Getting into teaching
My earliest thoughts about the possibility of pursuing a career in teaching were formed during my undergraduate days at the Law School of the University of Ghana. There, as a young high school student adjusting into university life, I was privileged to be taught by highly inspiring and committed professors. Their enthusiasm and level of commitment left a lasting impression about the difference that a good teacher could make to a young person’s life.
In spite of this, after I was admitted to the bar, I did not go into teaching – I went straight into legal practice.
There is a common saying that no one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach…My first break into teaching came when, as State Attorney in Nigeria, I was invited to present a public lecture. The Dean of the local Law School who was also in the audience approached me after my talk and asked if I would be interested in taking up a teaching role at his Faculty. Following further discussions, I agreed to take on a part-time teaching role in criminal law. The experience was quite surreal, as I found myself at the centre of attention of students who were intrigued to pick up as much as they could about how the law worked in real life. There is a common saying that no one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach… This re-learning process, re-ignited my passion for teaching that I had developed at Law School. That quest led me to pursue my post-graduate studies at Monash University. Whilst studying at Monash, I took up sessional teaching opportunities in tax at Victoria College’s Bowater School of Business (now part of Deakin University).
In those sessional roles, I found teaching a most rewarding experience, so when I had the opportunity to take up a full-time role as a Lecturer in Commercial Law, at Macquarie’s Department of Business Law (then known as ‘the Business Law Discipline’), I jumped at it. I taught Revenue Law (now Taxation Law and Practice), and also in teams in all the other commercial law units offered by the Department.
Looking back to the time I first started teaching, there are two things that I know now that I wished somebody had told me then. The first is the transformative role that a mentor can have on one’s career.
A good mentor sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.
Upon commencing my appointment at Macquarie, I had the privilege of being mentored by a passionate teacher, Professor Patricia Ryan (who was then the Head of Department of the Business Law Discipline) in the School of Economic and Financial Studies (now the Faculty of Business and Economics).
The second thing, I have come to learn over the years is that nurturing trust and developing good communications between you and your students is the key to good learning.
How to engage students
Tax by its very nature is a very complex subject. At the beginning of every semester students come into the subject with preconceived ideas that tax is a very dry and difficult subject. Other students feel they have no choice but to do it – as it is a core unit in the B.Com (Professional Accounting) program.
There are a number of strategies that I put in place to turn students away from their preconceptions and make them engaged participants in the learning process. First, I acknowledge the complexity of tax law – which is compounded by the fact that its content is subject to rapid change. I then set the parameters of the mutual obligations that will be the basis of our interaction during the semester. Students are advised that in my role as a partner in their learning process, I will work hard to get them come to grips with how the tax system works, how it can enrich their experience, as well as increase their levels of confidence in whatever roles they take on after graduation. In return, I also expect them to put in the same level of effort that I commit, to meet their side of the bargain.
Two other things are further thrown into the mix, to engage the students. Their attention is drawn to the fact that because content in tax can get out-dated very quickly, the primary focus in the unit is on skills development. Equipping them with skills of flexibility and adaptability is meant to enable them keep abreast of the challenges they are likely to encounter in a fast-paced changing world, as they step into their careers.
A good teacher is not the one who knows most, but the one who is most capable of reducing knowledge to that simple compound of the obvious and wonderful.
Towards this end, another key driver behind my teaching strategy is to demystify the complexity and abstract conceptions that they may have of taxation. This ensures that they can relate to the content in practical terms to the manner in which taxation affects their daily lives – and how to leverage it in whatever career they find themselves. This approach heightens their awareness of the key issues and challenges involved in dealing with matters relating to financial literacy.
So through a process of establishing a mutual compact, focus on skills development and ensuring that what they are studying actually relates to their lives – the students take ownership of their learning.
The success of this strategy is evidenced by the continuous feedback (formal and informal) about how they are enjoying the course, the flood of inquiries as to whether I teach any other units that they can enrol in, post-exam emails apologising for letting me down by not getting high distinction grades and above in the final exam, and in some cases for failing in the exam. Added to this is the sheer number of students seeking advice at the end of semester as to what they need to do next to enable them to pursue careers in tax advisory.
Team and Group work
The hardest thing to teach is about teamwork and working in groups. There have been occasions when some students have resisted the prospect of being assigned to groups with others who are not their friends because they find that experience rather daunting. Other challenges include passivity when in the group and dealing with conflict.
Coming back to the skills development issue, I make them understand that
in the workplace they will not have the luxury of working with friends – but with total strangers. The experience at university provides a safe ground in which to hone their interpersonal and teamwork skills.
My sense of achievement as a teacher is usually heightened by the hive of activity on the unit’s General Discussion forum towards the end of semester, where students are actively mentoring and lending support to each other through discussions in problem solving. Added to this are situations where students start questioning the logical and technical basis of things they come across in their studies in the unit, as well as tax issues being discussed in the media.
I have a feeling of pride and accomplishment in their collegiality, their newly found confidence, and their questioning abilities – considering that less than 12 weeks earlier most of the students hardly had any inkling of what tax was all about.
Teaching Tax Law
Tax is a subject that touches all aspects of our daily lives. Pick up any newspaper on any day of the week and you will find that its coverage is devoted to 4 or more stories on taxation issues. The unit – “Taxation Law and Practice“ – is overlaid with recurrent themes and activities to reinforce their appreciation of the fact that tax payment is part of our obligations as citizens. Revenues raised through the tax system finances most of the services that we as a society enjoy and take for granted. To contrast this, I provide them with examples of countries where this obligation was not treated as sacrosanct and contributed in them becoming failed states. Students from the countries in question acknowledge this observation. I consider this as a positive development as it heightens their awareness of some of the challenges they may have to grapple with as future policy makers and leaders back in their home countries. The objective here is to reinforce the need to maintain and support the integrity of the tax system.
The content and other activities in the unit have also been designed
to make students appreciate the social transformative role of tax. In particular, they are made to reflect on the role taxation and the tax policy play as a tool of social engineering and their capacity to deal with some of the biggest challenges of our time – environmental degradation as well as their role in driving innovation and sustainability.
Matters relating to the role of tax policy and to their civic obligations are then tied to the ethics of tax practice. In this way, their study of the unit not only increases their awareness of the role of taxes in society, but also makes them informed citizens who have a clear understanding their place and contribution to the wider community.
Professional Development and teaching support
Having come into teaching with no formal training in pedagogy, one of the best things I did after I commenced my appointment at Macquarie University was to complete a certificate course in higher education through the University’s (then) Learning and Teaching Centre. It provided a more formal basis to my teaching and I would highly recommend person who is new to teaching doing some form of foundational course in teaching.
the audio-visual team, cleaners, security, teaching assistants, professional staff… and many others whose work makes it possible for me and my students to enjoy the classroom experience – it is that contribution that I cannot do without whenever I step into a classroom.When it comes to the question of educational tools that I could not do without, I take a much wider view on the issue. Generally, tools are defined to include – tangible things – such as electronic technology in the classroom – computers, audio-visual systems etc … My broad approach to what tools are includes not only support systems but extends to people as well. For instance, what use is a mal-functioning audio-visual system in a classroom without the input of the technical support team? To me therefore, teaching tools transcends tangible things and extends to the contributions of people behind the scenes who work tirelessly to facilitate the experience in the classroom environment. Their contribution is akin to what goes on behind the scenes in preparing an aircraft for its scheduled flight. There is input from ground support teams including cleaners, the refuelling and engineering/technical teams, catering, air traffic control etc … Then you have the cabin crew including the captain of the aircraft. So a passenger’s travel experience on that flight is enhanced when the work undertaken by all these actors come together.
In the same way, to make a lecture work, I see the contribution of the background support provided by the audio-visual team, cleaners, security, teaching assistants, professional staff … and many others whose work makes it possible for me and my students to enjoy the classroom experience. It is that contribution that I cannot do without whenever I step into a classroom.