Working with sessional staff

After many years in the university setting, this Unit Coordinator describes her strategies in working with large classes and numerous tutors to deliver quality teaching and learning to her students. More...

In my early days here I was employed on a casual basis. At first I accepted a series of fixed term contracts and after many years I was offered a tenured position. Initially I taught in the management area, where my focus was on designing units to focus on improving functional grammar among our students, before moving into the Education program. My focus remained on linguistics and grammar and my units rarely exceeded 90 students.

Three years ago when the unit I coordinate became a core unit in a Bachelor degree student numbers soared to 400. Students in the unit may now be enrolled in an undergraduate degree or post graduate diploma in Education, Media, Sociology, English Literature or Business. As coordinator I deliver 60 percent of the lectures, develop curriculum, update the unit guide and tutorial workbook, find tutors and justify, then write contracts. In addition I moderate all marking and provide solutions to the practice examples I write for students each week. The biggest issue for me is locating qualified sessional staff to teach into the unit and I know this is a systemic problem. To manage this large unit I work with seven tutors in 14 classes. Some tutors are academic colleagues and others are PhD students.

Last year one PhD tutor assured me she could teach Company Communication so I allocated her two tutorials. During week 6 of semester a student approached me to complain that the tutor knew little about the unit content and was not keeping ahead of the class. After the mid semester break several other students approached me with the same complaint. I called the tutor in to discuss the situation and she offered to step aside from tutoring. I knew that would create more problems for me so I asked her instead to sit in on a colleagues’ classes before her own were scheduled and to observe what well run classes look like. This strategy worked to some extent and I was reassured that the students were no longer being disadvantaged. It was a painful experience for the tutor because the students could see she was floundering before she saw it herself.

I firmly believe that good mentoring about the responsibilities of unit coordination is essential. Unit coordinators need to know that working with large student numbers and several tutors in a unit requires moderation of student work and consistency among tutors. I encourage new tutors to double mark student work with junior staff and to appreciate the importance of good teaching.

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