I have been rereading Atul Gawadne's book "Better", mostly because I have been thinking about how we can improve teaching in my department since I became a course director. Here's an inspiring quote. Betterment is: "to live a life of responsibility. The question... is not whether one accepts the responsibility. Just by doing this work, one has. The question is, having accepted the responsbility, how does one do such work well?"p9. Gawadne suggests there are three aspects to making things better: diligence ("giving sufficient attention to detail to avoid error and prevail against obstacles"), doing right, and ingenuity (thinking anew). He also has some suggestions for how you can become a positive deviant (i.e. striving to make things better even if the people around you don't).
1. Ask an unscripted question (when talking to people)
2. Don't complain
3. Count something (i.e. monitor something which interests you numerically)
4. Write something (to reflect on what you have counted)
This is me doing number 4 - writing!
I find the quote above striking because even although it was written by a doctor about medical practice, it applies nicely to teaching. I believe that as lecturers, we have signed up to educate and that we can always do better. Even if you get great course feedback and high averages and win teaching awards, there will always be something which you can improve on. Having spent 6 months being a course director and talking to both staff and students about teaching, I am beginning to see that not everyone sees things that way. I think that maybe some staff see the pursuit of betterment only as a criticism, not something which is just built into the job.Maybe this is a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude. But my point of view is that you have to check whether it is broken regularly, and try to keep it in good working order! It's part of the cycle of reflective practice, planning, teaching, reflecting, then replanning. Trying new teaching methods or content from time to time will make things more interesting for you, and might well make things even better for the students.
In being positively deviant, I am also doing numbers 3. and 5. from Gawadne's list. The counting is to do with the dreaded national student survey results - logging students' attitudes towards their teaching and seeing if in the long term we can increase scores. I am not convinced this is an end in itself, but it is a benchmark for us to use to see whether our changes are actually making things better. Number 5 - change- is hard, it turns out. Universities tend to be conservative beurocracies which work on long time scales. It is hard to achieve anything within one academic year simply because of when meetings at which approval decisions can be taken are scheduled. Staff and students are both busy and busy people tend not to want to make changes which will cost them time. It is hard to coax people out of the habit of complaining and into the more positive frame of mind where they will make constructive suggestions.
But I am trying, and I will keep trying.