Helping law’s sessional teachers stay on top

Mary Heath
Associate Professor Mary Heath

The sessional teachers who deliver half of Australia’s tertiary teaching sometimes feel isolated from their colleagues and from developments in teaching practice. But, says Associate Professor Mary Heath, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Associate Professor Heath of the Flinders Law School is leading a project dedicated to providing sessional teachers in law with the resources for discipline-specific professional development they frequently miss out on.

With a $250,000 grant from the Office of Learning and Teaching, the team is developing Smart Casual, a series of on-line modules which address a range of issues faced by sessional teachers in equipping their students with the skills required in legal practice.

The increasing reliance on sessional staff right across the higher education sector brings wide variation in teaching experience and abilities, Associate Professor Heath said.

“Some of them are highly qualified teachers; some of them are new to teaching, although they may be highly experienced in their field,” Associate Professor Heath said.

She said that in their efforts to catch up in providing professional development to their sessional staff, many universities have developed excellent generic training programs, but these do not cover the needs of individual disciplines.

“There are lots of disciplines – and law is one of them – where you have quite specific skills you’ve got to teach,” she said.

While large, well-resourced law schools might have the resources to provide professional development, many smaller institutions are not able to provide the necessary induction.

“What we’re trying to create is something that is resource efficient and accessible to staff that can be used across the board in Australia, whether you come from a sandstone university or whether you work in a tiny school in regional Australia where the whole cohort teaching law could be well under 10.”

Three initial modules – Engagement, Problem solving and Feedback – were designed as part of an initial seed project, and the second phase will create a further five professional development modules: Wellness in law, Communication and collaboration, Critical legal thinking, Reading law and Legal ethics and professional responsibility.

“These are skills that are required, or issues that arise, all the way across the curriculum, that every sessional staff member, whether they’re teaching first year or final year, is going to need to know about,” Associate Professor Heath said.

Five themes are also integrated throughout the modules: diversity; indigenisation; gender; digital literacy; and internationalisation.

As well as relevant literature, professional documents and requirements, and links to other resources, the modules feature video segments in which talented sessional teachers talk about their techniques, approaches and practices.

Associate Professor Heath said teachers in small, rural and remote institutions and those who teach outside normal working hours can have minimal contact with their colleagues.

“In setting up these modules and creating the videos to be part of them, we’re hoping to give sessionals who might be working in quite isolated circumstances a sense of being connected with people who share their struggles and also share their enthusiasm and passion for teaching,” she said.

“We’re trying to create a sense of community and a sense of being engaged in a shared task.”

There has been an enthusiastic response from law schools across Australia for the free resource, and there has also been interest from areas as diverse as mathematics and nursing in adapting the model for use within their own disciplines.

“Discipline-specific professional development is a demonstrable need in lots of places,” Associate Professor Heath said.

“There are parallel issues in many disciplines, especially those that have a tight relationship with their profession.

“Where the profession has specific requirements and capacities which are non-negotiable, we have to figure out how to do those things, and do them well.”

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