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WATE 2018 winner: Paul Prescott (English)

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

My first teaching gig was a work placement in my old middle school. I was 13 and taught Spanish and Maths. I knew little of either. But, according to Jacques Ranciere, that doesn’t really matter. The kind and thoughtful headmaster of the middle school repaid my labours by taking me to Stratford-upon-Avon to see King Lear. That experience inspired me and I now, in turn, take my students to see shows at the RSC.

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

I think I learn slowly, incrementally, and not through epiphanic moments or quotable maxims. Whatever I do as a teacher I have learned from a range of people, some teachers, most family and friends, who have modelled a way of being in the world. At its best, this is about being present, attentive and kind.

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

Everyone, at some point, feels like an imposter.

Students only very rarely ask a question you can’t, in some way, answer.

Don't fixate on the bored-looking person in the room during a lecture or a class. Try to reach them but also accept a) you can’t please everyone all the time; b) students have a lot going on in their lives and it doesn’t always reflect on you; c) what you read as boredom might just be their neutral resting face.

Discourage dependency; cultivate auto-didacticism – give them the fishing rod and not the fish.

Distribute responsibility for the success of the encounter to as many people as possible.

Identify unexamined conventions.

Talk less, smile more (cf. Hamilton).

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

Most of the above.

and - do something different (e.g. co-teach with a younger colleague).

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

I love using the International Portal to co-teach with students and colleagues in Monash, Melbourne. The experience is enjoyably surreal. It’s 8am and winter here; we’re layered up, sipping coffee. It’s 7pm and summer there; they’re in flip-flops and sometimes rub it in by enjoying ice creams during the session. The conversations we have about Shakespeare, about being British, about being Australian, about being global citizens, are mutually enlightening and often very funny. And the novelty of staging performances through the portal and across the world in real time will never grow old. The top tip is to get the audio right – a fuzzy picture is fine, but the highest definition relay is useless if you can’t hear each other.

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

It will be great to have, for example, high-functioning teleportation or a virtual reality experience of Shakespeare’s London. Also to be welcomed: any innovation that minimizes bureaucracy, box-ticking, instrumentalization, etc, etc, and maximises meaningful human interaction.

It’s not clear that we actually need any more technical or philosophical innovations. We already have all we need if we have affordable access and resources, a common focus, and a safe space in which to discuss the most difficult and dangerous ideas. So: reformation + innovation. The best of what we had + the best of what we can be.

What does winning a WATE award mean to you?

A lot. Not least, it will apply a productive pressure to be worthy of the award.

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

Seeing students make Shakespeare their own. Writing essays, staging performances, or devising creative projects that draw on their quirky quiddity as a human being and in which they feel intellectually and personally invested. As one exemplary student said recently: I’ll forget the grade I got for this work, but I’ll always remember how much I enjoyed producing it.

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

The privatisation of higher education. I honestly don't know!

What lessons have you learned from your students?

No lessons as such, just a lot of information: ideas, words, ways of seeing.

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

  • 12oz subject knowledge
  • 12oz empathy
  • Sprinkling of provocation
  • A spacious, well-equipped kitchen

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