Reflections of a new law teacher

Keeping it real: Brief reflections on teaching with social justice in my first semester of lecturing.

Julian Laurens

My recent first semester of lecturing (Land Law) was an overwhelmingly positive experience (despite the surprising workload associated with lesson preparation, marking, and student consultation). While I wasn’t completely unaware of what to expect, nothing can quite prepare you for that first time, standing by yourself looking out at a full room, noisy with anticipatory silence, curious smiles and guarded gazing, waiting for you to begin the show. I knew I wouldn’t be perfect the first time and would make ‘mistakes’. But isn’t that what learning is all about? My semester demonstrated to me that the first challenge for the new lecturer is to accept this (don’t be too hard on yourself) and be willing to engage in self-reflection. Reflecting alone and with colleagues was critical to my successful semester.

Research suggested the best classrooms were ones where students and teachers were engaged together in a spirit of enquiry and learning. In a desirable deep learning environment the teacher has a critical role in facilitating and directing learning – not controlling it. My head filled with grand pictures of the engaged classroom, I was excited to explore this – what does it all mean for my teaching, particularly at UNSW Law with values deeply rooted in ‘justice’?

I adopted a personal philosophical and pedagogical position in order to provide meaning and structure to my practice. I wanted students to develop an awareness of ‘justice’ beyond the black letter (though the black letter was crucial), specifically the application of social justice principles. I surmised that if I wanted to create a supportive learning environment in which students were challenged to think deeply and encouraged to critically express and share their understandings without feeling that they had to be ‘right’, I had to model social justice in my teaching. Part of this was ensuring that student’s saw me for what I was from the start – a fellow learner, who may make ‘mistakes’, but who is responsible and competent in supporting them to achieve. As a practical example this meant acknowledging when I did not know the answer to something, but ensuring I would discover it (something that was quite effective was putting the question to the class for them to seek an answer and present at a later class). I had to be honest and authentic – my greatest observation of my semester is that to be effective, students must trust you. And do not say things if you can’t follow through.

For me, social justice (as distinct from ‘justice’) is an ongoing process (often based within an institution) of critical enquiry, of reasoned questioning, of respect for views, applying options based upon this, and then further enquiry to evaluate how the options chosen for our social communities are operating. It is not just an outcome – a just decision is. Student’s must be exposed to and practice this ‘process’ aspect of social justice so they can participate effectively in a learning community and graduate with a rounded appreciation of justice (not just the legal system). One way to describe this is by exposing students to and encouraging their participation in ‘procedural fairness’.

A key aspect of my approach was becoming comfortable in ‘relaxing’ control and encouraging students to take some responsibility for their learning – this also significantly reduced my personal stress and anxiety. When discussion developed, I would rarely intervene, except to ensure all students had a chance to participate or to raise a question myself – I was guiding. By the end of the semester students themselves were self-regulating in this respect with more confidence. Other aspects included acknowledging each student comment in a positive manner, sincerely (student’s will pick up insincerity). I regularly checked with the class as to what aspects of the material they were or were not ‘getting’, and encouraged the class to email me with written questions that I could focus on in a subsequent class.

Because the learning was focused on them, and there were opportunities to practice what they were learning, students came to class feeling engaged. They were encouraged to see the classroom as their space. Establishing this sense of ‘ownership’ of the learning space founded in trust and respect, and the emergence of a strong camaraderie was subtle, and yet fundamental. I didn’t realise till my last lecture in fact how deeply this can become embedded, partly because I was also part of the process!

Modelling social justice inevitably extended to how I approached assignment marking. I initially found this very emotionally challenging. Partly this was because I was attuned to the students on a ‘personal’ level, but I was also acutely aware of the stress and anxiety many were going through in relation to wanting high marks for ‘career development’. I had to ‘assess’ – but how could I do it fairly, transparently, and without ‘judgment’ in a way that would support learning and not leave them miserable and demoralised? I wanted to encourage students to see the intrinsic value in learning, not just be extrinsically motivated.

All students received personalised feedback on their assignments. I conducted an extensive feedback session for the entire class on the mid semester assignment. I explained grading and assessment procedures. Importantly I expressed that there was a standard and what this meant – on this I was firm, a position especially appreciated by students at the end of the semester. I was also available for consultation with students who wished to discuss things, and I also set some further short answer questions for students who would like to practice their writing which I would also provide feedback on. What was key for the semester was providing opportunities for students to think about and practice meeting that standard – and to provide me with as many opportunities as possible for providing feedback.

Further research in articulating legal education teaching practice within a matrix of social justice principles would be valuable in exploring how we may create learning environments which support the emotional and psychological care needs of students and teachers; promote rigorous deep learning outcomes; and enhance graduates’ practical ability to participate critically in the democratic institutions and communities they will be part of post-graduation. Research should not just focus on content, but examine how types of assessment for example may assist in realising such goals.

Perhaps you have some reflections or tips for new teachers?

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