If you have young children returning to primary school after the summer break – you’re probably worrying about the pandemic and its management, as well as getting all the usual things sorted ready for the beginning of another year. But I bet your children are wondering about whether they’ll get a good teacher or not.

If you have children in secondary school things will be a little different. They will study a range of subjects and no single teacher will dominate their year. But they will still care deeply which teachers they get.

What about if your children are in tertiary education? At universities we don’t have teachers that take Class 3B for the whole year, but it still really matters to students that the teaching is good.

The mission of universities is the creation of knowledge and its transmission – research and teaching.  Many people worry that universities worldwide have tended to privilege research over teaching.

During my career there has been a strong emphasis on research. The rationale is that doing research on problems the government and industry care about, drives grant dollars up, reputation up, and accordingly international student fee revenues up. This creates an upward spiral of re-investment as each and every institution aspires to become a world leading research university, like Harvard. It’s not a bad strategy, except that not every university should want to, or will ever contribute in precisely the same way as Harvard!

So, the problem I’ve been thinking about is how do we reset the balance? One way is to broadcast our plans to actually recruit and support good teachers. This is more radical than it sounds since historically, when universities have recruited individual academics, they’ve tended to base their decisions on an applicant’s research achievements.

It’s never been a conspiracy. It happened naturally because there was often a lack of useful data on teaching. When I was first appointed to a fixed term Level B Lectureship I was 30 years old. I had had completed my doctorate and done two post-doctoral research appointments. I had more than eight years research experience, so it was easy to judge my research achievements. I had done some teaching but could produce very little reliable evidence of my achievements in teaching.

Even if evidence about my teaching had been there, the appointment committee may not have found it easy to evaluate. Many senior academics try very hard to favour substance over form. They will look at research discoveries, consider the publications, presentations, contributions to academic societies, get references from researchers they may know and trust – always looking for solid data on research achievements. But how do they judge teaching? They won’t have been taught by the applicant. Student feedback may be available, but some will ask – is this a popularity contest, do we want a showman, is there bias in these data, can we be sure the teaching is rigorous? At universities we constantly discuss – ‘what do we mean by a good teacher?’

But I expect you know. Think back to your own education – I bet there were a few exceptional teachers in primary, secondary, and tertiary education who were gifted educators, who cared, who used their knowledge and their skills to inspire you to do better, and who helped you become the person you are. Despite what some people think, it’s not easy to be a great teacher, and it’s not always been easy for an appointment committee to identify great teachers.

My position is that times have changed. Now in the age of digital teaching one can sometimes actually see teachers in action. There is also often other information on line about contributions to teaching and course design. One can also get data on class sizes, student survey response rates, and read student comments, and carefully consider their context. These data are sometimes better than the H indices, impact factors, and individual papers, that can influence hiring on the basis of research. When one combines information on teaching, with conventional academic credentials, and reference checks, one can confidently make appointments. One can recruit good teachers!

So, I’m scouring the sector to build our team with new recruits. Inspiring educators.

Is it working?

UNSW now has more than 400 Education Focussed academics who are with us because of their demonstrated talent, skills, contributions, and passion for teaching. We’ve also been able to acknowledge and move some of our great casual academics into continuing Education Focussed positions – having an extended calendar reduces the pressure to build up a sessional workforce.

Over the summer I’ve been busy working with my colleagues across the university to try to land some teaching super-stars – I’ve been looking for the Buddy Franklins and Sam Kerrs of teaching.  Other universities worldwide who aren’t looking after their great teachers – watch out! If the message spreads then perhaps every university will take better care of their best teachers. That would shift the balance!

Of course, no single star player will ever be everything in teaching, in the way a single Nobel Laureate might lift an institution’s whole research reputation. Nevertheless, of course we want more top teachers, and we are welcoming some already, at the same time as we continue to grow our own talent, and provide a bigger and better professional community for our dedicated educators.

I am determined to show we care about local things, and not only the league tables and global prominence. We want to establish a new type of upward spiral that recognizes the importance of exceptional university teachers, and delivers the most inspired graduates to the community. That’s one way we can serve society.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life




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