I never wanted to be a teacher. At school, I was
never quite sure what I wanted to be when I‘grew up’. But my mother was (and still is) a
teacher and that was one thing I was quite sure
that I did not wish to do. Even after completing
my PhD, I did not give much thought to teaching.
I came to NUS as a postdoctoral fellow in 1999
determined to publish my research and keen to
avoid teaching for as long as possible. When
the honeymoon ended—I became an Assistant
Professor half way through the second year
of my ‘postdoc’ in 2000—I calculated that
continued ‘success’ as an academic meant
minimising teaching to allow further expansion
of my publication list.
The outcome of this kind of attitude was fairly
predictable. The student feedback for the two
modules which I co-taught in Semester 1
Academic Year (AY) 2000/2001 was appalling.
I could not bring myself to keep a copy of the
evaluations although I can laugh about them now.
I can still remember many of the comments and
this one—“Replace this lecturer”—still haunts
me! In the second semester, I invested a good
deal more in my classes not because I actually
valued teaching any more highly, but because
of fear that more negative feedback may cost
me my job.
Taking the Professional Development Programme
(Teaching) (PDP-T) at CDTL prior to my second
year of teaching was the real turning point. Unlike many of the other participants who had
just joined NUS, I attended the course with a
year of teaching nightmares behind me and so
I realised that I needed all the help I could get.
In retrospect, it was not so much the content of
course which was important but the fact that it
provided an opportunity to start to think about
pedagogical issues. Conversations with fellow
participants during the course (some of whom
became good friends) spilled over into lunch and
coffee times; and these conversations, in turn,
spread to other colleagues, especially those who
already took their roles as teachers seriously. I
sat in on some of these colleagues’ classes to
see what worked for them and (yes, I admit) to
copy some of their good teaching practices.
It was during my second year as a lecturer that I
began to derive some satisfaction from teaching.
Part of this was attributable to the simple relief
that my student evaluation scores had improved
(it is not just students who can be motivated by
the fear of getting ‘bad marks’). However, there
were two other, more important, reasons. The
first is the more obvious: teaching can be a
great form of learning. Developing two new
modules in AY 2001/2002 stretched me beyond
the horizons of my own doctoral research and
postdoctoral writing. I went on to teach these
classes in subsequent academic years and I can
trace important strands of my own learning
through associated changes to course structure
A second reason for my beginning to value
teaching more highly in that second year stemmed
from an initial glimpse of the transformative
potential of critical pedagogy. The key moments
were often those when a student said, “I see”.
What this implied was not just that s/he saw
what I meant, but also that s/he had begun—in
however modest or incremental a way—to see
differently. One way in which academics can
‘make a difference’ is through helping students
to see (and thereby to act) differently.
A related point—one which I came to appreciate
later—is that the aim of trying to help students
to see differently does not necessarily mean
trying to make them see like me. The distinction
is an important one as there is a danger of
imaginatively reducing students to ‘less advanced’
versions of ourselves. Interactions with NUS
students over the past few years have relieved
me of any such arrogance. Each student is a
unique assemblage of capacities, competencies
and experiences. Everyone brings something
different—something of value—to class;
everyone can make a difference beyond class.
As teachers, we have an important chance to
initiate or help to cultivate ways of seeing and
doing that inevitably extend beyond our own
This leads onto a final aspect of my re-evaluation
of teaching and that concerns the recognition
that I learn a lot from students. The most
obvious example of this in Geography courses is
that every member of my class has a unique set
of experiences of places, spaces and landscapes.
Yet this too carries a danger of ‘localising’
students’ knowledge while arrogating to oneself
the position of global, theoretical overseer.
Following the contributions of feminist
geographers which inform my teaching (and
which, in fact, I read partly for my teaching),
it is important for human geographers at least
to recognise that we all see from somewhere
(i.e. we are all ‘positioned’). Both casual and
formal feedback from students, has forced me
to interrogate the Anglo- or Euro-centrism of
some of my own assumptions and framings.
Students, then, have contributed to—rather
than simply being on the receiving end of—a
postcolonial shift in my approach to teaching
The value I now place on teaching forms part of
a broader process of re-imagining its relation to
learning and researching. These activities are a
good deal more intertwined than I once imagined.
If PDP-T set me on a path of learning to teach,
I now appreciate that teaching is a great way of
learning, not only through preparing to deliver
content but also through exposure to students’
insights. Teaching can also be understood as
a way of realising social and political goals
(which I previously largely associated with the
separate realm of research and writing). I still
get anxious about my teaching, but the source
of that anxiety has changed—from the fear of
damning comments from students (which have
not entirely disappeared, by the way) to a sense
of responsibility resulting from a gradual reevaluation
of my academic priorities.