John Walshaw started lecturing part-time at East Durham College in 1998, went full-time two years later and in 2013 became programme area leader for animal studies, a role combining lecturing with management duties.
How did you get into animal care?
I was brought up on a farm and always wanted to work with animals and science. I left school at 16 to gain the equivalent of A-levels on a national diploma sandwich course in agriculture at East Durham College, followed by an agriculture degree at Newcastle University and an MSc in animal nutrition in Canada. I returned to work on the family farm and then at my old college started teaching agriculture, animal care (level 2) and animal management (level 3). I’ve also always taught practical farm livestock management alongside sciences such as animal biology, biochemistry, microbiology and chemistry.
What’s your main role?
I do 16 hours of actual teaching alongside my management duties and am particularly responsible for level 3 animal management and veterinary nursing courses.
What’s a typical day?
I get in around 7.45 am and teach up to six lessons on some days, less on others. The hours are not equally spread; if it’s a teaching day, I have to check and prepare the practical sessions and all lesson resources and planning, carry out admin work, deal with any student-related issues, data management, keep up to date with awarding body updates; and manage the 150 students enrolled on courses.
I love the fact that every day is different - one moment you are dealing with farm animals, the next you are in the lab with students growing bacteria. There are strong links here between animal health and disease, the animals themselves and the microbiology/biochemistry side of it. For me, switching between the lab and the farmyard and animals makes the job and the course far more interesting.
I look after 110 year 1 students and 44 year 2 students. Most are aged 16-18 but across various courses, we also have 20% mature students aged 19-23 and more. We work closely with the marketing team to promote our courses, and in recent weeks have been very busy at the start of our college’s academic year with student inductions, general administrative duties, timetabling, and checks on student attendance and progress. We also have to work particularly hard at standardising assessments and ensuring we’re all marking at the same level.
What goes down well with students?
An annual highlight is students’ involvement with lambing and the breeding cycle of sheep. We have been checking the sheep and putting the rams in to start the breeding cycle. In March it’s lambing season and I always think it’s fantastic how our students witness the first lambs being born and the feeling they get when they successfully deliver a lamb that might not have made it without their help.
Any particular tasks you undertook last week?
We held an open evening for potential students coming for next year, gave presentations on the college and our course offer and took visitors round our animal resources, our farm and our curriculum areas. Next week we are inviting some back for the interview and offering places for next year. I gave some livestock lessons on the farm yesterday focused on a couple of litters of piglets; I helped students manage the piglets who are being suckled by one of our 14 sows; we also had calves in and students prepared a mix of powdered milk for them and began halter training them.
We have around 30 cows who rear a calf each year, and about 40 calves that we rear on milk and concentrates and receive in batches once a quarter, some 200 ewes that rear lambs and 14 sows that might each rear 25-30 piglets from two litters a year. We also house many smaller animals, with our students undertaking dog training and agility units at level 3 plus our exotic animals including snakes, amphibians, birds, fish, tortoises, racoons and wallabies, plus small mammals such as mice, hamsters and rabbits.
What’s the most challenging part of your role?
Finding the time to get everything done! Major changes include most courses now being assessed by external assessment with an emphasis on exams rather than internally marked assignments and continuous assessment, plus a new emphasis on ‘employer involvement’ and arranging work placements.
Anything you are particularly proud of?
Last year about half my students on the level 3 Extended Diploma in Animal Management course got to university. The number was up 25% on the figure just a few years ago. It’s great to see so many more students wanting to take things that bit further. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised that Teesside University has asked us to deliver some of the modules for their animal science and welfare degree course. Also, one of our students was offered a highly sought-after conditional place on a vet school course just five days after applications closed. She just has to meet her predicted grades.
What personal qualities and skills do you need to do your job?
Good communication, written, oral and IT skills and sound knowledge of the qualifications you’ll be teaching and how they are changing. You have to be well organised to hit key academic deadlines, and being able to treat everyone you work with as equals and a team is important. I only teach each first-year student one hour a week in five sessions but I make it a priority to get to know them and show I care about their progress on the course. It also helps to be open to new ideas as everything keeps changing - I often help out on the family farm to keep myself up to date on modern techniques.
The main thing is practical experience and theoretical knowledge in the areas you will be teaching. You also need a degree in a land-based subject and a teacher training qualification (such as a certificate of education - which I studied for in my own time during my first two years of teaching - or a PGCE). It is also worth taking the assessor and internal verifier qualifications.
What key question would you ask someone applying for your job?
How do you show a good understanding and interpretation of the data related to courses you want to teach?
What gets you up in the morning?
Interacting with students, and seeing them progress over two years and often go on to university. Every student journey is different and I want to have the same positive impact on my students as my teachers had on me.
Interview by Richard Doughty