Paul is a Professorial Teaching Fellow and Senior Academic Developer in the School of Chemistry and was recently nominated by the University to apply for the Advance HE, National Teaching Fellowship scheme in 2021.
After I finished my degree in Natural Sciences I decided it was time for a break before I did my PhD. These days they’re called ‘Gap Years’ but that parlance hadn’t been invented back then. I wasn’t very organised about it and after an awful few months in the USA I found myself back in Salisbury wandering around Marks & Spencers (the new floor that had just opened for menswear) and thus landed myself a job at a secondary school teaching chemistry and physics. What? “Thus”? Well I bumped into my old deputy headmaster from my old school round by the flannelette shirts and we got chatting and it turned out that they desperately needed a chemistry teacher who actually knew some chemistry – it was a very straight forward matter finding teachers that didn’t know any but they weren’t really happy with that. For real quality you had to scour M&S menswear it seems. OK it didn’t happen quite like that but it’s not far off the truth and I was definitely in the right place at the right time. I took the job. Yes it was a state school and no I’d had no training. I taught boys from 11 to 18 for the best part of a year. It was as tough as I thought it would be and so much more fun than I ever imagined.
What’s interesting is how that moment didn’t quite change my life but it did somehow set the scene. I was thrown in the deep-end with no training at all. I found I took to it ok. I actually quite liked it. More than that it was really rewarding and I looked forward to the double period of chemistry with 2J on a Friday as I ended the week on a high. That year also set me up quite nicely for future job interviews. When I was asked what experience I had teaching, I had rather more to talk about than the ‘bit of demonstrating’ my competing peers could offer. But the business of being thrown in at the deep-end with no training has run through my whole career. I’ve muddled along and found my way, noticed things that don’t work very well and thought about how they might be improved (more on that in a second).
At my interview for Bristol I talked about that year and it clearly made an impression on my current boss who said it was clear I had a genuine passion for teaching. It’s true and after a promising start to my research career, it was my teaching that gradually took over, flourished and I decided to call it a day with the research. I have a couple of research ‘trophies’ if you like – I’m especially pleased that some of our research work is taught in the undergraduate chemistry course at Imperial College. As I moved wholesale into teaching I was, fortunately, in the right place at the right time because Bristol University was then introducing Pathway 3 and was recognising teaching in a way that was at the vanguard of the sector.
So, back to those improvements. Once again I was in the right place at the right time because money came along and IT had developed enough that I found myself at the heart of the action as my colleagues and I developed ChemLabS. Nowadays we would probably talk about the ‘flipped laboratory’ but although that language was probably gaining ground it wasn’t yet mainstream. But it was all about getting the students up to speed before they came into the lab. I drew up storyboards and mock-ups of the resources I wanted the students to have access to for the software developers to code. Thus the students could hit the ground running once they got into the lab. Principally this would be because they knew what they were doing with the equipment. Simulations, animations and videos all enhanced (but crucially didn’t replace) the real thing.
I’ve seen lots of IT developments over the years but all too often they seem to be looking for a problem to solve. Occasionally though I’ve seen something and thought, “THAT is what we need to do!” The polling software that gets small groups of students chatting and engaging in Peer-2-Peer learning (you see, I’ve got with the lingo now) was a revelation when I saw it at an educational conference in Vancouver. Flipped lectures, pooling software, iPads in lectures – all this IT made the lectures more interesting, fun and crucially turned them into learning experiences rather than whatever they were before.
And we’re not done! As challenging as the covid-era has been there have been activities where I have found myself thinking, ‘We should have done this years ago’. Some ideas sound stupid till you do them and then you take them for granted – highly flammable methane gas pumped around the country by pipes and delivered under pressure to everyone’s home would, I think, be a hard sell today if it were a new idea. We take it for granted. Hosting the online Radio Shows with students is way better than a Q&A in a lecture theatre – more fun, more effective, more efficient for both staff and students – but it would have been a hard sell in other times. Well we’ve done things, things that sometimes sounded odd, but they’ve worked and there’s no going back now.
I have to confess I was a bit of a late developer with The Impostor Syndrome. Back in the day I had a conviction that I knew how to do it, why the students didn’t understand what they didn’t understand and how we could fix it. Whether this was naivety or arrogance or insightful or innocence I can’t really say (actually most probably it was a classic Dunning-Kruger effect) but it was a big hit so at least the enthusiasm paid off. When I’m introduced before a lecture now and it sounds like I’m someone who knows what he’s talking about I dread that someone in the audience who really knows their stuff will call me out because in reality I was, as I say, just in the right place at the right time when I got thrown (or maybe jumped) in the deep-end.