At the end of last month, I was delighted to hear that my application to become a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) had been approved. The HEA awards fellowships to individuals with a proven, sustained track record in HE teaching. Increasingly, employers across the education sector are looking for HEA accreditation as a measure of teaching development and success.
When I first heard about the professional accreditation offered via the HEA, I was in two minds about putting an application in and about the level at which to apply. My status within the University is that of GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistant) rather than full-time member of teaching staff. My main concern was finding the time to complete the necessary portfolio, given my full-time PhD and existing teaching responsibilities. At the same time, the accreditation appealed to me as means of formally recognising the contribution of my significant existing teaching work as a GTA. I have been involved in teaching at The University of Sheffield (TUOS) since 2011, when I began giving lectures on qualitative interviewing and analysis as part of the PSY6121 (Research Methods) module of the postgraduate (MSc) Psychology Research Masters. I am currently the Module Leader of EDU6357, Qualitative Methodologies in Educational Research at TUOS. In addition to lecturing on my own course, I am also a regular lecturer on the MA’s ‘Study of Education’ programme (Qualitative Research Methodologies and Feminism). I am an MA Tutor with responsibilities for weekly tutorials, assignment supervision and marking and MA dissertation supervision. I am also an undergraduate Tutor (on EDU107 – Child Psychology), with responsibility for weekly seminars and assignment marking.
Undeniably, putting the FHEA portfolio together was a significant project in terms of both time and effort. I had (naively) blocked out just one weekend to turn the bulk of the portfolio around. In practice, I spent easily this much time just uploading my ‘evidence’ files to the portal. On the other hand, whilst assessed reflective processes can sometimes feel rather artificial, the experience turned out to be genuinely valuable. The staff at the University’s Learning and Teaching Services (LeTS) were incredibly friendly and helpful. They also ran a number of information-giving and application-writing events that helped me to stay motivated whilst pulling together the sizeable application. They also encouraged me to participate in an observation of my teaching. Though met with initial cynicism from me (“is this really necessary?”… “can’t I submit without it?”), this easily turned out to be the most useful part of the whole process. As the daughter of a primary school teacher, I have been brought up to fear the dreaded ‘classroom observation’, but the feedback from my observation was both reassuring and constructive. It was really nice to hear positive comments about my teaching (including some things I wasn’t aware of). At the same time, my observer’s suggestions for improvement were genuinely useful and I have subsequently made a number of changes to my teaching practice.
It came as something of a surprise to me that the most glowing feedback I received from the panel was in regards to my fourth Example of Practice, in which I expressed my frustration with the 2015 comments of Universities Minister, Jo Johnson. Last year, Johnson made a speech condemning the ‘patchiness’ of the student experience, arguing that universities had allowed teaching to become a ‘poor cousin’ to research (The Guardian, 9th September, 2015). As a GTA, I had very mixed feelings. Whilst I welcomed comments that would potentially highlight the challenges faced by teaching staff on short-term contracts, it felt like the comments failed to recognise just how much teaching staff, in particular many GTAs, achieve with the limited time and resources that are available to them. GTAs are typically paid solely for planning, contact hours and marking. As such, it feels there is sometimes an implicit assumption that they offer a poorer standard of provision to their students than full time contracted staff. However, regardless of one’s official ‘status’ within a university, other responsibilities (pastoral care, awareness of emotional wellbeing, facilitating the post-university transition) will inevitably form a significant part of the role of anyone involve in learning and teaching. At the same time, workload issues, ethical problems and questions around our own preparedness complicate these responsibilities.
GTAs in my department are given 7 hours to supervise an MA dissertation. I have always made a concerted effort to maximise the support I provide to the ‘whole student’ (Wild-Wendel & Ruel, 1999) within this limited timeframe. In my first year of MA teaching (2013), I supervised the MA dissertation of a student joining the department from Southeast Asia. Aware that she had struggled with homesickness and of the underutilisation of counselling services by international students (Mori, 2000), I made her aware of the range of services available through Sheffield’s University Counselling Service.
She had never carried out fieldwork before, and my qualitative specialism allowed me to support her. We evaluated her interview schedule and practiced mock interviews before she went into the field. Although I was unable to provide her with one-to-one tutoring in every facet of qualitative methodologies, I was able to signpost her to some very good resources available via appropriate learning technologies, including online training, podcasts and videos available via the National Centre for Research Methods.
The practical side of my student’s fieldwork was not straightforward and she lost one of the two families in her small-scale fieldwork as a result of an emergency in the participant’s family. My subject knowledge equipped me to teach her about a researcher’s ethical responsibilities to themselves and the often-unrecognized emotional labour required of researchers (Hubbard et al., 2001). Despite her anxieties, I supported her through this challenge and pointed out how she could capitalize on the misfortune by using it as an opportunity to reflect on the realities of qualitative fieldwork in her dissertation.
My MA student’s eventual dissertation submission was awarded the highest mark in her year, with the dissertation’s moderator complimenting ‘work of very high quality indeed’. She and I kept in touch post-MA and met several times, while I supported her through thinking about, and applying for, PhDs. When the time came, I was delighted to provide a high quality (and glowing) reference.
Undoubtedly, Sally Hunt (the general secretary of the University and College Union) is right to raise the point that “the quality and status of university teaching would be best improved by tackling the low pay and insecurity of academic staff”. There are definitely aspects of the support that I provide that go above and beyond the time I am paid for and this is unsustainable in the longer term. At the same time, there is a need to recognise the contribution that existing GTAs are making by working flexibly and creatively within a very challenging context. For me, despite the (ironically) additional workload it generated, HEA accreditation was one way of doing this.
If you are considering an application to the HEA, detailed guidance is available on the HEA website.
Hubbard, G., Backett-Milburn, K., & Kemmer, D. (2001). Working with emotion: issues for the researcher in fieldwork and teamwork. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 4(2), 119-137.
Mori, S. C. (2000). Addressing the mental health concerns of international students. Journal of counseling & development, 78(2), 137-144.
Wolf‐Wendel, L. E., & Ruel, M. (1999). Developing the whole student: The collegiate ideal. New Directions for Higher Education, 1999(105), 35-46.