Mel Miller went direct from school A-levels into retail, starting with Marks and Spencer, switching to retail banking, and later joining the New Look fashion company. She then secured a part-time business studies lecturing role at Weymouth college in 2011 and since 2018 has been deputy head of the college’s business school
Why and how did you become a business studies lecturer?
I’d always liked working part-time in shops, dealing face to face with people while at college, so after A-levels I managed to get accepted onto a Marks and Spencer graduate training scheme - even though I wasn’t a graduate! Redundancy came and I secured a post in retail banking at the Halifax. There I worked up to branch manager, mentoring, developing a team and building relationships, before moving across to a training role - I’d always wanted to train and teach others. From there I joined the fashion company New Look’s Weymouth HQ as retail operations manager and then headed up its customer service team. I was made redundant again but by that time I was starting a family, so I went to Weymouth college in 2011 to work as a retail apprentice assessor on flexible hours. I realised this was what I’d been seeking all along, developing people for the retail sector. I then successfully applied for a lecturer’s post in business studies, took a part-time DTLLS FE teaching qualification and am now deputy head of the college’s business studies department.
What’s your main role?
I teach management from levels 2-3 for a business studies BTec (16-18s) through to level 4 HNCs and HNDs (up to age 21) in engineering. Many level 4 students are adult apprentices on day release which brings an interesting and different dynamic to teaching.
I am a course lead and a tutor who delivers set business units, which means that besides lecturing 80% of my time I also structure courses, ensuring we have the right syllabus and student recruitment levels, that lessons are planned in line with BTec exams, that all student support needs are met, and colleagues are on same page in disciplinary areas. This past academic year, at level 3, I taught 30 first-year students and 15 in their second final year.
BTec students are full-time but normally in college three days a week - the other two are spent on assignments, revision at home and part-time work (undertaken by 90% of our students).
I love what I do, particularly the interactions with students and seeing them develop and go off to uni. I work really hard to ensure students have lots of enrichment on the course as we are slightly isolated on the south coast in an area of serious deprivation. Our aim of securing quality work placements for our students means constantly bringing local businesses on board, getting in guest speakers, and taking our students to visit company premises.
What’s the FE element you like most about the job?
I love the flexibility and the huge difference you can make to your learners (something I’d really underestimated), who as a result might go off to university when they would not otherwise have had the chance. For instance, I taught a high needs student this year whose mum didn’t even think they’d be able to get to school but we helped them get a level 3 qualification at merit level! It’s also just the day-to-day work of supporting the students, who might be homeless or have serious issues at home.
Any surprises when you began working at college?
The large number of challenges students face in their education and that we can help them overcome these barriers and really improve their prospects.
What’s a typical day?
I’m a working mum, do a daily school run and then go straight into teaching, delivering three 90-minute lessons normally to two or three different classes spread over the morning and early afternoon. Each lesson is from a different unit, so it could be finance followed by marketing and then team building. I finish in time to do the afternoon school run and then work in the evenings marking and planning lessons after my children are in bed. My specialisms are finance, customer service and management theory.
Any specific tasks and outings undertaken recently?
Most recently, enrolment and induction, making classes Covid-ready for returning students, moving all lessons online, and publishing ‘assessed’ exam results on our online Microsoft Teams platform rather than our traditional ‘hand-outs’ on campus.
In a normal year off-campus course enrichment activities include visits to 'Business Live' events and an annual trip to Harry Potter World in Watford, where they visit the studios and attend an hour’s marketing class delivered by studio staff. The students get involved in set tasks, they learn about marketing techniques, see some of the filming going on next door and go round the incredibly detailed film sets. We try to make all our sessions interactive and as much like real businesses as possible.
Last academic year we linked up with the bankers JP Morgan. They organised a six-week work experience project for our students - not on the syllabus but something I helped organise in my own time. Students were given a mentor every week offering one-to-one support. But for lockdown, they would have given their final presentation to the chief executive and gained an extra tick on any application to get on to the bank’s graduate training schemes.
How have you coped with Covid-19?
It’s been hard - home-schooling two young children while also working during lockdown has been a challenge! At college from March onwards we kept in constant contact with all our students, although the exam board said we could stop teaching them and work out exam grades based on assessment up until March. We emailed our students once a week to check in and give them updates and we still sent them assignments and uploaded video lessons via Microsoft Teams just to keep them engaged and avoid a gap in their education after their return this month. I feel our intense online experience has boosted our distance learning capability by three years.
What do you like teaching most?
Team building - giving students free rein to have fun and pick up team leading skills in joint activities like cocktail making, dodge ball or anything else they choose!
What do students like doing best?
Being in charge. In the events management unit, they will organise, arrange and then quality control an event; they have to make contact with people and build relationships to make it happen - such as a fashion show. You see the students walking around absolutely glowing, running things themselves.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?
The admin, marking and knowing that you can’t be an expert at everything as you don’t have the time.
Anything you are particularly proud of?
For the past five years, all my students applying for university (one third) have got in to their first choice. The rest all progress; they may stay on at college or get promoted from their part-time to full-time jobs, take on apprenticeships or enter their employers’ management training schemes. They use what we teach them in their part-time work and that’s how they progress.
What personal qualities/skills do you need?
Empathy and resilience. You want to do what’s best for your students but the pandemic has suddenly forced us all to change how we do everything. You have to understand the needs of every student - and they’re all different. That’s how you earn their respect. Plus focus on the detail of how different companies react to market conditions, such as Burberry’s decision to switch much of its production from fashion items to hand sanitiser. I’m also a mystery shopper to help keep my industry experience up to date and discern new trends in customer services - practice changes so quickly.
Industrial experience is essential and any previous teaching done in a business context is a welcome bonus. You need maths and English and ideally possess or be ready to study on the job for a teaching qualification. Teaching beyond level 3 requires a degree in a relevant subject.
Any teaching tips for would-be/newbie lecturers?
My job is not to tell students what I know but to help them find that knowledge themselves. When I started in FE, I thought: ’I know all this about customer services and I’m just going to tell you all of it.’ But I soon found setting them activities where they had to go out and discover things by speaking to people themselves was what engaged them and where real learning kicked in.
Key interview questions for someone applying as a business studies lecturer?
What do you see as your biggest challenge in the job and how would you overcome that? What’s your approach to managing a class of 30 teenagers?
What spurs you on to work each day?
Seeing our students go on to secure good jobs based on what we have taught them.