As a woman, there can be tendency to be too self-effacing. You articulate your team’s successes but it doesn’t come naturally to talk about your own role in those successes.
The process of applying for Principal Fellowship was incredibly empowering in that regard. It pushed me to reframe my achievements, to put myself at the centre of my own career story and claim, in the first-person, the most impactful changes I had led and shaped.
In Ireland, Fellowship is less embedded than it is in the UK. I got to hear about Advance HE’s Fellowships while I was collaborating with some academics who are renowned within teaching and learning leadership. I saw that some of them had Principal Fellow after their names and was curious to find out more. From everything I learned, it sounded like Principal Fellowship was something that would support me in my own professional development. So I decided to do some research on the process.
One of the first things I did was book onto a writing retreat run by Advance HE. It was a great way of devoting a whole day to thinking if Principal Fellowship was the appropriate category of fellowship for me and what I needed to do to apply. The retreat leader was very clear and explained precisely what Principal Fellowship was and what it wasn’t. It gave me real clarity about setting goals, reviewing my record of educational impact and identifying what my immediate next steps should be.
Crafting the narrative
I gave myself until the following summer to do the application, so that meant I had 18 months – plenty of time – to craft the narrative. Very early on, I decided who I would approach to be my Advocates. Your Advocates give a testimonial about your strategic leadership in teaching and learning and need to have an in-depth understanding of the Professional Standards Framework.
In my role on Ireland’s National Forum for Teaching and Learning, I knew of a Principal Fellow who was familiar with my work in national projects and my leadership in teaching and learning. The other advocates were senior leaders at my institution who knew the breadth of my work at institutional and national levels, so they were ideally placed to act as advocates.
My background is in music teaching and I had taken on a number of leadership roles over the years including being elected Chair of the Society of Music Education in Ireland. That gave me significant leadership experience when I was appointed Director of Teaching and Learning at Mary Immaculate College in 2016.
I believe my role is about inspiring and empowering both learners and teachers to become leaders themselves. My philosophy is grounded in transformational leadership - where colleagues are empowered and encouraged to enhance their practice in order to transform the student experience and, in so doing, realise their own leadership potential.
For example, by championing excellence in teaching and learning and encouraging colleagues to apply for a regional teaching excellence award, MIC faculty members won awards on three separate occasions between 2017 and 2022. When I was elected to the International Society for Music Education in 2020, I brought my leadership experience to my role as Chair of the International Publications Committee by establishing workshops for early career academics in writing and publishing.
Recognition of my work
Becoming a Principal Fellow has meant a lot to me personally. It’s recognition of all the invisible work I have been doing over many years such as mentoring, coordinating, pastoral support and the ethic of care for the student experience. I firmly believe that learning and belonging are central to the mission of higher education. Being awarded Principal Fellowship recognises that what I’ve been doing all along really matters.
In the higher education sector, there’s a tendency to tell women academics to stop focusing on teaching and learning and instead concentrate on research if they want to progress. Academics often get time allocated away from teaching to conduct even a small research project. That doesn’t happen for teaching and learning initiatives and it’s why it’s so important that there is proper recognition for teaching and learning.
Achieving Principal Fellowship has given me the confidence to consider further promotional or leadership roles in the sector. It has definitely spurred my ambition to make an even bigger difference in the field of higher education.