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WATE PGR 2020 Winner: Cora Neumann (Economics)

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

I started teaching at Warwick in the second year of my MRes course, and had previously done teaching during my undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. My favourite teacher growing up is the person who inspires me and my teaching the most. She was my ethics teacher and was tough but fair, always challenged my assumptions, and encouraged me to become an independent thinker. She is the kind of teacher I aspire to be.

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

Not everyone thinks in the same way, and that is a gift. One student prefers to visualise an idea graphically, while another needs to understand the intuition behind it and yet another one uses real-world examples to make concepts less abstract. Incorporate all these methods into your teaching; they are complementary and will enrich the classroom experience for every student.

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

Do not be afraid to say “I don’t know, let me get back to you on that.” We are all human and will not know everything, and it is much better to spend time thinking about the correct answer than to make up something on the spot that might turn out to be wrong.

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

  1. Make sure you are well prepared. You only get 50 minutes each week with your students, make each one of them count.
  2. Encourage students to ask questions. Frequently check that everyone is following your explanations. Ask follow-up questions and emphasise intuition behind concepts.
  3. Make an effort to build good relationships with your students. Learn their names, relate class material to their interests, be honest about topics you may have found difficult in the past, and encourage them if they are struggling with a difficult concept.

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

Always ask for feedback and be open to receiving it. We can continuously improve and adapt our teaching style to make it as effective and encouraging as we can.

What does being recognised through WATE PGR mean to you?

It means so very much! Since I am relatively new to teaching it still takes a lot of work to prepare for good seminars, and it is very gratifying and humbling to be recognised for what I consider an integral part of my PhD. Being recognised through this award is also a motivation to become an ever better teacher and to continuously develop and improve.

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

Hands down the students. I was really fortunate that I got to teach two courses this academic year that are core modules for a range of courses, so I had a very diverse group of students in my seminar. My students have challenged me to think in different ways about economics and its application to the real world, for which I am immensely grateful. It is also a joy being able to help students understand complex concepts and developing their confidence and understanding of economics.

How have you adapted your teaching during Covid-19? What have you learnt from the experience?

Since term 3 was completely online I held my office hours on Zoom, giving students slots to sign up to but offering some drop-in sessions closer to the exam. It definitely took some getting used to, but it did mean I was able to offer students much more flexible meeting times. The most important lesson I learned was to always double check the student was following my explanations, since it’s much harder to gauge someone’s reaction and understanding over video.

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

I am a huge fan of drawing graphs and equations on white boards and discussing how they come to be as I write, so I don’t use a huge amount of technology in my classroom, however I do use electronic means to communicate with my students outside our weekly seminars, including sending out a feedback form halfway through the course.

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

Time is a rare resource! As postgraduate research students, we have to juggle many different responsibilities, which often means that office hours, supervisor meetings and research seminars compete for my time and so I sometimes have to settle for “good enough”. Being a teacher however has definitely improved my time management skills and so I hope this challenge will diminish as I gain more experience.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

So many, and definitely too many to list here, but the top three were 1. There is more to economics than maths, so don’t hide behind the graphs and equations!, 2. Everyone makes mistakes and that’s completely fine, and 3. Keep trying and don’t give up, learning is a marathon and not a sprint.

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

I believe good teachers come in all shapes and forms and there is no one clear stencil for a great teacher, but here are three traits that all amazing, inspiring teachers I know have:

  1. Passion: Show your students why you care about the awesome subject you teach. It will make for a much more exciting class environment and will encourage your students greatly.
  2. Patience: Remember how you started studying this subject and what topics or aspects you found challenging. Be understanding and patient with your students and always make it clear that questions are a good thing.
  3. Persistence: Sometimes it takes time to really make a concept understandable. Sometimes your students are in the middle of deadlines and don’t want to spend energy participating in seminars. Sometimes the problem set is just really hard. Keep going, keep being passionate and persistent. Remember why you teach and what privilege it is.

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