Talking Teaching: Why I became a HEA Fellow – and went back to being a student again, by Professor Caroline Bowsher

“I’ve had a sabbatical. I’ve been a student. I’m a HEA Senior Fellow. And I’m an HEA Principal Fellow. All in all, it’s been quite a process, and quite a year or two.” – Professor Caroline Bowsher, Deputy Associate Dean for Pedagogical Development, Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, The University of Manchester

Caroline Bowsher has just emerged from what she openly admits was “the hardest year of my life.” In that time she put her teaching career on hold and went back to being a student. But that’s not even the half of it, as Caroline describes here.

I’d been thinking for some time about taking a sabbatical from teaching, to give me time to research how to support colleagues to effectively embed active learning into the curriculum. But then I started to realise that a sabbatical on its own wasn’t going to be enough. I wanted to do something to structure my sabbatical and focus my research. This approach had the added benefit that it allowed me to carry out some form of professional development and learn more about being a student in this current day and age. That’s when I decided to do an MA in Digital Technologies, Communication and Education. Besides learning about being a student, this would also allow me to become more au fait with technology, which I certainly wasn’t. I didn’t even have a mobile phone!

At the start of this process I was Deputy Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning and Students within the Faculty of Life Sciences at The University of Manchester. My Faculty had never given a teaching-type sabbatical before, so I wasn’t really sure if it was the kind of thing I could do. I spoke to both my Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning and my line manager and said ‘Would you be supportive of this?’ I said that I still wanted to keep my Deputy Associate Dean role, because I thought the insight that it gave me into teaching and learning was important in this context. And they said they would support me. Manchester has an annual Teaching Excellence Awards, and I thought ‘If I apply for one of those, then there’s enough money there to contribute to my course’. It was while I was putting together my successful application for the Teaching Excellence Awards that I started thinking about my credibility as a teacher. Rather than me going around saying ‘I’m a good teacher’, what did I actually have to demonstrate that? So I started thinking about Higher Education Academy accreditation. That’s how everything started coming together – the sabbatical, my course, and HEA accreditation.

Last year, I started my course and, at the time of writing, I’m still awaiting my marks. But regardless of how that turns out, the sabbatical worked out exactly as I wanted. I chose my studies in relation to thinking about the problem of how to embed active learning. While I was doing my course, we also had a Faculty restructure. Part of The Faculty of Life Sciences merged with other subject areas to become the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health. As a result I extended my study to encompass embedding active learning across the new Faculty that I now belonged to. It was exciting thinking about how I could do that within the new structure. It was perfect timing really.

So now my student ‘days’ are over. Was it difficult adjusting my mindset from student back to academic? Yes and no. Because the restructure was going on – and I was still acting as the Deputy Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning and Students – I was actually juggling being both all the time. However, it was undoubtedly the hardest year of my life in terms of everything that was going on and being a student. Weekends to myself just didn’t exist. But I’m glad I did it. I’m also now a Senior Fellow and a Principal Fellow of the HEA. That’s largely because I couldn’t decide which one I had the right credentials for. I was busy killing multiple birds doing everything, I’d already written everything down for my Senior Fellowship, and then I started thinking ‘I’ve got enough here for Principal Fellowship’. I went on a PFHEA writing retreat in Sheffield that really helped, giving me the reflective process that I needed to go through. That was critical, having the time to get away from distractions and think about what you’re trying to do. I’ve had a sabbatical. I’ve been a student. I’m a HEA Senior Fellow. And I’m an HEA Principal Fellow. All in all, it’s been quite a process, and quite a year or two.

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