Sometimes Basics are Best – A law lecturer’s view on the pride of teaching

By | March 18, 2016

Court imageThis is usually the time of year where I get a bit fidgety and the time of year where you get the best and worst of teaching. I get impatient with students for asking silly questions about assessments. Questions which they would know the answer to if only they read the instructions carefully… But I also get nervous for them as the countdown to exams begins and their assignment deadlines loom. This year is a little different. I’m hardly teaching at all. My LLM students seems so relaxed about the assignments they might as well not have any (I’m sure that’s not actually true, it’s just the way they come across in my Advanced Legal Research class) and I only teach one small undergraduate tutorial group for Law in a Global Context. I was almost missing that nervous energy of the second half of term. What I was definitely missing though is the bit that is most rewarding about teaching – seeing the lightbulbs come on, seeing it all click into place. The group I teach at UG level are all really good students, they’ve been pretty well prepared for each session so far, they ask sensible questions, they get stuck in. I’ve guided a little but it’s been easy teaching – they get it. Now don’t get me wrong – that’s great. I love groups where we can skip over basics and get stuck into discussions and debates but I also always feel a bit superfluous – those students don’t really need me there! They’d get to the same point if I shut them in a room and said “talk to each other about this for 90 minutes”.

This week was different. The students were stressing about a deadline the next day and hadn’t prepared well. They admitted to having been in the last lecture but not having really taken anything in because they were pre-occupied.  So, a free movement of goods in EU law problem question with zero prep and very, very limited prior knowledge – good job I like a challenge. The tutorial was fantastic. We talked about basic principles briefly first and I reminded them that if they understood free movement of persons (which they do) they’d also ‘get’ free movement of goods. As we went through the key bits of law and just three key cases in the context of the problem questions they should have prepared but hadn’t I could see it click into place, one by one. Frowns and looks of concentration turned to smiles, unfocused and slightly confused questions turned to analysis and application of the law. Once it had clicked the problem was no match for them – they breezed through it. I actually could have cried with pride. That feeling right there when the last of the students looked up and said “I get it now”’ and then explained why she thought what she thought is the reason I teach. Ok so it wasn’t a high level academic discussion, we didn’t talk about issues raised, problems with the law, possible reform or what academics have said about the case law – but we have set the foundation for that.

So why was one of the most basic tutorials we had as a group also one of the best? Because we all left on a high and buzzing, if a little tired from the mental workout. We’d worked hard – they had learned free movement of goods in 90 minutes and I had had to find a way to teach it in 90 minutes. The students left with a new found confidence and with a sense of clarity and purpose they didn’t have before and I left knowing that to those six students I had made just a tiny little difference – and that makes all the difference!

About Jessica Guth

Jess is Head of Law at The University of Bradford School of Law. She joined the School in 2007 as a junior lecturer and has taught on a variety of undergraduate and postgraduate courses. She has been recognised by the University for her excellence in teaching by being awarded the Baroness Lockwood Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2009 and being nominated for a National Teaching Fellowship in 2013. Jess is a leading Legal Education researcher and has presented her work nationally and internationally and has published in leading journals. She is the Deputy Editor of the Law Teacher: the International Journal of Legal Education and the Vice Chair of the Association of Law Teachers. She also sits on the Executive Committee of the Socio-Legal Studies Association.