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WATE 2020 Winner: Laura Chamberlain (WBS)

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

I started teaching during my first year as a PhD student. I was thrown in at the deep end as I was asked to cover a lecture at short notice to over 100 final year undergraduate students, as a member of staff was unwell. Luckily it was a subject I knew really well, but I can still vividly remember how nervous I was. I had spent a long time preparing the lecture and practicing, I had reams of notes as a security blanket and I recall standing stock still at the lectern with shaking hands. I also remember feeling exhilarated at the end of the lecture and pleased that students had engaged and asked questions.

Over the years, I have developed my own style of teaching which is markedly different from my first lecture (I don’t often use notes and I certainly don’t stand still in front of a lectern!) but I still get that exhilaration and love sharing those lightbulb moments with students. My mum was a teacher and I saw first-hand the power of preparation and planning to achieve success in the classroom, which is something I have adhered to through my career. I also saw how my mum created meaningful engagement with students which manifest in a number of ways, but taught me the importance of educators and the power of education, which has been inspirational.

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

I am incredibly lucky to have a number of mentors and role models throughout my career, not least my PhD supervisors, Professors John Rudd and Nick Lee. Early in my career, learning to deal with module evaluations was key and something they substantially helped me with. No matter how many positive comments we receive it is human nature to focus on the negatives. One of the main things I had to learn (and still sometimes have to revisit) is not to take negative comments personally. I find it useful to remember that whilst you can’t please everyone, you also don’t know the back story behind each viewpoint, which could be underpinned by a multitude of motivations and reasons - Some of these may have absolutely nothing to do with you! The trick is to sift through the comments to find the learning points and figure out what, if anything, you need to do to improve. The biggest pearl of wisdom I have been given is to always look for ways to learn and improve and not to rest on your laurels.

My supervisors led by example and shared their best practice, whilst also taking the time to talk about teaching. This may sound like something simple, but all the pearls of wisdom I have been given have come from conversations about teaching. Giving teaching and learning equal weighting to other academic endeavours and committing to continuous professional development has enabled me to engage with these conversations and learn.

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

An educator’s role is multifaceted and complex, but you should never underestimate or forget the difference you can make to individuals. I am incredibly lucky to still be in contact with many students I have taught over the years. It is wonderful to see how they are flourishing in their chosen careers and it is always incredibly special to be remembered and to hear that I made a difference to them. This can be from interactions in the classroom, pastoral care, career advice, co-curricular activities, bad jokes and even sometimes theories and concepts they have used in the workplace!

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

I really enjoy mentoring and feel privileged to have the opportunity to continue the conversation about teaching and learning. The first piece of advice is to take the time to find your own style in the classroom. It can be incredibly useful to look at others and learn from peer observations, videos and resources. However, it is so important to develop your confidence and your own authentic style. There is no one “perfect” style, but finding a way to let your enthusiasm for your subject to shine through in an authentic and natural manner is the best way to engage students.

Second, is to see assessment and feedback as a meaningful part of the education process and not something to begrudge. This is an area where we are always particularly stretched given large class sizes, and it does take a huge amount of time and effort. However, to see the fruits of student learning can be as rewarding as time spent in the classroom and feedback can be hugely valuable to students. A small mindset shift can help to see this as a positive part of the process. There are practical ways to deal with making large marking loads manageable, not least the pomodoro technique, among others. Additionally, assessment and feedback is an area ripe for innovation so there are many exciting opportunities in this area. I have reached the stage where I have created efficiencies in my marking processes that do not compromise on quality and I enjoy seeing the results of students’ hard work.

Lastly, being nervous is not a bad thing! I still get nervous, particularly at the beginning of the academic year before I meet my classes and we get into term. I don’t see these nerves as a bad thing, I use them to help me prepare, think things through, make sure I am ready for the term ahead. My nerves and natural perfectionism drive me to want to do my best. I always say, if I’m not nervous, that’s when I should worry, because it means I have rested on my laurels.

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

I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice to experienced educators but I think there are some core principles that I try to adhere to. The first is that it is key to learn from others at every opportunity, and to have constant conversations about teaching and learning, sharing best practice and resources. Integral to this is helping others and also seeking help and advice then needed. Second is to carve out dedicated time to invest in the development of my practice and resources. Third, is to keep up to date and relevant in my discipline. Of course, it is vital to keep on top of developments in the academic literature, but also to keep up to date with conversations and hot topics in industry and practice.

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

I use a range of technologies from simulations to polling software and functions in the VLE. However, my key tip in this regard is to avoid using technology for the sake of it. Indeed, I always have a rationale for what I am doing and I communicate this clearly with students so they can see why we are taking the approach I have selected. Another top tip is that if you are going to use technology, you need to thoroughly develop your expertise in the technology before using it in class.

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

We face many challenges and given the current circumstances we will continue to do so. I believe in the transformative power of education and when faced with challenges I always try to take the time to remember my core values and motivations for doing this job. In my view, a belief in the importance of being an educator in its own right is vital when facing and surmounting the many challenges faced by teaching staff.

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

Passion, commitment, curiosity, humility, a thick skin, and a sprinkle of humour.

Enjoyed hearing from Laura? See the full list of 2020 winners and commendees and read other interviews.