Seven things I’ve learned about staff development for teaching in Higher Education

Photo credit: Cliff Johnson, Unsplash CC0

In this first post for May’s issue on ‘Staff development’, Daphne Loads, recently retired Academic Lead of the Edinburgh Teaching Award at the Institute for Academic Development, reflects on the lessons she learned about staff development during her time at the university…

Today I am retiring after (I think) thirteen years at the University of Edinburgh. So what have I learned about staff development in that time?

1. It’s more like gardening than golf

Photo credit: Morgan David de Lossy, Unsplash CC0

As far as I can make out, golf seems to require the use of clubs to hit balls into a series of holes on a course in as few strokes as possible.

Not a good model for staff development. Both gardening and staff development on the other hand are creative, messy, unpredictable and very hard work. But you don’t have to wear funny trousers.

2. It can ruffle feathers and rub people up the wrong way

Photo credit: Delaney Van, Unsplash CC0

This is a good deal less painful for me than it used to be.  A wise colleague once pointed out that if a developer is making everyone happy, they’re not doing their job properly. And there are worse things than ruffling feathers. I still recall one response to a two-day orientation to teaching in higher education. We had asked for feedback: Is there anything we could have done to improve your experience of this event? Scrawled across the sheet were eight words: “Give me back two days of my life.”

And I once met a woman on a bus who had been a participant in several of my sessions many years previously. I was touched that she still remembered me. “There’s one thing I’ll never forget about you” she said. I prepared myself for the compliment: was it my wisdom, my insight, my grasp of the topic or my empathy for her struggle? No, it was my unusual ear-rings.

3. Its effects are indirect, elusive, delayed.

But don’t tell that to your funders.

4. People are not potatoes.

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash CC0

I enjoy growing potatoes and I enjoy working with university educators. But the two activities are very different. As far as we know, potatoes don’t have inner worlds; they don’t make sense of their experiences; they certainly don’t answer back. So horticultural researchers can give us clear prescriptions for practice: “Dig straight, shallow trenches, 2 to 3 feet apart, in prepared soil. Plant seed potatoes 12 inches apart and cover with about 3 inches of soil. When the shoots reach 10 to 12 inches tall, use a hoe or shovel to scoop soil from between rows and mound it against the plants, burying the stems halfway.”

Educational researchers, not so much.

5. It’s not about technique

As the great Parker Palmer (1993) wrote, “Technique is what the teacher uses until the real teacher arrives.” I believe this to be true. However, looking back, perhaps I have overemphasised ‘the real teacher’ at the expense of ‘technique’ and the mystery of teaching at the expense of mastery.

6. It’s difficult to define, so we need to keep talking to each other about what we mean by “development”

So what is this thing called ‘development’? Is it something you can do to another person? I don’t believe so, but neither is it something you can do all by yourself. Does it just happen in formal courses and workshops? Of course not. Lots of different experiences can help us to develop as a teacher: seeing a film, giving birth, reading a poem, having a conversation on a bus.

Unsplash, CC0

But ‘development’ quickly becomes meaningless if we include every experience we’ve ever had. How do individual and organisational development intersect? What happens when the two come into conflict? Is development ever achieved? Well perhaps you can never say, ‘That’s it.  I’m fully developed now,’ but it is important to acknowledge achievement and progress. ‘Never good enough’ is not a healthy motto.

7. It is a very satisfying way to make a living

I am deeply grateful to all the colleagues and students over the years, at the TLA (who remembers that?), the IAD and throughout the wider university who over the years have been so generous with their ideas, their energy their hard questions and their support.

Photo credit: Courtney Hedger, Unsplash CC0


Palmer P (1993) The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Landscape of a Teacher’s Inner Life California, USA : Jossey-Bass

How to Grow Potatoes, find out here.

Daphne Loads

Daphne Loads worked in the Institute for Academic Development and was academic lead of the Edinburgh Teaching Award and convened the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *