In 2015, I had the honour and privilege to sit on the international panel for the inaugural Irish National Teaching Expert awards.
The rigorous process involved a number of stages, where candidates had to submit written evidence, including of their impact on student learning, as well as examplars of practice and institutional endorsement of the candidate, their teaching and the evidence.
After significant email communication and dissemination of documentation, the panel, including myself and others from Australia, North America, England and Ireland and an Irish student representative, shortlisted from 38 candidates via Skype.
We were brought together face-to-face in Dublin in late November to watch the 16 shortlisted candidates each give a TED Talk style presentation, which was filmed for collation, editing and dissemination by the Irish National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. The presentations were followed by discussions about learning and teaching between small groups of candidates and panel members.
Each of the 16 colleagues shortlisted will be honoured in a ceremony as the inaugural Irish higher education Expert Teachers. Of these, seven will receive additional commendations in specific categories.
Some of the themes that were evident in applications and presentations included the value and importance of university teaching per se, with several candidates reminding us of the potentially profound impact of effective teaching on people’s lives. It was deeply moving at times to hear stories of why and how these leading teachers have chosen to dedicate their professional lives to facilitating the learning of others.
We heard of the anxiety and wellbeing of students and the need to acknowledge the fact that students are human beings as well as learners – something we have tended to shy away from examining on a national level in Australia to date. Research work I am involved in with Regional University Network colleagues has recently shown there is room to further explore the wellbeing factors that affect student experiences, retention and success and to take a more holistic approach to our research and practice.
The leading Irish higher education teachers demonstrated high levels of passion for their craft, as all outstanding teachers do. Many spoke of working collaboratively with others inside and outside the university, combining expertise and bringing different knowledges together to co-create new learning. Many discussed the value of discipline whether it be in terms of orienting students to understanding a particular discipline or taking deliberately cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary approaches to enable the deeper and broader consideration needed for the world’s big issues and wicked problems.
All of the candidates referred to what they themselves had learned as they thought deeply about their students’ learning needs and the best ways to improve their teaching. Whether they articulated it explicitly or not, all were focused on the agency of their students, their fellow academics and other colleagues and/or of wider community members.
Many drew on the work of others others and related their thoughts to their own teaching. One scholar referenced was Walter MacGinitie who writes about the power of uncertainty – this teacher suggested that good teachers are uncertain as only an uncertain person can know and show how learning is done. Another referenced was Maya Angelou who suggested people will forget what you said and did, but that they will never forget how you made them feel. I reflected on the latter as one presentation on the way in which one teaching team worked on the co-creation of knowledge between a university and farmers in the third world brought me to tears.
As is often the case with the most gifted teachers, modesty and humility were evident, alongside their confidence that they were doing the very best they could for their students while always striving to improve. The ‘gift of the gab’ for which the Irish are known was also evident with candidates ‘always up for a chat’ as one described himself. All were also talented story-tellers, another well-known characteristic of the Irish. Particularly in the presentations, there was evidence of clever building of narratives, the use of story architecture, much use of dramatic and other pauses, the inclusion of anecdotes and the use of humour.
For me personally, the panel deliberations comprised one of the most stimulating and enjoyable experiences of a 25-year career in and around learning and teaching in higher education. Rather than having pre-determined categories into which teachers were slotted, the panel determined the categories for commendation awards as they collaboratively considered all of the material, videos, documents, exemplars, evidence, endorsements, presentations and nature of the discussions with the candidates.
In general, we looked for prominent thinkers and leaders who are dealing with profound issues in learning and teaching and who are demonstrably outstanding educators. For those who met these generic criteria, we undertook an emergent process where categories that fitted with candidates’ particular expertise, foci and or approach were created for them. These seven categories and their winners will be revealed at an award ceremony to be held in Dublin on 10th December 2015.
I came away from the experience with the very strong feeling that Irish higher education learning and teaching is in very safe, innovative and creative hands and that we in Australia have something to learn from our Irish colleagues in terms of celebrating and further enhancing our work in this area.
Disclaimer: I was born in and spent the first 7 years of my life and 6 months during my high school years in Ireland and have visited Ireland countless times in the past 40+ years. There are some who might suggest that I am completely biased in my assessment of anything Irish…