovate and thrive.

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