Rowan -  Coral Warr, recipient of the 2014 Dean's Excellence in Teaching Award for Excellence, writes an informative blog about juggling the demands of a teaching and research academic.

Teaching and research staff come in many flavours, and have different balances between the two areas of academic activity. I genuinely love both teaching and research, do both equally, and continue to do so 13 years into my academic career. Teaching is immensely rewarding and satisfying, and the good feelings it brings help buffer against the unpredictable rollercoaster ride that is research.

These days due to immense pressure regarding research success, it can feel hard to justify spending lots of time on developing new teaching approaches and innovations. Sometimes you feel you should just do the same thing year after year and conserve all your energy for research. But if you are someone who loves teaching, continually trying to improve is really just a necessity to feel happy and satisfied that you are doing your job well. And of course teaching is the core business of universities, and no matter how much pressure we feel about our research we need to be great educators too. 

I think we can be confident that our leaders all know this and in fact support us putting time and energy into our teaching (even though it may not always seem so). As evidence of this, I was this year awarded the Dean's Excellence in Teaching Award for a number of innovative teaching approaches I have developed. While it’s great to get this recognition, much more important is the enjoyment I’ve had developing and implementing every one of them, and how working on them has helped me through some tough times with research. 
Image Credit: Flickr - kosmolaut

But how do we juggle the two core academic activities of teaching and research to find the time to be innovative? I’ve tried different ways of doing this during my career, and seen what works best for some of my colleagues too. And of course, what I see is there is no one size fits all solution. It depends on your personality, on your type of research (eg. are you lab or field-based), on the size of your research group, and other activities you are engaged in. For example, early in my career the School kindly put all my teaching in one semester with the idea that the other semester is then all free for research. 

Some staff really like this. But for me it just didn’t work, for two reasons. First, as someone supervising a lab-based research program, the research didn’t stop during the semester I was teaching. I still had to do all my research tasks. This was tough. Second, I found I like the structure teaching provides. In my non teaching semester I had a big “to do” list but none of the tasks had deadlines. They got done eventually but I felt inefficient compared to when I was teaching and accomplishing lots of tasks all the time. And I missed all the rewards that teaching continually provides. 

So for me having my teaching and research spread throughout the year works best. But you may be completely different. Hopefully everyone has a Head of School who understands this and is willing to implement different strategies for different staff.

When is the best time to work on teaching improvements? Well this falls into the category of do as I say and not as I do! Of course it is straight after the teaching event when you realise what you could have done better or differently. Does it happen then for me? Well no, rarely. But what I do is implement reflective practice. Either straight away, or at the latest at the end of a block of teaching, I make notes in this regard. That way if I can’t get to it until a later time I can remember what the issues were and what I might try to change.

So while it might feel it takes too much of your time to be innovative with your teaching, the rewards in terms of personal satisfaction are immense. And, as we all know, it only takes a few students to tell you how much they loved something, or that they now understand something, to make it all worthwhile.

Associate Professor Coral Warr is the Deputy Head of the School of Biological Sciences. She is a molecular and cellular geneticist whose research focuses on how cells respond to signals from their environment, using the fruitfly Drosophila as a model organism. She is a passionate teacher of genetics and teaches at all undergraduate levels.