I joined City Lit almost 11 years ago after gaining a cultural studies degree at Norwich School of Art and a year spent working as an artist and curator. I then opted for teacher training and gained a PGCE. I became a critical and cultural studies lecturer, focusing particularly on writing, cultural theory and encouraging art students to analyse and interpret art and design, self-reflect and evaluate.
I first met Keith in my role as head of programme for our 18-month foundation diploma in art and design. Keith had applied but at interview was advised to take a three-month introductory portfolio course. We were aware of his mental health problems and felt he was not yet ready to go directly into the diploma course, which is designed to equip students with the skills and knowledge to progress into HE in art or design.
But he came through and his passion to learn plus, dare I say, a slightly eccentric portfolio of work - covering various genres he’d worked during his course - won him a foundation place.
I taught Keith critical theory but I was also his personal tutor and was there to build up his confidence - something that for most students is the biggest barrier in a subject like art where you have to bare your soul. Students are often held back by a feeling of being judged, of not producing work as you are supposed to. Ironic, really, as art is all about finding your own language to communicate through.
What made Keith stand out was his enthusiasm in every lesson. Always attentive and constantly reflecting on what he’d learnt, he treated every moment as a learning opportunity.
Where do I think I helped him most? With my focus on writing and freeing up students to express their ideas, I noticed that, verbally, Keith was excellent but he lacked writing skills. I suspected he might have a learning disability so encouraged him to check it out with the college support team. He was diagnosed as dyslexic.
It was a turning point for Keith. Far from seeing the condition as holding people back, I see it as a gift - what you miss in one way, you gain in another and are all the better for it as an artist. And you can overcome dyslexia.
A key moment for Keith happened days before the end of the course. He had produced some really sophisticated work but for the final course assessment he had to submit some written elements. His writing had improved throughout the course but it still did not read as if he’d written it. I said: “Forget what you've written about your work on this page and just look at this image and tell me what you think.”
What followed was a wonderfully reflective and insightful verbal analysis. I wrote it down as he spoke and showed it to him as an example of how he should write. “Am I allowed to write that way?” he asked incredulously. Yes, I said, it really works.
The biggest breakthrough for Keith was realising that his thoughts and his way of working, his whole self, were much more than okay.
As for my own approach to teaching, a key component has always been just listening and allowing students to talk to me and their peers and share their thoughts, knowledge and critiques. Teaching is fundamentally about designing good questions.
I first cut my teeth in teaching as an FE key skills champion for teenagers studying art and design. I quickly learnt a primary role was to motivate. But just how do you generate passion and interest when you are standing at the front of a room of sleepy students on Friday afternoon, just back from the pub?
The first rule is to express your personal passion which can then become infectious. Persevere and try different methods. Even with 100 students at a lecture, you can make it participatory and get them active. ‘Discuss with your neighbour what you think about this artwork . . . What is their interpretation?’ I also keep a vow made long ago never to lecture for more than 15 minutes.
Including and repeating key lecture points in visual, auditory and kinaesthetic ways is a guide for every lesson I design. I create something visual to engage with, opportunities to listen, to read and write, to be active and to do something. It’s not targeting individuals but adopting a wider range of sensory skills to identify with every student’s personal learning style.
Another of my rules is constantly repeating key learning points in different shapes, forms and language. One of my personal learning strengths is reading and writing. To make myself a better all-round learner, I get myself to listen more and to do things that enable me to use all my senses for learning styles rather than limiting myself to just one. Like my students, I’m always learning!
The flexible City Lit diploma course allows me to teach things I’m interested in and to have ownership of my teaching. An overprescribed curriculum robs teachers of freedom to decide what is best for their students. What works for me is taking the first few weeks of the September term to listen to the new students and finding out what motivates and interests them. I then design my teaching based on their passions.
So, for instance, if I plan to talk about Impressionism and Monet and yet they are interested in Tracey Emin, I’ll switch over to teaching them all I can about Emin so they get something from it. I can then see them expanding their knowledge of the artist and her particular genre.
But if Monet is on the curriculum, I’ll find a fun way to teach about the artist. I might look at how he used to capture changes in light by painting outside. He would go out into the fields and paint haystacks; when the light changed he’d move on to another canvas. So I’ll get my students to stash a load of canvasses in wheelbarrows, find a field and paint while I talk about Monet! It’s being outside, active and creative - kinaesthetic learning, rather than the traditional, uninspiring approach of peering at pictures on a screen in a dark, sweaty room.
I try to do something different, something a bit mad perhaps, and that can profoundly affect students’ learning. It’s about not being afraid to change.
In fact, part of my move into management was to have the freedom to reignite ‘outside the box’ thinking and personal passions among lecturers who might otherwise fall into the trap of uninspiring teaching and ‘death by Powerpoint’. I now have management responsibilities but teaching is still very important to me. I want to ensure I have time in class with students. I couldn't do management work without it.
Interview by Richard Doughty