Many student experience professionals have encountered the problem of needing to teach learners who aren’t engaged with the subject matter, or aren’t enrolled on a course out of their own choice.
With more than twenty years of experience teaching learners in a wide range of contexts, Rebecca Hodgson – Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning at Sheffield Hallam University – is an expert at helping reluctant learners complete difficult courses.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews sits down with Rebecca to learn more about her journey into Higher Education, and how her background in education shapes her approach to the field of student experience.
I would say that my journey in Higher Education has been quite unorthodox. I never had any grand plans to become an academic. I studied geography as an undergraduate at Sheffield University, and then went on to get a TEFL qualification so that I could teach English abroad for a while after graduating.
I ended up staying in Sheffield rather than travelling. I still used my TEFL qualification, though, by working with charities that support refugees and asylum seekers who have just arrived in the UK. After this, I took on a number of short-term teaching jobs, often in situations where I was teaching people who weren’t listening to me by choice – in settings like job centres, for example. This taught me a lot about how to educate a diverse range of people, as well as the importance of earning respect from learners rather than just expecting it.
After getting some work experience, I decided to study for a part-time PGCE in post-16 education at Sheffield Hallam University. That’s where I first became interested in teacher training, and at the same time I was still working with different organisations with a focus on encouraging adults back into further education.
Eventually an Associate Lecturer job opened up at Sheffield Hallam, which I was successful in applying for. This position involved working with very experienced further education lecturers so that they could achieve formal teaching qualifications. I dealt with a lot of imposter syndrome when I first started in that role. The night before my first teaching session, I actually cried because I was so scared and felt so intimidated.
I didn’t have a masters or a PhD – I’m from a small town in the North East of England, and neither of my parents had any further education. What I felt I could bring to my job was the experience I had in teaching learners who didn’t necessarily want to listen to me, and are in the classroom because they have to be, rather than because they want to be. My immediate approach was to find out as much as I could about the people I was teaching, about their skills, interests and experiences, so that I could understand how to facilitate useful learning for them.
In 2011, I decided to take a year of unpaid leave to focus on my mental health and well being. After six months, my manager decided to leave Sheffield Hallam, and I was invited to apply for the role on the understanding that if I was successful I would come back from my leave early. That’s when I became a Principal Lecturer, which gave me the opportunity to start influencing my Department and university on a broader scale. I was particularly proud that on one of the courses I led, the PgCert ‘staff course’ for new lecturers in the university, I improved the satisfaction rate from around 60% to 98%.
My immediate approach was to find out as much as I could about the people I was teaching, about their skills, interests and experiences, so that I could understand how to facilitate useful learning for them.
As a PL, course leader and academic tutor, responsibility for my students’ experience was part of my role for many years. My masters degree explored teaching quality and student experience, and for my doctorate I researched the experiences of new academics, undertaking a PgCert in Teaching in HE, who in that situation were learners themselves, so consideration of student experience was also really relevant here as well.
On top of this, the integral parts of student experience – self-efficacy, belonging, mattering, agency – are all concepts that are close to home for me.
I never felt that I belonged at university as a first-generation student. My personal experience, as well as working with learners from such a wide range of backgrounds, means that I’m passionate about working with and for students to help them reshape their opportunities and transform their lives.
One important aspect of supporting students well is raising their aspirations and showing them what’s possible. At Sheffield Hallam, we do this by increasing the visibility of amazing student success stories from our institution, to show students that people who have been in their shoes go on to do amazing things. Giving students role models in this way is crucial to their self-confidence and ambition.
At the same time, effective support systems like counselling and advice services are a given. At Sheffield Hallam we really put our money where our mouth is when it comes to making sure students can get the help they need, including financial support – we’ve invested time and resources into making sure our support services are joined up and responsive to student needs.
It’s vital that you have boundaries and maintain a work-life balance. You can’t help students if you don’t maintain your own well-being and mental health as a priority.
I think it might be harder or more competitive finding work in Higher Education now – I studied for both my Masters and my Doctorate while working full time here at Sheffield Hallam, whereas now I think there would be more of an expectation that you have these qualifications on entry. I also think it’s crucial for higher education professionals to build and maintain a profile outside of their own institution. So while it’s important to be committed to your role, make sure to carve out time for your personal projects and look outwards to your network for support and opportunities.
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, by Akala. This is a fantastic book that really shows people what white privilege means. I even recommended it to my mum, who has sent it on to other family members, so I’d definitely suggest it to anyone who really wants to understand how class and race inform our perspectives and shape our lives.