Fit to teach in university?



Telling someone what to do is not teaching.

“You must show them.” I remember being commended as a child for showing a classmate how to subtract using a few of those tiny plastic counting cubes. Our teacher, suggesting a future career in education, must have stirred something innate.

It is hard to communicate that thought without sounding like an insufferable five year-old, attempting to impart knowledge at will. That was not the case; it was an innocent and fairly compulsive need to help that I still feel in various situations – such as a need to fill an awkward silence. Yet, that particular memory is so vivid that I can still picture the pink and crinkly woollen jumper the teacher wore.

So what’s the approach to teaching in the 21st Century in Northern Ireland – in our tertiary system? It’s a pertinent question:universities receive public money every year to teach.

In Northern Ireland, the Executive pays huge sums specifically earmarked for teaching. This year, Queen’s was granted £69 million; UU around £65 million and each of the two teacher training colleges (Stranmillis and St Mary’s) received around £5 million

Most of this teaching is provided in the form of lectures and or demonstrations given by full-time members of academic staff: lecturers, senior lecturers, professors and so on. However, a great deal of the follow-up: discussion-based teaching, contact hours or tutorials, which can make the difference between a quality and a mediocre degree, are provided by Teaching Assistants (TAs).

TAs are generally former graduates, current postgraduates, current doctoral students, postdoctoral students or field experts, people with particular insight and or experience of a given field or profession. They are paid by claiming public money at hourly rates which are generally somewhere between £14-25. This is a useful secondary income for many of the TAs I have consulted but cannot usually be enough to live on by itself and, more often than not, is a supplementary wage for a currently-funded doctoral student.

So how are they trained?

The answer to this question varies not only between institutions but between departments and even between taught subject modules.

For some, training can be as rudimentary as sitting in on one or two classes and then leading the same class for the remainder of a term or even a full year. Others are told they will receive resources or a training session which would include a meeting with the subject head. These meetings do not always take place.

Some module co-ordinators, however, do take the job seriously and have several mentoring sessions with new TAs, offering them proper advice based on their own experiences and going on to forge a solid working relationship. It’s an approach which not only improves the working life of the TA, but can improve his or her performance substantially, all to the benefit of the student. But it requires an investment of time and some resources.

Short-cuts around teaching can take other forms. Some courses offer online modules with quizzes – and these can be attempted as many times as required – or crash course one-day events. In this case, it shows a profound lack of planning and enthusiasm for teaching. Whether or not the academic heart is in the right place, the cavernous discrepancy between goals and methodology is truly palpable.

In fact, it’s now deeply embedded in the culture of our third level colleges that some academics and doctoral students see teaching, and the rigours of marking and preparation, as an unnecessary and even troublesome addition to their more pressing research work. This is understandable. Most if not all academics get involved in their professions as a matter of vocation, or a deep love of their subjects and a need to further comprehensive study. They want to make a ‘contribution to knowledge’, not necessarily to impart via lectures and tutorials. Yet, in order to receive money for research, they are forced to teach, from doctoral study onwards; it is compulsory but they are not shown how- their expertise in their subject is thought to be enough. This is wrong.

The result is a system which gradually defeats itself over time as permanent staff become increasingly burdened by a facet of their job they have little to no interest in and fresh faces quickly learn this is a demoralising and menial dimension of academia.

Essentially then, some established academics simply ‘accept’ teaching as part of their role. However, for new doctoral students coming into the fray, there is not much dynamism from which to take example. With such an ailing and ill-planned system, it is not hard to see why.

Compare this with postgraduate students who wish to teach in lower levels of education such as primary and secondary schools. They must complete a one-year course in teaching after their degree, to obtain a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)A budding academic will not have the time for such intensive training, However, in order that the quality of teaching is more closely moderated and, more importantly, standardised, this system must change.

A solid grounding in the theory of education, the means by which effective teaching and learning can be achieved should become an essential part of the training of university teaching staff. Otherwise our TAs, the lecturers and professors will only continue to show what they know, instead of teaching it.