Why did you start teaching? What (or who) inspired you?
I started by accident – a job became available teaching undergraduate tutorials during my PhD degree. Thankfully, I remembered my favourite high school teacher, Mr. Packard, and what I loved about his classes. They were conversations – engaging, challenging, informed. He inspired me to do the same.
What pearls of wisdom have you been given over the years that have helped you with your teaching?
Give students breaks – they need energy and mental space to absorb, especially challenging ideas. Structure the learning: give a brief overview at the start of three key ideas to take away, so they can see them coming. If you are using slides, keep them minimal: one key idea per slide.
Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you started out?
So many things. Stop trying to fit in entire literatures on one slide. Always pack an extra clicker for Power Point. Drink water – it will help you take pauses for students to catch up too. You won’t be able to reach everyone, and sometimes people’s negative feedback is more about them in that moment than about you.
If you were mentoring a first-time teacher, what advice would you give?
See teaching as a conversation – even in large lectures, participation is valuable. Learn students’ names – it shows respect and care, and facilitates better conversations. Have someone you respect observe you – their tips will be invaluable, and their support will make the entire thing feel less daunting.
What advice/top tips would you give to more experienced teachers?
Refresh your slides/reading lists after each iteration of the module – we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. Try to place yourself in students’ shoes when explaining concepts, and make them as simple as possible. Make teaching fun for yourself by trying new things, for instance working with a new colleague.
What new technologies are you currently using to enhance your teaching? What are your top tips for using them?
I am admittedly old fashioned here – I rarely use technologies other than those already embedded into our systems, like online comments for distance learning teaching. The trick I found helpful is to make them work for you, e.g. using required comments to start conversations by asking questions, so it’s not just ‘tick box’ learning.
What new or future teaching innovations are you looking forward to?
Virtual reality into settings where we are unlikely to be able to send our students, e.g. natural or refugee emergencies. It would be hugely helpful for letting students experience on their own what extreme settings feel like, and how challenging organising in them might be. It will also help us develop more understanding and empathy, which is difficult to facilitate in more traditional delivery (e.g. in lectures).
What does winning a WATE award mean to you?
It’s a huge honour, least of all because I was nominated and supported by former winners (Camilla Maclean and Peter Corvi), who have long been my teaching heroes. It is humbling to be in the company of such great humans and professionals.
What do you enjoy the most about teaching? What’s the best part of your job?
The fact that I always learn from my students, and never know where conversations will take us. The emails or messages after the fact, including years after, saying I made a small difference to how they saw or encountered the world.
What are the biggest challenges faced by teaching staff? How do you overcome these?
Where do I start? Disengaged students, high delivery hours, occasionally sky high expectations that we cannot meet unless we give up on sleeping. At times students forget we are human too. Not all of us have the same support either, nor the same resources. I try to remind myself that if I’ve done what I know is my best and taught what needs to be taught, even if challenging to some students, that’s good enough.
What lessons have you learned from your students?
How impactful our words can be, and how careful we therefore should be with our position of power. Not to assume people’s motivations or interest from the way they engage us – everyone learns differently. Too many other lessons to summarise here.
If you could write a recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher, what ingredients would you need?
Enthusiasm for prompting curiosity in others. Dedication to everyone’s learning, even if that requires a bit more effort. Willingness to learn themselves (some humility is always welcome). A bigger mission that is evident to students, be it developing critical thinking or encouraging a different understanding. Support for those who struggle. Respect for different experiences and each other. The kind of expertise that allows them to explain things simply and clearly, in a way that resonates with that audience. And finally, knowing that inspiration shouldn’t just come from perfection – we should not be perfect, nor model that expectation to others. We should instead be committed to trying, and trying again. Learning is a journey.
Enjoyed hearing from Maja? See the full list of 2019 winners and read other interviews.