You find yourself facing a room of young people. You’re nervous enough about public speaking, let alone managing a classroom.
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It’s a feeling that’s familiar to many new academics. But it can be particularly challenging for those who have been building careers away from university for years, sometimes decades, and have returned to teach. We spoke to a group of dual-career professionals to get their advice on returning to academia.
‘Get as much training as possible’
Adi Staempfli, programme convener of advanced social work MA at Goldsmiths, University of London
I went into social work straight from school, working on substance misuse and mental health issues. After a few years I studied for a master’s and started to gain more academic experience, until I was doing three and a half days a week at a university.
It was really difficult at first. As a social worker I was usually only working with one person, not a room full of students. You’re supposed to be the expert and that was hugely challenging because I was teaching something slightly different to what most of my career had been about. Standing in front of people, managing the classroom and organising learning opportunities were all new to me. My feedback was quite critical at the beginning. I would definitely recommend getting as much training as possible.
‘You need a bit of anxiety to get you through it’
John Unsworth, principal lecturer in nursing at Northumbria University and head of health and social care at the Higher Education Academy
I was a nurse for a long time. I was a senior manager in the NHS when I became a lecturer for half of the week, and later I went back into the hospital to do an NHS-funded PhD, before returning to teaching.
I did feel quite de-skilled at first – it’s a new organisation, a new language, different processes and procedures. I had been teaching in a clinical setting so that eased the transition, but being a lecturer is different. It’s often like a performance – you need a bit of anxiety to get you through it.
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Managing behaviour can be difficult. If someone is talking or not paying attention, it’s usually better to remind them why the information you are sharing is important, rather than embarrassing them. Try to use humour, show a human side and remember that you were a student once too. And don’t just analyse what went wrong after a lecture, think about what went well too Plan Trustler.
It’s wise to keep a foot in your previous work – stay engaged in your discipline community to stay anchored to it. It helps to remind you that you do have skills and experience.
‘You build confidence over time’
Angela Hewlett, lecturer in midwifery and associate director of student education at the University of Leeds
I was a nurse for 10 years and became a community midwife. Then I decided to do an MA for my own professional development. From that I had the opportunity to do teaching and practice for a while and get the best of both worlds.
Moving into the university fully was a big step. I’ve always been interested in how people learn, so I enjoyed it for that reason. It’s really daunting at first, but I love being in lecture halls now. You build confidence over time.
If you’re thinking about making the transition, there are ways to get involved at a university without quitting your job. As a midwife you could sit on exam boards, or get involved with recruitment and admissions. It’s a good place to start.
‘Tell your students you are learning too’
Abbie Vickress, lecturer in graphic design at the Royal College of Art and Buckinghamshire New University
I trained in graphic design and now work as a graphic designer and lecturer. My practice and teaching overlapped a long time ago – as a student I wrote my dissertations on the ethics and morals in creative education, and as a result I was invited to teach.
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It was incredibly difficult when I first started – I had never been a great public speaker – but throwing myself in without experience or qualifications meant that I developed quickly.
There were a few hiccups, but if you are honest with students about the fact that you are also learning, they tend to cut you some slack. Teaching graphic design keeps me inspired and up to date with my discipline. Conversations with students give me the opportunity to constantly re-evaluate what kind of practitioner I am. It’s also helpful to be able to provide first-hand experience and insights into the industry that students will graduate into. Teaching can be tough and frustrating, but the struggle is worth the rewards.