Margaret Henley - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Margaret Henley, Senior Tutor, Department of Film, Television and Media Studies, The University of Auckland, a Sustained Excellence winner 2010.
The whakatauki, Whaia te pae tawhiti kia tata mai, exhorts us to set our aspirations on a distant horizon and, as teachers, from time to time it is useful to reflect on this wisdom and re-evaluate our goals. If we do not continually look for ways that build on or challenge convention and common practice we will stagnate and fail in our task as educators. In the popular primetime television series ‘Lost’, a plane crashes on the shore of a tropical island. Some survivors do not get through the first few days and perish on the beach. Some arrive with readily honed skills and flourish; others, through trial and error, slowly begin to adapt, achieving goals considerably beyond their own expectations.
Coming from my discipline in media and practical television, ‘Lost’ works for me as a useful metaphor for thinking and writing about teaching and learning. Students and teachers – including myself – can often arrive at a seemingly hostile educational locale with what feels like inadequate carry-on luggage and begin the quest for survival. As a teacher there is great satisfaction in subtly signposting the way so the achievement becomes all theirs. They become ‘Academic Survivors’ on their own merit and take out into the world skills that will sustain them in the other crash sites of learning they will encounter throughout their lives. If we have done our job properly, we will not just have given them confidence within their discipline but revealed to them how to learn. That is what will sustain them.
Over the past couple of decades I have continued to refine the ways in which I think about teaching and learning from both sides of the fence. As a younger teacher I was immersed in the challenges and the joys of gaining control over content and saw my role as engaging students in developing vital discipline based skills. Increasingly, I came to understand that the path to attaining mastery comes from hugely differing starting points and you cannot make any assumptions about what students do know or should know as common ground. For my students to be able to gain the most value from their learning experience, I set out to construct ‘shelters of learning’ that acknowledge the variability in skill bases, and build from there. As my teaching has always been split between small class, production teaching and large class, theory based lectures, I have a range of delivery models to explore. Each year I deliberately experiment with one aspect of my content delivery or assessment, evaluate the results and introduce the changes to my other courses and share them with my colleagues.
As a trained teacher I have always analysed the annual assessment performance of every class I teach and consistently track this data through the years. Doing so makes me constantly confront my own performance and challenges assumptions I may have over the habitual delivery of core material, academic and practical skills. In the past I have linked my data against the university and faculty pass rate statistics, broken down by ethnicity so that I could place my teaching results in a wider context. This nonpublished research received a serendipitous boost when a visiting Australian academic presented a longitudinal study on student engagement. It was a case of being in the right room at the right time with my listening ears on. I then embarked on a research project with a colleague to explore the life/work/study balance of incoming Stage One students in my own department and track them through to graduation. Once the huge amount of data was crunched it gave us simple but nevertheless catalytic insights into student views on learning. Increasingly, our project linked us with international researchers working in a similar field and opened a rewarding area of conference presentations and publishing. For me, what mattered most about this research was how to put our findings into practice. To date, seven separate teaching initiatives that came out of this research have been taken up at Faculty level as special projects or examples of best practice. The most exciting initiative is the current First Year Mentoring Programme, which grew out of a Media Mentor trial scheme in my department in 2009. In 2011 this scheme will provide senior student mentoring support to all new students in the Faculty of Arts.
Building the Right Learning Shelter
For me, equity encompasses the needs of all students who, for a wide range of contributing social, cultural and economic reasons, find the transition to tertiary study challenging. When I first started teaching at the University, there was no ongoing, systematic structure of academic support targeted directly at specific equity groups. To try and meet this challenge in my own department, I established an equity framework targeted at English Additional Language and Māori and Pacific students at Stage One, and all students who wanted additional academic skills support at Stage Two and Three. As faculty and university-wide teaching support initiatives developed, this discipline based framework remained distinct from but dovetailed into these generic services. At Stage One the department structure was based on providing additional tutorials that were not remedial but supported Māori and Pacific students in particular to gain a higher grade point average in a culturally welcoming learning space. Now in existence for over a decade, this tutorial routinely delivers a pass rate at a grade level higher than the course average and has become a training ground to mentor Māori and Pacific postgraduate students.
Learning from Others
Universities are tradition-bound institutions with relatively fixed rules on teaching and evaluation that have changed little over the years. The significant reorganisation of assessment throughout our secondary teaching sector, particularly since the introduction of NCEA, has meant that students are increasingly expecting more varied modes of assessment and comprehensive levels of feedback at tertiary level. In my Stage One class of 550-plus students, I am continually seeking ways to embed learning into assessment, drawing on the strengths of the standards-based approach, which will make the assessment process more engaging for students. This forces one back to the basics: identifying the core skills of what you need the students to take through with them to the next stage, then designing your content delivery and a matching assessment framework that appears logical and attainable to the students. I am currently restructuring my Stage One assessment to increase the ways in which students are able to receive timely feedback on their acquisition of core skills.
Learning by Doing!
Teaching television production is pure joy: in particular, the television studio, which provides me with a veritable primordial swamp of creativity where students are out of their traditional learning environment and faced with learning a whole new set of skills in a relatively short time. In this very specific, skills based environment, I can experiment with a full range of teaching and assessment techniques that are just not always possible in a big mainstream class. It is a shelter of learning but it is also a tough shelter with clearly defined rules – support one another and take control of your own learning or perish. In over two decades of teaching production I have not had one student who selected the ‘perish’ option. They work in tight production teams to produce a magazine-format programme at the end of the semester, which is not possible unless they all contribute at the same level. Each has a different and clearly defined role and 80% of their assessment comes together in 22 minutes at the end of the semester. Pressure? Yes, of course. Stress? Yes, a generous serving. Do they like learning this way? No they don’t – they love learning this way.
The goal students are to achieve is set firmly on that distant horizon, the steps of how to get there are clearly signposted, and they noticeably gain in confidence as they learn how to draw on the strengths of each other to achieve the result. For the last section of the semester I am, in reality, doing very little teaching; I am just finessing their performance. They are in effect running their own sessions by this time, determined to improve on the standard reached by the production teams in previous years. On our big assessment day when we record six live programmes, the atmosphere is electric. The students turn up looking fabulous with production schedules, planning lists, props, etc., all meticulously completed and ready to go. Now, as their assessor, I witness them perform all I have taught them and more; often much more. They are so proud of their programme, themselves and each other. They delight in pushing the boundaries, showing me they can bend my rules creatively and at the end of the assessment session they are often reluctant to leave and face that it is now all over. I have yet to see a student leave a formal examination room with the same level of exhilaration after demonstrating what they have learned that semester.
Although it is not possible to teach the same way in larger classes, I do try to inject a production element where I can into my senior undergraduate classes to engage students in a different style of delivery content. Preparing a non-production class in one two-hour session in a television studio then bringing in highly experienced media professionals the next week for them to interview is a make or break situation. My secret is not to waver when you see the students’ anxiety. Instead, I create an environment in which they believe that they can perform, and every year they do just that. It is a productive way to promote outreach beyond the university community and bring what could be potential employers into the students’ environment where they can see them confidently performing on their own patch. In this way, they are meeting the learning needs of the course but also preparing themselves for life after graduation in a few months time.
Acknowledging Good Teaching
For me, winning this award is an affirmation that good teaching really does matter. It does have the capacity to change lives and open students up to expectations that they would not have dared to dream about without encouragement. I have had teachers and colleagues who have done the same for me, for which I will be forever grateful.
It is a tremendous opportunity for me to become a member of the Ako Aotearoa Academy, which enables me to join a ‘learning shelter’ with likeminded people and share in a knowledge base that I know will enrich my own teaching for many years to come.
Nō reira, ki a koutou ngā rangatira, tēnā koutou katoa.
Peer and Student Comments
“There is virtually no area of pedagogy in which Margaret has not demonstrably excelled. She is not merely an effective and resourceful educator but someone who truly does inspire the students and teachers with whom she works. Margaret works harder than most other people I have known, this relentless effort fuelled by her sheer delight in teaching and her determination to make a genuine difference in the lives of those that are fortunate enough to be her students.”
Dr Trisha Dunleavy, Senior Lecturer, Media Studies, School of English , Film and Theatre, Victoria University of
“Without your time, patience, assistance, guidance and kind-hearted, friendly nature I would not be in the place of my dream career.”
James Hanline, Student, Stage Two production, 2004
“Margaret goes well beyond her responsibilities as a lecturer, and because she values her students and their efforts, she tries to help her students get the most out of their academic learning. I am personally very grateful to Margaret for instigating and developing the internship program between the University and SKY Television. She has given me and other students the encouragement and confidence to achieve outcomes that we did not even expect of ourselves. Margaret went well out of her way and further than what is expected of ‘lecturers’ to provide this incredible employment opportunity for us, as students, so that we were able to gain some work experience to complement our academic learning. Margaret truly cares about the well-being of her students beyond the lecture room, and because of this, she continues to facilitate opportunities like these.”
Shalinie De Soysa, Presentation Director, SKY TV
“Without your support in my undergraduate days (especially October 2005), I certainly would be in a different scenario now, certainly no scholarships, no Masters degrees, no publications in peer reviewed journals, no research funding, no contributing to debates of national significance. Without your support I would have followed my other destiny: that of high school dropout, university drop out, frustrated slave to low wages and casual employers, boozer, junkie and then what? Enjoy the award. It represents the gratitude of myself and countless other students who have benefited from your vivid and engaging teaching style and your staunch support for those of us who have a tendency to fall by the wayside.”
Nathan Cowie, Masters scholar, School of Population Health, The University of Auckland