The path to becoming an excellent teacher: A personal reflection

In 2016 I was awarded the title “Excellent teacher”. In order to be granted the title I had to meet seven criteria regarding my teaching experience: engagement with teaching, didactic practices, reflections on my activities in higher education, qualitative development of my pedagogy in higher education over time, scientific approach to teaching, my competence in the field of higher education, and finally my commitment and skills as a pedagogical leader.


But how on earth did I end up teaching and becoming an excellent teacher?


I began teaching in 1995, the same time that I was accepted into postgraduate education in psychology. I did, however, have some very limited teaching experience before that. During periods of unemployment in the mid-1980s I worked on an hourly basis as a substitute teacher in intermediate and senior level schools. The schools would phone about seven o’clock in the morning or sometimes the day before and ask me to come to a school and substitute a teacher who was ill. The visit was often framed by a teaching colleague or the school principal with advice like “this is a very difficult and troublesome class”. Needless to say, that was a terrible experience. I was only really in it for the money but still I often thought about the awful conditions that I experienced during those teaching sessions. This experience actually mirrored my own negative experiences of being in school as a child. I finished elementary and high school with poor grades and no intention of studying ever again. At that point, no-one could have predicted the future excellent teacher. Following school, I had a series of manual jobs in a hotel, including working as a night porter. A colleague and I talked philosophy through the night-shifts and one night we decided that it might be a good idea to perhaps study philosophy at university. We both quit our jobs at the hotel and I started my one-year of theoretical and practical philosophy studies in the autumn of 1987.


At that point, a revolutionary experience occurred. I was immediately struck and overwhelmed by the atmosphere that I met which was completely different from anything I had experienced before. Teachers listened with curiosity and interest, and most of all, with respect. Their responses were often fascinating. All questions and arguments were up for debate and after only a few months my whole conception of the world had change drastically. The experience was a true game changer for me. After a year of philosophy, I studied political science and subsequently concluded that everything boils down to individuals thinking, feeling and behaving: I thus continued my studies in psychology. During my second semester of psychology studies one of my teachers asked me if had ever thought about becoming a researcher? I had not: I still did not think of myself as a university student and I had definitely not thought of an academic career. No-one in my family worked at a university, and at that time I did not even know one single person who did. The idea began to settle itself, however, and I started to look into what was needed to become a researcher. By the mid 1990s I was accepted to doctoral studies, and in the early 2000s completed my PhD and gained a permanent position as a senior lecturer in psychology.

Michael at his PhD viva


From the start of my academic career, I was surrounded by several people who were interested in and who had a scholarly perspective on teaching. At least to some, teaching was no less important than research. Understand me correctly: then as now, research was considered by most academics to be more important than teaching but a critical number of people really cared about teaching. IN the beginning I was often teaching social psychology where quasi-experimental learning could be implemented and so students learned by doing, mixing theory and practice. I was supported in most of my initiatives to develop teaching and related aspects, such as course evaluation, and I also got a lot of pedagogical responsibilities in leading seminars and work groups for example. Parallel to the pedagogical work being done at the department, both the university and especially our faculty of social sciences were discussing a career path in teaching. After almost 15 years of discussions, a meriting system was finally decided upon and implemented by the university vice chancellor in 2013. Colleagues involved in these discussions have told about the challenges during the process and how many in leading positions at the university did not find such a meriting system a good idea or thought it unnecessary. I myself have heard colleagues argue that a good researcher is a good teacher by definition.



After finishing my PhD my academic career has therefore clearly had a bias towards teaching responsibilities rather than research activities. Apart from being a course leader, I have been program coordinator for seven years, study director for six years and the last 11 years I have been deputy head of department with responsibility for all teaching. In the last year I have become deputy head of department with responsibility for all teaching at the School of Architecture in Umeå, and am now a professional pedagogical leader and administrator.

Umeå's model for educational merits

About 10 years ago I heard of Europlat, now ESPLAT, the network for learning and teaching psychology, and with colleagues I have attended ESPLAT conferences in Vilnius, Salzburg, and Utrecht. The inspiration that this has led to both for me personally but also for our department is invaluable. The department of psychology today in Umeå has the largest number of awarded merited and excellent teachers of any department at our university. Pedagogical discussions and development are a natural part of the quality work at the department. My own course of development has been made possible by a leadership at the department through the last 20 years that has been encouraging and enthusiastic, such as funding attendance at ESPLAT conferences. In implementing the idea of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning my ambition and hope is that teaching and research can become two sides of the same academic coin. Twenty-five years after my first experience as a university teacher I may now formally be an excellent teacher, but in many ways, I feel as if my journey has just begun and there is still so much to do and learn.

Michael Gruber is an associate professor of psychology and an excellent teacher at the Department of psychology in Umeå, Sweden. Michael is interested in implementing scholarship of teaching and learning in academia and working with teacher’s academic development and pedagogical development of academic organisations through pedagogical meriting. Michael also has an interest in assessment of scholarship of teaching and learning. For additional information please contact Michael at: michael.gruber@umu.se

ESPLAT

 European Society of Psychology Learning and Teaching 

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