The casual staff who do 80% of undergrad teaching need more support – here’s a way unis can help

Originally published on theconversation.com

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Casual staff do an estimated 80% of undergraduate teaching in Australian universities. Research shows these staff are highly committed, going above and beyond their paid role to assist students.

Yet, compared to full-time staff, casuals are often treated as second-class citizens. Casual staff have little institutional support. They lack job security.



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Casual staff are routinely denied professional development opportunities, which may hamper their careers. They report feeling isolated and invisible.

Team teaching can help

Our recently published research outlines a team-teaching model that can address some of these issues. Teaching teams share responsibility for planning, instruction and evaluation of students.

We are casual academics from diverse disciplines who jointly teach an online undergraduate unit. We have found team teaching to be collaborative, sustainable and rewarding.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities increased their use of online delivery. When done well, online learning can be as effective as face-to-face teaching. Online studies can be engaging and interactive if teachers are adequately trained.

And team teaching can help ease staff into online delivery.



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How do casuals feel about this approach?

Participants in our research project reflected on teaching as part of our team in comparison to their other teaching experiences.

Some take on extra work, some demonstrate best practice in giving feedback, crafting lectures, finding relevant resources etc. Some research how the available technology can help improve our teaching, some advocate for the unit in their influence circles; some bring subject matter expertise. — Brett

All members of the teaching team contribute to decisions on included resources, lecture/webpage content, assessments, delivery of synchronised sessions, marking and sharing of ideas. — Astrid

I have noticed that sometimes team members act quite autonomously and responsively, and at other times there is a lot of consultation, and that both these approaches entail a lot of goodwill and trust. — Jason

As our participants noted, members take ownership of particular content, depending on expertise, interest and availability. Input and review come from the whole team. Decision-making is shared.

Collective decision-making requires regular team meetings. These meetings are genuine collaborations in which ideas are discussed and debated. Engaging in regular interactions helps to counter casual teachers’ typical experience of isolation and invisibility.

The weekly meetings help me to feel connected with other tutor members. Despite the unit and teaching being wholly online, the weekly catch-ups during semester help to facilitate rapport and camaraderie. — Poppy

With everyone working online, team teaching helps build camaraderie and overcome feelings of isolation.
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Collaboration reduces the burden on individual teachers while ensuring continuity for the students and the course.

I felt very supported by the teaching team generally, and senior members in particular […] Weekly meetings were an opportunity to raise issues within an environment of shared understandings of the challenges of tertiary-level teaching, online delivery and confronting content. — Astrid

Overall, I feel very supported. I am generally able to take time off and team members will competently step up to cover my duties. I am confident team members know enough about my work so they can handle any emergency or issue in my absence. — Brett

Working together fosters peer learning. Participants described learning about all aspects of university teaching, including unit design, content development, assessment and online teaching skills.

Ruth said the unit was one of her best teaching experiences because she was learning the whole time. Experienced members of the teaching team described learning new approaches to student management and delivery.

“On-the-job” learning helps offset the exclusion of casual staff from professional development training and safeguards future academic teaching.



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What’s needed to make team teaching work?

Successful collaboration requires team members to be skilled in providing constructive feedback. They must also be comfortable with their ideas being challenged. Solid interpersonal skills are necessary to resolve any dissent.

We contested each other quite a bit […] all of the colleagues are highly talented, but portray a real willingness to learn […] so there is a flexibility and lack of defensiveness that characterises all the colleagues. — Jason

Collaborative teaching teams also rely on institutional recognition and financial support.

The school … is also really supportive in terms of having a ‘champion’ and financial support for us to meet to collaborate. Financial support for the work we do is a literal way to show that we’re valued. — Phillipa

Collaborative teaching models provide a blueprint for a teaching environment that is supportive and enriching for staff. It’s also good for the long-term viability of the institution. These aspects of team teaching speak to its sustainability both for staff and the institution.

I earnestly believe that universities need to change radically to make good on their espoused values: this has to start with caring for people and placing value on collegiality […] and creating situations in which people can operate with genuine team spirit, with the appropriate skill sets for communicating openly and respectfully. — Jason

Despite the benefits of team teaching, it is not a panacea for the casualisation of university teaching. Further work needs to be done to address issues such as job security.



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Sebastien Robin works for the University of Tasmania.

Emily Rudling, Maria Kunda, and Robyn Moore do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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