Building evidence for teaching-focussed promotions

Almost all academic promotion criteria will list teaching activities as one of the core areas where candidates will need to demonstrate evidence, but there is a growing population of teaching-focussed/teaching-only/teaching and scholarship/teaching fellow staff where this criterion will obviously be much more important. Having been on a working group on this matter in my own university, been asked to write quite a lot of references for people in this population, and been thinking about my own career, this topic has been close to my heart for the last few years, and I plan here to share some observations that might help others focus their work on generating different types of evidence for promotion.

One major caveat to all of this is that the whole area of teaching focus promotions is disruptive to the academic norm, and therefore impossible to generalise. Therefore what I say below in no way means to get away from the fact the topic of teaching focussed promotions will likely depend on institutional policy, on particular local circumstances, and on a general unspoken matter of who the local gatekeeper is. A head of school who has notions about what is or isn’t The Path to Promotion will likely be undeterred from The Path by any policy or guidance. All I can say is that I think and hope things are improving generally.

Terminology

When talking about promotions, the terminology becomes complicated, so I have set out the kinds of terms used that I am familiar with and show how these align with standard grades we use here at Edinburgh, which because is out of 10 means it is easy. This alignment isn’t exact, but I can explain my reasoning if anyone wants.

Grade /10 Teaching Fellow Categories Usual UK Categories US-influenced UK Categories
7 Teaching Fellow
8 Senior Teaching Fellow Lecturer Assistant Professor
9 (Senior Teaching Fellow -> Senior Lecturer) Senior Lecturer Associate Professor
Platform 9 ¾ Reader  

Professor

10 Professor

Headlines

Some key things to remember about teaching focussed promotions are:

  1. As you move up the scale, the evidence necessary moves further from the chalkboard. This is a sad reality, but ultimately just being a really great teacher, year in and year out, is unlikely to be enough to make a case beyond grades 7 & 8.
  2. What changes is increasing leadership in teaching, certainly at grades 9 & 10, so that beyond the baseline of doing a really good job in your own teaching, you influence the teaching of others. This aligns well generally with the notion that academic promotions are associated with increasing leadership in the field.
  3. Being a busy bee is less valuable than being a strategically busy bee. Aligning teaching and leadership activities to your school and university strategies, or problems that emerge on an ongoing basis, or demonstrating something new that offers an advantage for your School in your university or compared to other departments in your discipline, means it will more likely get noticed. Doing things because you think they should be done but don’t resonate with anyone else (read: anyone involved in making decisions) will not carry much weight. I’ve a whole cupboard full of stuff that I have done but no one cares about. It’s personally satisfying, but won’t add to a promotion case.
  4. As well as recognising the emerging role of leadership, the second main thing is recognising the importance of evidence of your activity and its impact. Ultimately a case is going to be: (1) here is the sad state of affairs; (2) here is what I did; (3) this is how it is better and this is how I know. I’m going to dwell on the last point below. If you do something, and no-one knows what happened as a result of it, it might as well not have happened for the purposes of promotion.
  5. Finally, get used to saying “I”. It is your promotion case, so the evaluators will look to see what you did beyond anyone else. So make it clear what you did. This means not being humble. “We redeveloped the lab course” – did “we”? Or was it you who stayed on working through everything to get it finished. Similarly with committee work; are you on a university or Society committee? If so what did you do that made a difference on that committee? Many people are on committees so they can say they are on committees, and any decent evaluation would look to see what the individual’s actions were. While things are naturally collaborative, make it clear what it was that you did that made a difference.

Some suggestions follow…

A: Activity within your school

More than just a safe pair of hands

Teaching focussed people are generally busy with teaching, and it can be hard to move beyond just dealing with the freight train of workload each year. One approach is to identify what the hot topics in your School are. What is coming up in NSS? Are students moaning about labs (yes, they always are)? What kinds of issues emerge at Staff Student meetings? What emerged as things that needed some firefighting? These kinds of things tend to get on the radar of heads of school and similar, and they can be useful places to start building a narrative: “Here is something that was not working well” (make sure that is logged in the minutes of any meeting if you intend to approach it). It may be that the teaching work you are doing could, with some tweaks, help to address the issue you identify. If students are moaning about labs, and you are involved in labs, making some change that will likely have some impact. The narrative extends to: “this is what I did”. Then you need some way of capturing impact – and this can be tricky, as students are less vociferous when things are going super. I’ve found that students talking across different year groups helped surface changes (“that was awful”… “no it’s actually ok now” – GET THAT LITTLE BEAUTY MINUTED!). Sometimes if you’re lucky it might emerge in course questionnaires. Or sometimes someone senior in the department might say something about how things have really improved (MINUTE IT!). Keep emails with anything indicating improvement in a special folder. And so the narrative concludes with: “it’s better now, and here is how I know”. The point is that if you do something but don’t think of the narrative, it is hard to retrospectively include that narrative in promotion paperwork.

Introducing change

As well as improving things to address known issues, improving things just to make things better is probably a better form of leadership. If you see that staff are killing themselves all working on some piece of busywork assessment, and you can think of a better way and introduce it, this is likely to make those who are concerned about workload happy. This can be tough, and usually involves a bit of ongoing communication to assuage concerns, but if you can make a case of over-assessment or considering learning outcomes, it helps with your narrative. Or perhaps you developed a new course in response to a particular need identified by external examiners or course review. Again, documenting impact or outcomes is important. Usually this kind of activity can be incorporated with being on the School T&L Committee, as that is where activities beyond your immediate control of your own courses can be surfaced. I think it is worth noting here that this likely extends to changes not directly relating to teaching and learning, but the broader student environment. Have you worked on student connections, departmental culture, career developments, widening participation, and so on…

For higher grades of 9&10, it is likely that this change is going to need to be more widespread. What can you say you have done that impacted teaching approaches in the whole school, or university, or your discipline more broadly.

Teaching innovation

While I do worry about students being experimental laboratories for people thinking about promotions so that they can show they are “innovative”, there is a general sense that someone looking for a teaching focussed promotion should as a baseline be a good teacher themselves. Course evaluation questionnaires can be useful evidence but are known to be flawed; so look to comments from senior colleagues, or classroom observations, or emails/comments from particular students. If you are looking for some innovative ideas, buy this book

There are some other forms of evidence. One way to highlight teaching innovation and excellence is to win an award for it, and so teaching awards have become important career milestones in recent years, which I personally think is a real pity. Another way is to document any invited talks given on teaching approaches, with invitation being more important as you move up the grades. And if you are invited to give one talk, contact some other universities nearby and let them know you are in town. Invited talks are something senior academics understand. Finally, perhaps you can be part of (grades 7 and 8) or lead (grades 9 and 10) applications to teaching grants in your university for teaching developments. Working with or supervising interns or colleagues on these can make for useful narratives.

Reporting what you did

As well as introducing change or doing things well, reporting what you did in an education publication can be a useful piece of evidence. It has the advantage of looking and feeling like something people unfamiliar with this world know about (academic publication), is a formal piece of evidence that you did some good (it is peer reviewed), and is a contribution to the wider community. There is a saying that an education publication is an education publication, and lord knows there are some shockers out there. I think this is probably still true, but I think that evaluation panels will become increasingly a little more savvy about the type of publication it is, and where it is published.

A really sad thing about not publishing is that everyone benefits from your activity apart from you – the students and your school benefit from your work; the publication would be an important piece of evidence for you and your promotion. Reporting what you did can extend to beyond formal publishing – blogging is a way to get your name out there as Someone Who Does Things. I still remember the extreme joy I felt when a former line manager referred to my blog as a potential output. Remembering the word “blog” emit from a chemical physicist still makes me happy.

B: Wider influence

As you move up the grades, it is likely that wider influence will become more important to demonstrate, so that it moves roughly from Grade 8 being influential at school/university, Grade 9 at university/outside university, and Grade 10 at outside university/internationally. Usual caveats apply. Things become much more nebulous here, because it will depend on particular activities, and the same principles apply – look for narratives that include evidence addressing things of strategic importance, or things that senior academics will understand and can relate to.

Accreditation

Accreditation with professional bodies is a way to demonstrate professional recognition in a field. While the RSC’s CChem is not quite understood in academia, Fellowship is much more so. Being an FRSC gives some reassurance that you are “in the club”. I have to say publicly that I really battled to get my own FRSC. I was turned down twice; once many years ago, perhaps unsurprisingly, and once about two years ago, which was a genuine shock. After adding a supplement to my application to show I really was, like super amazing, the imperial thumb turned upwards. I mention this only to highlight that accreditation, much like promotion, is still stifled by the “be in my mould” mindset.

As well as professional society accreditation, there is the Advance HE accreditation. This is becoming more the norm, because many professional development courses in the UK align with it, so you just “get it”, but going for Senior or Principal Fellow would be a good way to demonstrate that there is more widespread recognition of you as an educator. In honesty I am not sure senior people really know what P/S/FHEA really means, but they likely know it is “a thing”.

Professional activities

Just as committee work in university is a way to document influence, committee work on external bodies is also a way to document wider influence. The important thing will be to demonstrate what it is you did, and how that went down in the community of the profession. You need to distinguish yourself from The Committee Careerist, who is just on the committee to say they are on it. This can include organising events, or contributing to community in some way, been seen as a leader or champion for particular activities. Be clear with your narrative – what was the demand/reason for some activity, what did you do, and how did it go. Number of attendees/feedback are useful pieces of evidence. Sometimes very nice people write to you with testimonials. (Be nice: write to people when they have done something that has been valuable to you. It is important evidence and shows impact beyond university.)

I think that’s enough for now. What have I left out? What could be clearer or what is plain wrong…

Board-Game-Snake-and-Ladders-Periodic-Table

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