Making visible the everyday teaching practices of 'inspiring' teachers: is UKHE privileging an ableist discourse?

Clare Kell, Catherine Camps

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


    Introduction: Most UK HEIs and Student Unions run a staff award scheme to celebrate the teaching / learning support practices of individuals and / or teams. Typically, these awards are entitled ‘Best Teacher’, ‘Most Inspiring lecturer’, ‘Best supervisor’ etc. As educational developers fairly new to our institution, we were keen to understand the nature of our context by exploring the contact-time practices of four staff nominated by students as ‘Inspiring’ educators. In this presentation we will share our approach to making their practices visible, our results and emerging observations. The observations, while admittedly provisional, are discomforting as they suggest that what students equate with ‘inspiring’ may privilege certain forms of ‘goodness’ that, at least in the specific institution, appears to promote performativity. The presentation will conclude by foregrounding next step projects to explore the possible implications of an implicit ablest culture on staff well-being and inclusive promotion and development opportunities.

    Background and context:

    Teaching is typically considered the poor relation to research in UK HE with staff following a teaching career path gaining promotion slower and less frequently than their research-pathway peers (MacFarlene, 2011; Chalmers, 2011). National efforts to value teaching have been supported through the development of competitions to showcase excellence (e.g. NTFS, CATE, THEAs etc). Internal competitions are said to support the identification of staff for these awards, harness their potential for development and promotion, and promote their HE in today’s competitive and tightly packed sector ecology (Gourlay and Stevenson, 2017).

    Recognising the power of terminology to drive what is noticed and thus privileged (often implicitly [Morley, 2003]), the plethora of terms trying to describe ‘good’ teaching, and the absence of a magic bullet solution enabling teaching: research staff parity (Skelton, 2004; Wood and Su, 2017), we decided to step back and make visible the everyday contact-time practice of student-nominated staff.

    Study approach and methods:

    Adopting an ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic approach (Garfinkel, 1968), we selected four ‘Most Inspiring Teacher’ nominated staff, whose teaching fields and practices could be expected to be different in terms of learner level, discipline and learning environment. Fully ethically approved, and with small grant funding from AdvanceHE Wales, we undertook at least two observations, a pre- and post- observation staff interview and a student focus group with each participant.

    A novel element to the study was our use of a new visual notation system (Kell, 2014; Kell and Sweet, 2017). Developed to make visible the ‘what is going on here’ of everyday interactions by focussing on interaction participants’ non-verbal (proxemic and kinesics) interactions and interplay (Sacks, 1984), the notation system uses proxemic sketches interspersed with simultaneous verbal communication. Recognising the power of the observer to direct gaze and thus notetaking (Berger, 1972), when combined with robust reflection and peer researcher dialogue, the notation system significantly enriches fieldnotes by capturing physical (spatial and dialogic) as well as verbal interactions.

    Observations and implications:

    The presentation will share extracts from our fieldnotes, our analysis and observations which have taken us by surprise. Our data make visible the enormous physicality of everyday, ‘normal’ teacher: learner interactions, and suggest, through student-focus group data, a link between the explicit physicality or performativity within the classroom (staff going ‘above and beyond’) and student award nomination. In addition, the data capture consistent dialogic turns in the form of a ‘call and response’. Surfacing in a number of ways this call: response sequence was evident in student to lecturer, lecturer to student and student to student interactions.

    In their interviews, the staff shared their perceived need for a period of ‘recovery’ after teaching contact, and concerns about their fatigue and long-term well-being. Given that our study participants were fairly new to teaching in HE (an observation we did not know at the point of study recruitment), appeared able bodied and did not reveal any hidden disabilities during the study, our study challenges us to question how teaching awards might privilege an implicit understanding or expectation of ‘goodness’, and through their structure perpetuate systemic bias of ableism and performativity.

    In the increasingly competitive and litigious UK HE context, we question the cascading implications of these observations on for example promotion criteria (often requiring evidence of student nominations). Finally, we will outline plans to explore whether staff are aware that they may be responding to cultural expectations of ‘goodness’ that reward different types of teaching, including a high level of sustained physicality, and be reinforcing the expectations of an ableist culture.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 13 Sep 2021
    EventBERA Annual Conference 2021 - online
    Duration: 13 Sep 202116 Sep 2021


    ConferenceBERA Annual Conference 2021
    Internet address


    • Higher education awards,
    • ableism
    • inspiring teachers
    • visual research methods
    • visual notation


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