Working with education officers in SUs

As experienced educational developers working to support universities to enhance teaching, learning and student experience, we see a growing need for educational developers to work with students’ unions – particularly the sabbatical officer responsible for academic representation and education.

This sabbatical officer is usually positioned as the representative of all matters related to teaching, learning and the student experience. They become the go to person to gauge the student perspective. A consequence of being this go to person is that they have the pleasure of attending numerous (and often high-level) institutional committees and events on which their opinion is sought.

Yes, this means they have many opportunities to advocate for the student body, but how well prepared for this role are they? Especially when you consider that, until recently, many of them were unaware of the behind the scenes workings that shape teaching and learning, and many were students.

How do they get there?

This question led to national study to examine the training and development provided to Education Sabbatical Officers. We found that Education Sabbatical Officers are a hugely dedicated and motivated bunch. They are experienced in student representation and advocacy work; most serving as course, school and / or faculty representatives whilst they were studying. They were also likely to be involved in SU societies and forums to ensure representation of minority groups.

Therefore, they had first-hand experience of student union work, and for many this serves as an apprenticeship for the sabbatical officer role. But how were they prepared for the demands of the job? The expectation to attend (and more importantly understand and meaningfully contribute) to multiple committees, work across the potentially competing demands of their university and SU and fulfil the commitments made during their election campaign?

It all goes so fast

We found that throughout their year in office Sabbatical Officer’s feet barely touched the ground. Initially the support from a predecessor introduced their role formally – stories were shared, dairies that captured the highs and lows of the year were handed over and contact lists with “interesting details” that helped to humanise senior leader came to the fore.

Sabbatical officers also reflected on the programme of SU training and the NUS events they attended, which provided useful information or networking opportunities. Some though questioned the value of national training removed from their local context; there was a sense of missed opportunities and mismatched expectations when the value of national events were reflected on.

Of greatest value to the sabbatical officer was the support from key people, e.g. permanent SU staff and institutional leaders; they provided ad hoc, need to know information or called on to decode academic practice and jargon.

Importantly they helped sabbatical officers to take a step back and recognise the learning or successes they had achieved, as well as supporting them at times when the role felt overwhelming. These individuals often acted informally as mentors – a role sabbatical officers deemed essential, but often appeared unsung. As for the Educational Developers, engagement with this group was hugely variable.

Where relationships had formed with an Educational Developer, they quickly entered the inner circle of informal support sabbatical officers accessed. Likewise, whilst participation in teaching and learning training was low, it was hugely valued. Even a basic introduction to teaching and learning provided the language on which sabbatical officers were able to confidently speak at committee meetings or propose a change to teaching and learning practice.

Breadth and depth

This study highlighted the breadth of training and support available to sabbatical officers. Clear gaps were also evident, especially in terms how they are helped to develop essential skills such as resilience, the ability to communicate across different groups and effectively manage their time.

There is also a need to be mindful of the potential future challenges facing sabbatical officers as the changes to the NSS place student unions under scrutiny. Fostering productive working relationships between Education Sabbatical Officers and Educational Developers may help to mediate these training gaps and challenges. Equally, given the involvement of these sabbatical officers in academic representation and teaching recognition, considerable gains could result for both parties.

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