National Teaching Fellowship

Regular readers will know that last year I was lucky enough to be selected by my institution to apply for a National Teaching Fellowship award. I am delighted that, in my first blog post of 2017, I am able to report that I did it – I’m now an NTF! Well, I will be once I’ve been to the super glam awards ceremony in a few weeks’ time.

You can read my NTF profile here. And, the news release here.

This post is not about blowing my own trumpet. I’ve had an abundance of hugs, emails, very lovely words, and lots of ‘very proud”s from my mum. I’m definitely feeling all the love (if I was inclined to put emoticons in blog posts there would be a large smiley face here).

Instead, I want to do two things:

  1. Thank everyone who supported me on my NTF journey; and
  2. Encourage others who don’t think they could possibly go for an award like this to jolly well go ahead and do it.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you need a team

On page 1 of my NTF application, I told a story. A real one, set way back when I started my first teaching role. I wrote about the members of staff that filled 21 year old me with confidence. Confidence to walk into a room and teach students often much older than myself. Confidence to design seminars and workshops on topics I had just got to grips with. Confidence to speak up in meetings which, even now, I would find intimidating.

I was out there, doing my thing, day to day in the classroom. Little, 21 year old me. At the front of the room, walking round the tables, encouraging participation, discouraging disruptive behaviour, and probably making awful jokes (I like to make jokes, which teacher doesn’t?). When I look back now, I realise I was never alone in any of the classrooms I frequented. I was enveloped, cushioned you might say, by an invisible bubble of mentorship. The sort of mentoring that doesn’t announce itself, but quietly, stealthily builds you up and shapes who you are. Now, aged 36, I’m fortunate to still be in receipt of the mentorship ‘bubble’. I’m surrounded by colleagues who help me find my direction, who model excellent practice, and who provide practical and emotional support.

And, throughout the years, there have been countless teams, with countless members, encouraging, supporting, laughing, crying, having a good whinge, providing solutions, rolling metaphorical sleeves up, sharing the load. Being there. You don’t get to where you are alone. I certainly didn’t. Thank you.

You could make a wish, or you could make it happen

I was sat on the left-hand side of an East Coast train carriage, next to the window, in a two seater when I started following the NTF twitter account. A slightly fuzzy memory – as it’s an old one – but it’s there, fixed in my brain. I can smell the dusky seat covers. I can feel the phone in my hand, and my OH’s leg pressed up next to mine. I can see me scrolling through the enthusiastic tweets on learning and teaching, and I can sense the longing to join in. But I didn’t. I sat there and scrolled and read and dreamed about being a part of the NTF community.

As I’ve said before, I nearly didn’t put an application in.  And you know what? That application was tough. Night upon night on the sofa, candles burning, music on, crafting something that embodied what I was about. Worrying that something that embodied what I was about might raise eyebrows, or be totally off the boil. Revising, rewriting, cutting bits out, digging hard to say – eloquently – what came so naturally to mind but could not for some reason make it out on to the laptop keyboard. I’m unsure I’ll ever produce such an intense piece of work in that sort of timescale again.

Just getting to the point of submission was a major achievement. Honestly (really honestly) I didn’t expect to be successful, and I felt absolutely fine about that. I was in my PJs when I got the news. I walked upstairs, into the bedroom, stared at my OH and said ‘Guess who’s an NTF?’. And then I made him read the email just in case I’d got it wrong.

Dreams do come true sounds a bit too schmaltzy – even for me. But, what I do know is that things don’t happen unless you give them a go. So do it. Just go on and do it. It may not work. Heck, most of my stuff never does. But every now and again, it might. It just might.

Photo, Jesmond Dene, Newcastle upon Tyne (c) Elaine Campbell, 2016 

Like Ghostbusters’ Dr Jillian Holtzmann, we too can be quirky and successful

Two weeks ago I was in New York City, presenting a paper at the International Legal Ethics Conference. I stayed on for a few extra days in that wonderful city. And (amongst theatre visits, running along the Hudson River, and eating the most gorgeous pizza in Hell’s Kitchen),  I visited locations featured in the 1984 film Ghostbusters.

Ghostbusters is a childhood favourite of mine. I must have watched it 100 plus times. It was one of the first DVDs I bought. I quote it at length, at random moments. Last September, when we visited New York for the first time, Mark and I sought out ‘Spook Central’, the apartment block where Rick Moranis’s Louis Tully and Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett live (and – spoiler alert – where the final fight scene with Mr Stay Puft takes place).

This time, I really went for it. I realised my hotel was only 10 minutes from Columbia University, from which Drs Venkman and Stanz are unceremoniously ejected. Next to the beautiful fountain and library steps, the Drs concoct a plan to set up in business as catchers of spectral forces. As a child (and in every subsequent viewing), I saw Bill Murray sitting on a wall outside the Columbia University library drinking from a bottle – and thought he was the coolest human being I had ever come across. I sat on that very wall (and some others just in case I’d got it wrong) and was overcome with pure joy (see photo for said joyfulness – and evidence I’m no good at rubbing in suncream). Later, I went back to Spook Central.  And I did a twirl a la Dr Venkman outside the Met Opera fountain – just like many other people it seems! I didn’t do the jumpy foot dance though. Not cool enough for that.

It’s just a film, right? Yes. It is. And it’s blatant nostalgia on my part. I totally accept that. But it means something to me.

So, when I went to see the new Ghostbusters film (the one with – shock horror – women in) I wondered how I would feel about it. I entered the cinema wishing the filmmakers, cast and crew well, not least because of all of the completely unnecessary rubbish they’ve been forced to endure. But I really didn’t know what my reaction would be.

I exited the cinema with one thought. I loved Dr Jillian Holtzmann. Played by Kate McKinnon, Holtzmann is an expert scientist, creating spectacular gadgets and stunning equipment for the Ghostbusters crew. She’s also, as director Paul Feig has said, a ‘glorious weirdo’. She is pure quirk. She says what she thinks without affectation. Her gear (those googles! that jacket!) is thrown-together-stylish. Her stance is empowered and confident, yet she’ll kick her legs up on the table whilst she’s working because, hey, she’s just more comfortable that way. Importantly, she is completely at ease with herself. And clever, successful, inspiring, practical, and innovative. In short, she is all the Professor I aspire to be.

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She’s the one on the right. I may strike this pose walking into lectures. 

Before I went to New York, I spent every evening frantically drafting my National Teaching Fellowship application. Whilst I was away, the application would go through an internal review process, and it wasn’t until my last day in the Big Apple that I heard the outcome.

Initially, I had deleted the email containing the call for applications. I kept thinking about it, but hesitated. But after being asked for the third time whether I was going to go for it, I finally took the hint, and decided I would.

What made me hesitate? Confidence (or rather lack of) was certainly a factor. I looked at the criteria and the other NTFs and wondered if I was good enough. But alongside this, I had decided that if I was going to write 5000 words about excellence – individual, raising the profile of, and developing – then I wanted to write using my voice, and (to borrow from Frank) my way.  In essence, my plan was to let rip the glorious weirdo, rather than create a document which dispassionately observed achievements and goals.  And I wondered whether this would be an exercise in futility. Academia has funny old thoughts about writing in your own voice. We reject (and/or perhaps fear?) the use of ‘I’ in our academic work. Our creative, subjective expressions of self seem to get crushed, right from the word go.

But I put this all to the back of my head and got writing.

An example of utilising my own voice? Well, part of the application requires you to evidence your commitment to ongoing professional development in teaching and learning and/or learning support. At first I did what I suspect most people would do and started to list all of staff seminars, CPD days, conferences etc. I’ve ever attended. Then I deleted it, and started again. Because, let’s be honest, some sessions we go to are useful, and some are not. Listing all the sessions I’ve ever been to does not evidence my commitment to ongoing professional development. Quite frankly, all that sort of list does is evidence commitment to attending events which promise tea and biscuits (or sometimes – gasp – cake).  So I wrote that (although not the bit about the refreshments). I wrote that I’d started writing a big long list, but that didn’t evidence my commitment to developing my own practice. What really develops my practice? Random conversations in corridors about trying new teaching activities. Going up to a speaker after their conference paper, teasing out the issues, and then following up with an email or phone call to work out possible collaborations. Watching a colleague handle a room of disgruntled, nervous students and replicating her strategies. Catching up over a cuppa (those refreshments again). Arranging a writing day with my PhD Buddy. I wrote about that. Like I’ve just done here.

And you know what? They liked it. In fact, one reviewer said they loved it (!). That bit about professional development – the bit I thought the panel would either roll their eyes at or dismiss kindly as ‘engaging, but not scholarly’ – got the highest praise out of the whole thing. So, I am thrilled to say that my application is now in the hands of the reviewers at the Higher Education Academy. And I am thrilled that it represents me. The proper me. With a large dollop of quirk. And also successful, creative, practical, and clever.

Who are you going to call? Well, that’s easy. Call on yourself – you’re the best person for the job.

Running up that hill: a Thank You

On Thursday, I was awarded joint Law Teacher of the Year at the Northern Law Awards with the wonderful Jenny Jarvie of Bishop Auckland College. I was thrilled to share the award with such a passionate, caring, innovative teacher. We were both called upon to give an acceptance speech. This post is an extended version of mine.  

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Last Saturday, I did parkrun. Have you heard of parkrun? Free, timed, 5k runs, 9am every Saturday. Have a look at the website – there’s bound to be one near you. My local parkrun takes place at Whitley Bay.

Now, I run to think. I use the time to work things out in my mind, and to draft and re-draft speeches, bits of conference papers, applications, titles of blog posts etc.

You might think that a seafront run would be fairly flat.  And indeed there is a lovely start at my parkrun, where we run down a slope onto a long pathway parallel to the sand with the lighthouse in front of us. But about halfway round the course there is a humdinger of a hill. The sort of hill that makes you take a deep breath. The sort of hill that makes your head bow low (don’t look at the top, don’t look at the top…!).

I’ve been drafting some long documents for a few weeks now. Documents that require me to talk about my teaching practice, and why I love to teach. I’ve written and re-written over 10,000 words, carefully crafting statements that attempt to show what it is that makes me get up and go to work.

As I approached the hill of doom last Saturday, it suddenly dawned on me. It was oh so simple:  there were two reasons why I loved my job.

My colleagues. My confidence building, supportive colleagues who put the student experience at the heart of everything they do even in the most challenging of times.

My students. My bright, articulate, capable students whose varied interests outside of their academic life make them so exciting to work with. Many of our former students are in this room tonight, up for “Rising Star” or “Trainee of the Year”. We are so so proud of you. Well done. We are proud of all of our students and everything they achieve.

Buoyed by those thoughts, I soon found myself at the top of the hill. Not only that… I got a Personal Best(!). I will continue to try to do my best for my colleagues and for my students for the remainder of my teaching career. Thank you.

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