Clinical track specialist educators being replaced by sessional teachers

ImageThere is a movement away from hiring  Clinical Track teaching staff and will instead favour the employment of focused researchers and sessional teachers.

To start, let me make it clear that this is my personal opinion only, and does not in any way reflect the opinion of my employer.

I believe that having a core group of people who are dedicated to teaching, who connect with each other regularly to discuss how the curriculum’s scope and sequence is mapping out, who notice when students are struggling and seek them out to help them, are critical components to running an effective professional education program.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I don’t believe in research, I DO believe in research, and I want occupational therapy to grow as a research profession.  But this trend has tipped the scales too far towards research and I believe that it will cause an imbalance between research and teaching.  I have watched my colleagues who work hard to meet the pressures to produce winning grants for funding, complete research and of course disseminate their findings while also trying to get to know the students, design good curriculum and give timely feedback.  Very few of them have managed the balance well, usually choosing to focus on their research over their teaching as that is where the Faculty rewards are given in the annual review of performance.  This means that research output will have priority over teaching quality.

So what are the options?  One option is to create a new type of position, one that supports a focus on innovative, high quality teaching, with a research focus on teaching occupational therapy in higher education.  Very little research is conducted in this area, as there is so little reward for undertaking it.  Another option is to continue to employ a core group of clinical track teaching staff on contract.  Many occupational therapists would be interested in undertaking this type of role if there was a clear and set timeframe to become proficient in the role, three years would be a minimum appointment in my opinion. Support in becoming qualified in Higher education would also be beneficial.

The WRONG option would be to allocate global coordination duties to the faculty employed as researchers (often called tenure track faculty), and provide them with a range of guest speakers who would manage the bulk of the teaching.  Why is this wrong?  Firstly, this approach is effectively parachuting in an expert to talk about a topic and then air-lifting them out before students have had time to digest the information and ask informed questions.  There is little to no continuity between guest speakers unless the coordinator of the course is very well orgranized, liaises regularly with the speakers while they develop their presentations, gives them information about what is coming before and after their presentation and how their content will fit with the overall objectives of the course, and how it will be tested.  One of two things will happen as a result – the tenure track staff member will show true due diligence in their role and they will spend many long hours creating a seamless course that will weave the various speakers’ presentations together – or – the tenure track staff member will pull together a range of speakers and hope that they are interesting enough to keep the students off their backs.  There are lots of of other permutations and combinations of what would be a great outcome and what would be a poor outcome, the main point I want to make is, research staff who are assessed on their performance by their grants and their research outputs will generally not choose to sacrifice their career for the sake of excellence in teaching.

Another wrong option is to use Graduate students (or similar) as sessional staff and ask them to teach courses for approximately $5000 -6000 per course.  This is wrong on a few levels, but the most wrong reason is that in order to make a semi-decent living sessionals would need to teach 4 courses a semester just to earn $40,000 per year.  If they were on contract they would be earning double that!  If they are teaching 4 courses per term in order to make ends meet, there is little chance that they will finish their studies.  So, even if the individual is a great teacher and they are getting experience that may help them in their future, they are impacting their own future!  I hope that those submitting themselves to this abusive system understand that they are contributing to the erosion of the specialty role of educator (for a very cheap price) and are likely to be impacting their own career future, not just the career of the person whose job they filled.

The right option is to value teaching and learning activities as a core service provided by Universities.  Right now students perceive themselves as “cash cows” for the university, overcharged and undervalued.  This has to change.  I truly hope it will.

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