One of the unlooked-for benefits of being nominated for a teaching award was the opportunity to spend some time thinking about what it is I am actually doing, why I do it and what it means to do it well. Normally the pressures of work mean that teachers spend far too much time being reactive rather than reflective - we go on to automatic pilot at the beginning of February and keep going till Christmas break where we fall in a heap and deal with the other aspects of our lives until it starts all over again.
The answer to why we teach inevitably begins with who we are and what we want to achieve in our working lives. It would be impossible to accuse teachers of going into the profession solely for financial reward and these days we can’t even claim the job security of the past. Rather I believe that many teachers choose intrinsic rewards above the extrinsic rewards of salary and status - in other words, we put up with average pay and tedious jokes about the number of holidays in order to do a job we enjoy and find fulfilling.
For the past 25 years I have been a teacher in primary and secondary schools, lectured in Higher Education and taught in TAFE. There is no question that, for me, TAFE has been the most rewarding area to teach in. Nowhere else have I been able to combine my own professional practice as a writer with the skills I have built up over the years as a teacher. The melding of the two has kept both areas invigorated and strong.
TAFE teachers in universities work in an environment different from that of many other VET practitioners; we talk of students rather than clients, of teaching more often than training. Although the skills needed inevitably overlap across the sector, there are conditions particular to working in a large educational institution that affect what goes in to making us effective teachers. They begin I believe with the culture of the institution we work within.
A supportive teaching community
In order to perform effectively as TAFE teachers, we need to feel supported by the people we work with; those we see every day and sometimes even more importantly, those we hardly ever see – the people who form policy and make decisions that affect what happens on the ground. RMIT has a culture, born of its history, which encourages and prioritises engagement with industry and perhaps because of this, there is an understanding at all levels of the nature and potential of TAFE. RMIT supports exciting and innovative TAFE programs that function independently but that also work in conjunction with Higher Education programs. It is this understanding that encourages such interesting qualifications as the dual award in Professional Writing and Physics.
Working in Creative Media, which is a dual sector school that doesn’t see TAFE as sitting at the bottom of a hierarchical structure but as a system that can support and offer alternatives to a range of qualifications, has encouraged and broadened my teaching experience. Another rewarding aspect has been the rich and diverse group of colleagues. I am fortunate enough to teach with. Teachers in the Professional Writing and Editing and Professional Screenwriting are an extraordinary group of people who are committed to their students in a way that I have rarely seen.
Strong Industry Links
One important aspect of being an effective teacher, which the award application process highlighted , was being prepared to form strong, on-going links with industry if we are going to give our students what they need.
TAFE teachers have long been aware of the benefits of work integrated learning and it underpins much of what we do. WIL contextualises classroom teaching and requires us to form solid partnerships with local business and professional communities. This again calls for very different kinds of skills than those we employ in the classroom or as practitioners, To be effective, TAFE teachers need to understand the links between training and workforce development. I am convinced that the work we put into building and participating in professional networks keeps us in touch with industry needs, which in turn ensures our industry related teaching remains up-to-date. These networksv also pay dividends when it comes to increasing students’ future employment opportunities in the creative industries.
Ongoing Professional Practice
As well as forging links between RMIT and industry, effective TAFE teachers must have their own place within that industry. ’‘Those who can, do and those who can’t……’ certainly shouldn’t be teaching in TAFE. One of our core strengths as teachers in this system has to be the current industry knowledge and understanding we bring to our teaching. In order to be able to do this, we must put time and effort into sustaining our own professional practice. That being said, finding this time and energy to do this can be very difficult, especially for those who are teaching full time.
Many students choose RMIT because of the industry profile of its teachers. The importance of maintaining this profile is recognized in theory, through ongoing discussion and even through these teaching awards, but in practical terms more needs to be done. TAFE teachers need formalized, sustained and ongoing support to develop their practice and to contribute actively within professional networks.
Student Centered Environment
The TAFE system, with its symbiotic relationship with industry and its particular methods of competency assessment, is clearly unlike any other. To be effective in this environment, we need to be skilled in two completely separate vocational areas. We must have a level of expertise in our area of practice and we also need to be able to teach. The role of the TAFE teacher is becoming increasingly complex and to perform well, we have to employ a range of complementary skills, all of which are underpinned by a need for flexibility
TAFE students often come from diverse backgrounds. Our writing programs for example, attract students of all ages from school leavers through to people in their seventies. We have more part time than full time students and they all have different priorities, aims and expectations of the programs. To teach effectively, we need to be able to encompass a range of perspectives and engage students so they become active participants in the learning process. To do this means using a range of strategies and teaching tools and recognizing different levels of knowledge and styles of learning.
We also adopt assessment methods and tasks that balance the learning outcomes of the course and the needs and capabilities of the students. This means interpreting training packages creatively, being willing to unpack and re-pack competencies, presenting them in ways which make them relevant and challenging to our students. In the writing and publishing world, employment has little to do with qualifications and everything to do with showing you can do the job better than the next person. Competency is not enough. So to teach effectively, our delivery and assessment practices have also to be flexible, taking into account both the competency criteria and the needs of our students.
Teaching to Learn
After reflecting on what went into being a successful TAFE teacher, I began thinking about what the students give back and how this in turn, feeds my teaching. Our students are a constant source of wonder to me. I am amazed and impressed by their openness and their hunger to improve – even if it means exposing their weaknesses in what amounts to a public forum. Many of the students I have taught are better writers than I will ever be and I am proud to have been instrumental in encouraging and motivating them to succeed. Thinking about this made me realize that being a good teacher means also being open to learning from our students – to an understanding that our role as a teacher is not just to impart knowledge but to create the conditions in which knowledge and understanding is shared.