Opinion

What teacher training doesn’t teach – the reality of training to teach as a DPhil student

The Opinion section is a platform for students to share their personal views about current issues and life at Oxford.

Anyone who did their undergraduate degree at Oxbridge or is currently doing their DPhil (or PhD) will know that it’s possible for DPhil students to give tutorials. How much this happens depends on the availability of such teaching across colleges and faculties, but it would be fair for me to say that it’s common practice. 

There is training in place for DPhil students who teach. We have a workshop for a day or two called the PLTO, Preparing for Learning and Teaching. This is done by each faculty, and DPhil students can’t attend it until they’ve passed their Transfer of Status from Probationary Research Student to full DPhil candidate after their first year. Once we’ve passed the PLTO, we’re eligible to teach and can sign up for the DLTO (imaginative names, I know). This is the Developing Learning and Teaching, a term-long series of seminars and a write-up that results in a nationally-accredited teaching qualification. So, fear not, we’re not let loose upon students with absolutely no idea what we’re doing. 

Quite how much idea we have is another matter. While it’s basically impossible to get a post-doctoral teaching post without having completed the DLTO, it isn’t as watertight a process as it’s made out to be. For instance, in order to sign up to it, you have to have a minimum amount of teaching organised for the term during which you take the course, or the three terms following. However, no one actually checks whether you are signed up to any teaching. And as part of the write-up we need to have student feedback and peer observation, but again it’s not something that anyone checks. So, you could legitimately blag the entire thing.  

It’s also not actually necessary to have completed your Transfer of Status and the PLTO to start teaching, even though I’ve just told you that it is. If you’ve studied here before your DPhil, you’re at the distinct advantage of being able to ask for teaching from lecturers who already know and trust you, and of knowing what students need to do for their course. This is exactly what I’ve done and, because I did my BA in a different faculty to where I’m now doing my DPhil, my current faculty doesn’t seem to know or mind that I was teaching for a year prior to passing my Transfer of Status and the PLTO. However, this does rather undermine the whole system that the university has put in place, and certainly leaves graduates from other universities (Cambridge included) at a disadvantage. 

That’s not to say that I haven’t learned useful things from the PLTO and DLTO. I have a more concrete idea of what lesson planning needs to incorporate, little things that are helpful for students with specific learning disabilities (like not having black writing on a white background on a PowerPoint, and the minimum size that writing on a PowerPoint should be), and practical activities that are useful for keeping students engaged. 

However, even though the process teaches useful things, it does have some glaring omissions. One thing that people like to know – especially students – when they take on any kind of work is what and how they will be paid. At no point during the PLTO and DLTO is this mentioned, unless students specifically ask, and they may not know that they should. One of my friends thought that it might involve filling in a timesheet, but instead it involves filling in reports on the university’s reporting and payment system OxCORT (for teaching undergraduates) and filling out the right forms (for teaching postgraduates). I only knew about this because within the faculty in which I did my BA, some of the DPhils have prepared a cheat sheet for how to do all of this admin. 

The other thing that is never explained but is (rather) important, especially for DPhils who’ve never studied at Oxbridge before, is what a tutorial actually is. While content and structure can vary from subject to subject and from tutor to tutor, the basic format of discussing a topic and work completed by a student (or very small group of students) is the same across the board. However, an explanation that simple is never given. Instead the entirety of the PLTO and at least one seminar of the DLTO is spent problematising the tutorial system and lambasting how it is lauded as the mystical, Holy Grail of teaching – while at the same time lauding it as the mystical, Holy Grail of teaching. Personally, the best way to understand how a tutorial works is to see one in action, but that that’s not always possible and that it’s very hard to appreciate what you are seeing in action unless someone has given you a simple, practical explanation of it beforehand. 

Of course, there are parameters that must be followed when training DPhil students to teach, especially when dealing with a nationally-recognised qualification. However, in order for this training to be fit for purpose, especially for non-Oxbridge graduates, these glaring omissions need to be incorporated. If not, legions of DPhils will continue to be sent into teaching more underprepared than they realise. All of this has made me more able to empathise with the DPhil students who gave me tutorials while I was a first-year undergraduate – at the time, I thought that they couldn’t possibly be as nervous or as in need of feedback as they said that they were. Now, in their shoes, I understand they truly were and why that will have been. 

Chloé Agar

Chloé (she/her) is an Egyptologist who, when not studying obscure ancient languages, writes fantasy and sci-fi fiction and non-fiction articles on education and the arts for The Oxford Blue, The Oxford Student, and Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative.