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WATE PGR 2014 winner: Phil Gaydon (Philosophy)

Phil GaydonPhil was one of our WATE PGR winners in 2014, recognised for his work as a seminar tutor with the Philosophy department, leading group sessions for the Learning Grid and working with IATL to develop an Open-Space learning workshop. He was a core part of the department’s new initiative to encourage research students to engage primary and secondary school children with philosophy.

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

Throughout my Undergraduate degree in philosophy I always felt as if seminars and lectures could be more engaging and dynamic. I felt as though my subject wasn't being brought to life in one of the places it should be most alive – the classroom. After spending some time facilitating philosophy with The Philosophy Foundation in primary schools I realised that I was being given the tools to not only run philosophy sessions in schools but to give university philosophy the shot in the arm I had always felt it needed. Alongside this I was being introduced to Open-Space Learning by and running workshops with Jonathan Heron from IATL and Eileen John from Philosophy. Working with them helped me hone the former for a university environment. A lot has happened since then but that's really where it started.

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

Stay positive and approachable, always anchor back to the question, have multiple ways of explaining your key points, don’t be afraid to fail, and keep reflecting on your practice.

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

I’ve just recently been told this and I think it’s very true: "The best teachers are those who are still learning." Keep something on the go outside of your academic environment and speciality – learn a language, a sport, a skill, etc. Stay in the same sphere as those you teach so you can continue to empathise with the process.

If you were mentoring a first-time teacher, what three bits of advice would you give?
  1. If you're doing this because you feel like you need teaching on your CV to become a research academic then you're in for a tough ride and you’re doing your students a disservice. Talk to someone about finding a teaching role that makes you genuinely excited to teach first.
  2. Learn to facilitate discussion – this has been the most useful skill I’ve ever learned for teaching and life.
  3. Reflect on as many sessions as you can.
What advice/top tips would you give to more experienced teachers?

Even if a module went well you should still re-write it. Try something new in at least one or two of the sessions. It will keep you passionate, open-minded, stop you from taking shortcuts on paths where learners can't follow, and create multiple ways of accessing a single topic.

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

Running next year's Sport, Philosophy, and Practice module where we'll be incorporating many of the lessons I’ve learned over the year whilst putting together Warwick's 'Innovative teaching handbook' and holding a practical 'gymnasium' assessment.

What does winning a WATE award mean to you?

Of course the WATE PGR was amazing because of the feeling that my hard work was being recognized by the university and, more importantly, that some of my students felt my sessions were good enough to deserve that recognition. But now I see it as motivation to keep getting better and help others because the university has said "we have excellent teachers; here's one". That's a big thing to continue to live up to... but also a very exciting one and one that I want to define my career.

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

That’s too hard to describe... I just want to say "the teaching"! The students, the other staff who are passionate about it, making other people passionate about it, continuing to experiment, the challenges we’re going to face with the TEF (horrible but exciting at the same time)... it sounds corny but there’s not a single bit I dislike when I really sit down to think about it.

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

Honestly, my biggest challenge is getting over the feeling that I've failed a student if they haven't done well as part of a module I've been teaching…particularly if I've been experimenting with sessions that year. I think that’s a symptom of the culture of success and measurability we currently live in. Lots of people talk about the pressure on students to succeed but as teachers you're expected to (and you expect yourself to) succeed every time as well, whether that's because of current contextual pressure or because you have internalised the exact same pressures the student is currently under during your own time in school and HE. Being able to move on from that is just something that comes with practice I guess... although I never want to lose it completely as it fuels my drive to make my teaching better.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

Just be myself. Any student from 4 to 44 can see when I’m not being me.

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

Take one open-mind and season with good-humour. Coat in own continued education, love of learning, and personal development before marinating in a good awareness of learning outcomes and styles. Bake in an oven pre-heated with other's experiences, ideas and lessons (probably best to never remove to be honest). Serve with lashings of enthusiasm.


Know someone like Phil? Nominate them now for a WATE award!