Martin Roberts, ‘Teaching for the first time’

I began my first teaching session with a strange combined sense of trepidation and excitement. As a mature student, with both a previous career and more than two years of almost completely independent study behind me, I suddenly had to face up to the reality of my being answerable, even if only in a relatively modest way, for the education of others. Entirely comfortable with the hostile arena of the courtroom, and responsible for much of the professional training of those I had once employed, I had long ago shed those feelings of nervousness I had once felt upon entering a room or when placed in positions of responsibility but, I thought, this was something different.

I had taken on board, or so I believed, what was to be required of me as a seminar tutor. First and foremost I understood the need to be a facilitator, someone who stimulated discussion, and most definitely I was not to be a school teacher. I was certainly filled with enthusiasm. After all, I had made the decision to leave the legal profession and aim for a second career in academia and, so far, nothing about the experience had disappointed me. This was another step, and I was looking forward to taking it, but the question I kept asking myself was “would I be any good?”

Now, even after just a few weeks’ experience, and even though I still find myself asking “Will I be any good?” prior to every session, I have come to appreciate a greater benefit in answering the question “Was I any good?” after its end. To me, at least, the need for such reflection continues to grow in importance. After each session I write a log, no more than half a page of A4 in length, considering the seminar as a whole, what was successful and what less so. I consider every part of the session, not simply my own performance, but the aim is always to strive for improvement. Sadly I still seem unable to remember the names of more than half of my seventeen students, despite trying several different techniques to improve my powers of recollection, but I try not to worry too much about that! The noting of small details I felt were important at the time, but which would otherwise soon be forgotten, has been a boon.

Some things have been challenging. Several people have sought to explain, prior to my first seminar, that it was unnecessary to understand a great deal about the period I was being employed to teach. I confess that that is a concept I have found, and still find, rather difficult to accept. Such advice is, I am completely sure, offered with the best of intentions but it also comes from those who have both considerable experience and tremendous knowledge. It took me many years as a solicitor to both be competent and feel completely confident but, more importantly, it took me just as long to realise how uncomfortable a lack of knowledge can seem to someone else without that same experience.  And now, of course, I find that the boot is on the other foot. My enthusiasm has not dented one bit but, on occasions, I have been known to grumble to myself that there is rather a large gap between others “very little knowledge” of, say, the Vikings and the way I currently interpret those same three words!

It is not that I wish to spoon-feed my students, after all they ought to be the main drivers of their own education. I can, and regularly have, suggested to them that it does not much matter if I am unable to answer any one of their questions so long as I can guide them to where they might begin the process of research. But I have certainly felt that a complete lack of detailed knowledge has hampered my ability both to stimulate any debate and control its direction. Until my own research each week has led me to a point where I understand beyond a topic’s main themes the ability to feel I can confidently explain to my students the session’s aims and objectives, and to choose the very best type of activity with which to aid their investigation, has often eluded me. I have always reached such a point in good time, and have no fear of being ultimately unable to do so, but to prepare for a seminar in an hour (which is all I am paid for) has, to be completely honest, almost always been impossible. I have no wish to enter the seminar room ill-prepared and think I would be doing my students a disservice were I to be so. Preparation even of a few Powerpoint slides in order to try to give some structure to the session, and sometimes complete with a short video or simply some pictures, the reading of primary and secondary sources, and finally preparation of each week’s written action plan (which enables me to stick closely to timings and ensure as much as possible is achieved), often takes five or six hours. On occasion it has taken longer than that, especially if I have had to create a few “props”.

Upon re-reading the above I seems a little like a complaint. It is certainly not that at all. I am very happy to do the extra work, and in any event regard it as essential even a matter of personal pride, but I have felt it necessary to record the challenge each week entails. However, with experience will come speed as I learn which aspects of preparation are really important and which were more probably due to personal insecurity. With greater experience too ought to come both greater knowledge and a wider range of teaching techniques from which to choose. Each week ought to, and I suspect will, feed my confidence. I believe very much that I have had some successes (a “snow-balling” session on Charlemagne comes to mind, as does the “office-hours” advice I gave to a student scared of giving her first presentation) and I have tried some things which have been less effective (seeking to persuade students to expand upon the point they have just made is not always easy). But, in short, I suppose that I have rapidly come to understand that teaching, vital though it is for the students, is as much about learning what I can be capable of, or not, as it is about anything else.