Top lecturers share their teaching secrets: passion, focus and flexibility

What sets brilliant university lecturers apart from their more average peers? Omar Faruk/Reuters

What makes a great teacher? Globally, university teaching is often dismissed by academics as being secondary to research. But, for the 2015 winners of South Africa’s National Excellence in Teaching and Learning Awards, teaching comes first.

I was a member of the selection committee for the 2015 awards and sat down with the winners to find out what makes them tick as teachers.

Enjoyment factor

What makes teaching so central to your own academic identity and what parts of your teaching bring you the most enjoyment?

Tania Hanekom: Having the privilege to shape and support the future of the intellectual youth of our country and in this way help to build a better future for all far outweighs any conventional incentives [such as financial rewards for research output].

Andri Prozesky: Being an astronomer, my research is far removed from human experience and immediate benefit to society. Teaching bridges this disconnect and gives me an opportunity to connect with people. All teachers are in a position where even small gestures can have a substantial effect on students’ confidence, outlook and thinking. Most people will easily be able to recall specific teachers in their lives who, usually unknowingly, had this effect on them.

Marianne McKay: Even during my own undergraduate experience 30 years ago, the lecturer who took charge of teaching the first and second years in Chemistry was “only” a doctor. He was quietly chortled at by the rest of the department, although none of them would ever have agreed to take on his enormous workload. I would say the majority of my current colleagues probably view teaching as a necessary chore, too.

From an intensely personal viewpoint, when I’m with a class I’m completely present. Everything else disappears. There is no space for anything except the learning. I have to find ways to do, describe, discuss, present, that haven’t been done before. Every single time, even with the same material, it is different.

The other part, of course, is that if I succeed in helping them to learn the students will become professionals and go out and achieve even more. I have contributed to the foundation of a person’s career, and helped them – a little – to build a life and a future. That is a great feeling.

Mike Savage: Teaching is an essential part of the fabric of academic life. The young minds of today are the researchers of tomorrow. Without good teaching, the future of research is not sustainable.

Carolyn McGibbon, Gwamaka Mwalemba and Elsje Scott: Teaching is the mirror that reflects the research done to inform one’s teaching practice. The one cannot exist without the other. Teaching is the joy of planting a seed and seeing it flourish. It is the excitement of accepting the challenge to unlock boundless potential.

Members of the 2014 awards panel reflect on what ‘good teaching’ is.

Excellence

What does excellence in teaching mean for you in your context?

Andri: At its heart, I think excellence is about not accepting the status quo, but actively deconstructing, interrogating and improving it. In the teaching environment excellence is necessarily closely related to outcomes. But by its nature this concept is very hard to quantify in a meaningful way. It would be short-sighted to measure excellence purely on things like pass rates, student numbers and student experience. I think excellent teaching means to be inclusive, while at the same time having high expectations of your students.

Marianne: I teach oenology, which is the chemistry and science behind wine making. The wine industry is, of course, far bigger than wine making and encompasses everything from soil science and water management to being able to manage exports, sell your product at trade fairs and deal with people from all sorts of situations and circumstances. It is impossible for an undergraduate academic programme to address everything.

So for me, excellent teaching in oenology will involve providing as many opportunities as possible for all our students to become well-rounded professionals who can make an excellent range of products, but can also solve problems, manage, innovate and empathise. I imagine this definition could encompass contexts other than oenology?

Mike: Excellence in teaching means connecting – very quickly – with students. With passion. This involves understanding the students’ learning difficulties – working, talking, and communicating with students using a very empathetic approach in lecturing and at the same time imparting more than just knowledge.

Carolyn, Gwamaka and Elsje: Excellence in teaching incorporates passion and courage to take both the teacher and students though a journey on learning and sense making that involves engaging various complex challenges facing our communities. These kinds of teaching and learning challenges also empower scholars. It encourages the kind of thinking, practice and innovation that is meaningful, socially embedded and relevant to address challenges as well as enforcing the values embraced within society.

Society

How do you think your own teaching approaches and curriculum content attend to the concerns raised in 2015 by student movements?

Tania: Transformation to me means to destroy the grounds for biases by empowering everyone to contribute to the building of our country, including those seeking a career in higher education. Being a woman in engineering I find it degrading to even consider that I might be appointed because of my gender or just for the sake of transformation; being a woman is coincidental. I want to be recognised for my abilities and the contribution I can make.

My mission is thus to prepare all my students, whoever they may be, to be recognised for their effective, high-quality skills. Only then can there be equality and only then can real transformation take place.

Andri: South African universities are increasingly run as businesses and financial sustainability informs almost all their decisions. In our recovering society, the social impact of universities should be prioritised and they should be leaders of change.

In my teaching, I emphasise critical thought and the construction of valid arguments based on evidence. In a democratic society, solutions necessarily start with informed debate. Our graduates should be engaged thinkers who can struggle with complex issues, appreciate larger context and ultimately bring about positive change

Great lecturers give their students time and attention. Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Marianne: I have started to make space for social justice issues in my modules. Regular changes to the curriculum are an excellent opportunity to adopt and adapt, too. But it really is a tough call to raise what are seen as “social” issues of transformation in a technical or scientific context. It is possible, but takes some creative thinking and careful de- and re-construction of curriculum content to find the right space to do it without it appearing tacked-on and affected.

We don’t have a choice, though. To use a scientific analogy, not transforming is like defiantly sticking to only Newtonian physics, while the world outside the classroom is being rebuilt using quantum concepts.

Mike: Most of my students have a mother tongue other than English. Many of the terms we use in lectures do not exist in their language. I call this language stagnation. We have approached scientific societies with a proposal that a technical glossary of terms for isiZulu and isiXhosa for the Atmospheric Sciences be created – but we need help.


More information about the awards and how the winners were selected is available on the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa’s website.