Applying for a National Teaching Fellowship

Friday, January 17, 2020

National Teaching Fellows 2019 at the Awards Ceremony

Hello and welcome to my new learning and teaching blog and webpages.

I was hugely honoured in 2019 to be awarded a National Teaching Fellowship by Advance HE – a prestigious award that recognises ‘the outstanding impact of recipients’ teaching and support for learning in higher education’. This award was a catalyst for my decision to launch this blog: I want to share ideas that might be useful to others, to reflect on my own approaches, and, I hope, to spark some discussion from which I can learn more.

In the spirit of that sharing, and since aspirant National Teaching Fellows for 2020 are busy writing their applications right now, I’m dedicating my first post to sharing some tips from my own experiences of the process.

1. Tell your story

As you write your application, think about the narrative: tell your story as an educator and make it interesting and evidenced, rather than presenting a collection of unrelated achievements. You won’t be able to include all your innovative practice into your case, and structuring around a core theme will help you be selective. Telling a story with a narrative thread also helps you demonstrate sustained excellence.

To craft your story, find a supportive colleague or small group of colleagues who do not already know your work well, and talk to them about your practice to see what they find unusual or interesting about your work. When you are immersed in your own practice, what you do becomes your normal; getting an external perspective is therefore vital to help you reflect and identify what’s special, innovative and interesting about your work.

2. Block out some time. And then some more!

Writing your NTF case is painfully difficult, and it will take much longer than you think. You probably need (the equivalent of) three to four weeks of full-time work to prepare the submission, because you’ll need to draft it, seek feedback from others, redraft, find ways to cut out words, and so on.

Remember that your story needs to demonstrate that you are working and making impact beyond your day job – it’s not enough to be doing your day job well, so think about the extra impact: institutional projects you’ve led, invitations to support other institutions, advisory roles, national or international projects, etc.

3. Beware of reading colleagues’ successful claims

Looking at colleagues’ successful claims can be helpful so you know what a finished claim looks like. But reading examples from my colleagues almost put me off applying: I thought I’d never be able to present such a compelling case for myself. However, finished drafts are highly crafted and polished: they’ve been through many edits and redrafts to perfect them. So, start your own claim by getting words on a page, and sharing them with colleagues – either those your institution formally appoints to support you, or people you trust. Ask supportive colleagues who know your work less well to highlight what impresses them the most as they read your draft, and then omit examples that aren’t frequently highlighted.

4. Start at the end

Your application needs to demonstrate excellence across three criteria: excellence in your practice; excellence in supporting and developing others; and excellence in your CPD. Often, your CPD activity will benefit others, e.g. when you give a paper at a conference, you learn, but so does your audience. So it can be hard to think of examples of excellence in your CPD (Criterion 3) that don’t also demonstrate Criterion 2 (supporting others to be excellent). In contrast, it’s relatively easy to find instances of supporting others that you wouldn’t claim as CPD for yourself. So, start with Criterion 3. Choose the best examples you’ve got to evidence how you build your practice, even if they also impact on others and so could go in Criterion 2. You can then choose different examples for Criterion 2. If you write Criterion 2 first, you’ll struggle to avoid repeating yourself in Criterion 3 – and Advance HE identifies Criterion 3 as a common weak point in applications.

5. So what?

Imagine that your reader has a ‘So what?’ rubber stamp to annotate your margins, and try to avoid giving them cause to use it. Don’t just tell the reader what you’ve done – demonstrate the impact, reach and value. If you can’t do that for any particular example of your work, it’s not strong enough evidence and you should take it out.

How do you get the evidence? Tell people you’re being nominated, what the criteria are, and invite them to support you with a quotation on your practice or impact on them. Send blanket messages using social media channels or email, rather than asking individuals, so that nobody feels pressured to respond and the comments you receive are genuine. Also start keeping a feedback file, collecting quotes, notes from students, etc., that show your impact. Don’t forget qualitative data, too: sustained increase in student grades after your interventions, numbers of citations of pedagogical papers you’ve written, for example.

6. See your nomination as an invitation to blow your own trumpet

Finally, the most difficult bit of advice for many people. As fellow NTF Sally Brown says, ‘shy bairns get nowt’. In other words, you have to avoid being modest and really present your impact. I’ve never met anyone who likes doing this, but to get over the awkwardness, remember that being one of your institution’s three nominees gives you permission to blow your own trumpet! And, unlike being in the orchestra, if you can hear yourself playing, you’re definitely not too loud!

I hope that if you are applying for an NTF this year, or considering it for the future, these tips from my experience will help you. Do let me know in the comments below if you have questions – or if you’re already an NTF, share your own top tip.

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  1. Re. "avoid repeating yourself", it's interesting that Diane Nutt's advice on the AdvanceHE website says "And most of all, how does the CPD you describe in this section relate to the
    examples of activities that you've described in criterion one and criterion two?" So is it a case that you need to cite the same examples, but just draw out different elements i.e. the personal development strand rather than the achievements?

    1. Good question, Pete! (For the benefit of other readers, Nutt's advice is here: I think the point is that you need to relate your CPD to the wider narrative of your claim. So, in Criterion 3, you should use different examples of how you've developed your practice, rather than repeating the same examples just with different framing. But the impact of that CPD should clearly relate to your narrative as in Criteria 1 and 2. For example, in my case, the narrative of my claim was about supporting student transitions. So my examples in Criterion 3 were about CPD that had helped me build the capability to do work in that area.

  2. OK, interesting.That sounds plausible.

  3. Are you supposed to only write about one example in detail within each section, or can you include multiple examples, like across different institutions?

    1. You should include a range of evidence to demonstrate how and why your practice is excellent, but in my experience, it's best to make sure there's an overarching theme or narrative linking it all together. In other words, avoid offering a collection of unrealated examples: choose a particular theme or a couple of themes to present your practice and relate the examples to it to tell a coherent story.