Teaching is still very much the poor cousin of research within UK higher education. However, change seems to be on the horizon, and investing in teaching excellence may soon be a matter of life and death for universities. The tectonic plates started shifting with the publication of the Dearing Report in 1997. Since then higher education teaching has refused to disappear from the public eye. For example, university teaching league tables that were once the scorn of academics are now firmly well established. In addition, the National Student Survey, which was only introduced in 2005, now has a level of prominence almost equalling that of the Research Excellence Framework. To add to this, the government has recently started talking about a teaching excellency framework for higher education, and has released a green paper on the future of UK higher education. It’s therefore quite clear that university teaching will never be the same again.
Unlike universities, schools have been the focus for teaching improvements for a very long time. Hence it makes sense to learn from what has worked, and what has not worked in our schools. This can then be used as a starting point to beginning the task of improving learning and teaching in higher education. In this blog I make an initial start by discussing some of the lessons that I have gleaned from my former school principal. Sadly, he passed away on the 3rd of November 2015, but the various obituaries that have been published in his honour neatly summarise why many people, including former students and teaching colleagues, came to regard him as an influential educator.
Father Keble Hugh Prosser
Father Keble Hugh Prosser was the principal of my alma-mater, St Augustine’s Secondary School, Penhalonga from 1964 to 1990. His death sparked a major outpouring of grief, not only in Zimbabwe, but also in countries as far afield as the UK, Canada, Australia, the USA and South Africa. His death and subsequent funeral set social media ablaze, and led to obituaries in esteemed media outlets, including the UK Guardian newspaper and the widely respected Zimbabwe Financial Gazette.
Some Lessons from his Life and Work
Establish and build a tradition of teaching excellence
Keble Prosser built upon the tradition of teaching excellence at St Augustine’s Mission, and by the time of his retirement the name of St Augustine’s had become synonymous with teaching excellence all over Zimbabwe.
Make it your job to know your students
Keble Prosser personally knew each and every one of his students. He kept track of their performance in class as well as their behaviour outside of class. This enabled him to intervene and carry out corrective action before things got out of hand.
Keep track of teaching and student experience
Keble Prosser kept up to date with all the teaching taking place within the whole school. He did this through constant dialogue with both teachers and students. This ensured that teaching improvements were implemented on a continual basis.
Build effective learning relationships with students
Keble Prosser took a keen interest in students’ personal circumstances and would step in and assist whenever this was necessary. He would offer counselling to students facing personal issues, and often paid the fees of those students who fell into financial difficulties.
Build effective working relationships with teaching colleagues
Keble Prosser put time and effort into building good working relationships with his colleagues. This helped to foster a team that shared common values relating to teaching excellence and student experience.
Mentor and develop your junior colleagues
Keble Prosser empowered his colleagues, and mentored them to the extent that most of his colleagues went on to become successful heads of schools in their own right. This ensured that aspects of teaching excellence pioneered at St Augustine’s Mission were propagated to other schools as well, thereby raising the general standards of education nationally.
Ensure that your local community benefits from your educational institution
Keble Prosser ensured that the local community around St Augustine’s benefited. This was through employment, setting up a quota system for local pupils to get into the school, and turning the school into a focal point for the whole community within which they had a voice in its governance and direction.
Protect the school environment at all costs
Keble Prosser’s tenure coincided with the Zimbabwe civil war. He established rapport with both sides in the conflict, and this ensured that both warring sides largely regarded the school as a conflict-free zone. He risked his life in standing up for the school and its community, and the result was that St Augustine’s Mission became only one of a handful of schools that remained open throughout the war.
As educators living in non-wartime zones, we may never have to sacrifice life and limb in pursuit of our teaching ideals. However, even during peace-time we often need to guard against powerful interests that daily threaten our teaching practice. This may include unhelpful government legislation, competing business interests, and narrow-minded, populist political agendas. Speaking up may cost us our careers, but keeping silent may consign humanity to a bleak and hopeless future.