With the National Student Satisfaction (NSS) scores in the UK released earlier this week, it’s an opportune moment to reflect on what counts as teaching excellence. Kat Higgins examines the paradox of going above and beyond.
I recently attended a ceremony at the LSE to receive a Class Teacher Award for my work with undergraduate students in the LSE Department of Sociology. This was an unexpected accolade and, truth be told, one of the highlights of my year, second only to the incredible times spent in the classroom with my students. Perhaps this is just par for the course given how racked with thesis anxiety most PhD students are, but receiving this award was the proudest I have felt of any aspect of my work for quite a long time. I had done well in something I felt passionate about and was being recognised for it. I’m only human – it was a nice feeling.
Over the course of the evening, the staff and students gathered were regaled with wide-ranging tales of teaching excellence. We were told of teachers who had provided excellent pastoral support, generous mentoring, and career advice; who led original and innovative lessons; and gave exceptionally detailed and thoughtful feedback to their students amongst many other skilful, creative, and commendable contributions to learning. As the night continued, it became clear that the lashings of praise that were being heaped upon this small group of teaching colleagues formed what I would characterise as a discourse of ‘above and beyond’ – going further, working harder, spending longer, digging deeper, answering faster, staying later, which seemed to add up to, well, being better.
a discourse of ‘above and beyond’ - going further, working harder, spending longer, digging deeper, answering faster, staying later, which seemed to add up to, well, being better.
My pride started to ebb. Weekends spent answering long emails from students because I couldn’t let them wade into their exams unprepared, extra unpaid hours spent designing my lesson plans and seminar slides to make sure they were just right, additional office hours, also unpaid, regularly added to my schedule so that students who needed to discuss coursework feedback or fit meetings around part-time job commitments would be able to do so – these were my own moments of above-and-beyond. They were also the most stressful and least satisfying aspects of my teaching experience. No one asked or demanded that I do these things; I could have left the emails unanswered, the students unmet, the slides shoddy. On some level, though, I knew (or at least believed) that if I was going to be a good teacher (in the eyes of my students, in the eyes of the university, and perhaps in my own mind) I would have to go above and beyond my contracted hours, and at times, my job description. Receiving my award, I found myself re-entangled with the very pressure that had dogged me for the entire teaching year – as a casualty, for sure, but also in my new status as a plinthed example of teaching excellence. I was now officially part of the problem.
Plastering over the cracks
So what exactly is the problem? Some might conclude that, given the escalating commodification of higher education and the emergence of the learner-customer as the new student subject, the unreasonable and uncompensated demands on teachers’ time are the product of students’ consumerist entitlement. However, this certainly isn’t reflective of the attitudes of my students. I’m more inclined to think that this might be an issue of awareness. Many students, I believe, simply aren’t aware that every meeting held out of office hours is unpaid labour, or that jazzy slides are as much a product of time spent as they are of care or skill. However, I also think that the above-and-beyond paradigm of good teaching needs to be put in the context of the crisis in student mental health and the resultant pressure on teachers to engage in therapeutic pedagogical practices. Late night emails about misunderstood concepts, requests for extra office hours, pleas for extra practice exams or revision materials tend to be, at least in my experience, far more often manifestations of anxiety and stress than symptoms of entitlement.
the above-and-beyond paradigm of good teaching needs to be put in the context of the crisis in student mental health and the resultant pressure on teachers to engage in therapeutic pedagogical practices.
The suggestion that excellence in teaching means going above and beyond is therefore objectionable in two key senses. First, it places a performative pressure on teachers, junior teachers in particular, to commit far more work hours to their teaching practice than they are being compensated for by the university. This creates an ironic and decidedly neoliberal predicament in which to be good at your job hinges not on how well you do your job, but on the extent and quality of your actions outside the perimeter of your job description. Second, the paradigm of above-and-beyond places complex structural challenges – specifically the crisis of student mental health and the shifting stakes of student satisfaction and performance in the context of fee hikes and expanded student debt – for teachers to address. Of course, teachers aren’t empowered to actually address these challenges. By going above and beyond, they can only salve them. Asking teachers to do this work burdens them with additional performative, emotional, and administrative labour, while letting students down and letting the institutions responsible for these structural conditions – universities among them – somewhat off the hook.
Excellence as privilege
My argument so far has sidestepped the important question of which teachers can even commit additional labour to their roles. Teachers without research funding, with caring responsibilities, with second and third jobs, with chronic health challenges, with disabilities, and many others may find themselves simply unable to perform the labour of going above and beyond. They are therefore excluded from the possibility of achieving teaching excellence, if we take it as our paradigm. Looking outside the above-and-beyond mantra for a moment, we need to also turn a critical eye to the selection criteria for teaching awards: primarily student nominations and student satisfaction scores. While it’s great that students are given a voice in conversations about what makes excellent teaching, we need to remain vigilant to the way that student perceptions of teacher competence tend to be biased along lines of gender, race, and class among others
A cynic might suspect that reward mechanisms such as awards are put in place by universities as a tool of governmentality or control to increase the performative pressure on teachers, and in doing so, avoid or at least defer making meaningful investments in teaching and teachers. I’m not suggesting anything so conspiratorial, and I applaud universities for taking steps to elevate the professional status of teaching in academia. What I am suggesting, however, is that we need to be more thoughtful, critical, and reflexive about the systems of value we use to decide what counts as great teaching and the mechanisms through which such teaching is identified and rewarded. Like many others, I think the starting point must be to value teaching by valuing teachers and making sure they receive fair teaching allocations and compensation for their time.
So, how best to promote teaching excellence? Here’s what I suggest. At next year’s teaching awards, after each honoured graduate teaching assistant leaves the stage with their certificate in hand, take them aside and ask them how many actual hours of work per week they committed to their teaching role that year. If that number is greater than the number of hours they are actually paid for – and I guarantee you, it will be – adjust contracts accordingly. Excellence should be facilitated for all, not celebrated in a few.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.