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Teaching in higher education
  1. Isobel Richards

Abstract

Isobel Richards grew up in Camden, was a junior volunteer at London zoo and studied veterinary medicine at Cambridge. She is now teaching at a higher education college

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I QUALIFIED in 2006, and was lucky enough to find a position in a friendly small animal practice. I worked there for five years and passed the first CertAVP module. While in practice I gave tutorials to trainee nurses, helped receptionists to prepare for their Animal Medicines Training Regulatory Authority exams and gave evening client talks, all of which I really enjoyed, and which encouraged me to think about exploring a move into education. I felt that what I enjoyed most about working in practice was explaining health issues to clients. Also, while I found supporting distressed clients, for example, at euthanasias, rewarding, I also found it emotionally draining.

After a brief spell as a locum, I was offered a job as a lecturer at Moulton College in November 2011. Moulton is based in Northamptonshire, and has diversified from its origin as an agricultural college to provide further and higher education courses in a wide range of subjects. In 2011/12 I taught subjects such as genetics within the BTEC extended diploma in animal management, which is a two-year course that is equivalent to A levels. I also spent around half my time teaching practical classes using the college's large collection of animals, which includes a meerkat colony and a variety of reptiles.

This year I am teaching two modules of the college's applied animal studies degree course, which will use my skills and experience from practice more fully. The students are diverse, with a wide range of academic ability and practical experience. I have great respect for their passion for animal welfare and for those students who are continuing or restarting their education despite difficult personal circumstances. Some of the students I teach go on to university and one of the students I taught last year obtained a place at Bristol on the veterinary science with pre-veterinary year course.

It was a very steep learning curve to start teaching full time with no teaching qualifications and no experience of formal teaching. Within the further education sector most teachers train on the job. As with any new job, there were lots of acronyms and jargon that were quite confusing to begin with. On the other hand, learning on the job meant that I didn't have to commit to a full-time teacher training course first. Also, the subject matter I was teaching required considerable revision of subjects that had accumulated a lot of cobwebs since I last used them. Quite apart from the chemistry modules, which involved equations and logarithms, the BTEC course covers a wide range of species. One of the first assignments I marked was about thermoregulation in bearded dragons, which was a bit of a departure from life as a dog and cat vet! Although accumulating or revisiting a lot of information in a short space of time has been difficult occasionally, I have enjoyed working academically again. General practice involved constant judgement-making and subconscious risk assessment, and I have found it refreshing to return to facts and information.

There are other significant differences from working in practice. Whereas in practice I couldn't predict what was going to happen in 10 minutes' time, in my new job I am planning months in advance. Personally, this suits me better, as I like to plan ahead and I found the unpredictability of practice difficult, although I know many people find it stimulating.

The total working hours are definitely longer: outside of lessons there is a huge volume of preparation and marking, some of which has to be done in the evenings and at weekends. Although there is the challenge of having a lot of work to do in a limited time-frame (and it can be exhausting), I have found it less emotionally demanding than practice. It is satisfying to see students grasp a new concept, remember something you have taught them and grow in confidence.

The college has over 800 staff and working for a large organisation is very different. There are frustrations sometimes, when learning new organisational procedures and processes, but I enjoy working with colleagues from a wide variety of backgrounds and there are opportunities that are not available in a small business. For example, the college is funding me to attend its own teacher training programme, which is a two-year, part-time, higher education course (in addition to the full-time job). It will be hard work, but sharing experiences with others on the course and reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher will be valuable. Under the current rules, this qualification, although different from the qualification for teaching in schools, would allow me to teach in a school if I wanted to. This year I have completed the introductory PTLLS course (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector). The assignments were quite similar to the CertAVP assignments in that they involved reflecting on practice. I found myself discussing the relative sizes of cows' and rabbits' rectums in one of them, when explaining why I would not allow students to take a rabbit's temperature solely for educational purposes; if you're a vet there's no getting away from bottoms it seems!

Many of the skills and values of veterinary practice, such as confidentiality, record keeping, care with signatures and respect for colleagues, are transferable to education. Dealing with upset and angry clients in practice has helped me with pastoral care for students and in dealing with the odd unhappy parent on the phone, although the latter has been a relatively rare occurrence so far.

I am very proud to be a vet and I am keeping up my RCVS registration, VDS membership and clinical CPD. I would not rule out going back to practice in the future, perhaps part-time: I would certainly be much better with exotics! However, for now, I will mainly concentrate on becoming a qualified teacher and the new experience of teaching in higher education.

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