Insights on Practice

This page includes short video interviews and articles with award winners exploring what has inspired their excellent practice and what it means to them to have been nominated.

This content has been developed by Level 6 LJMU Journalism students, with support from the Journalism programme team and staff from the Teaching and Learning Academy.

Teaching Excellence Award Winners - Reflections on Practice

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Interview with Sarah Maclennan, Academic Leadership Award Winner

Written by Harry Hughes, LJMU Level 6 Journalism student

When Sarah Maclennan became Programme Leader of Creative Writing in 2016, the results from the latest National Student Survey provided a challenge. By 2020, Creative Writing had risen to the top six programmes in LJMU for student satisfaction and in 2021 Sarah won a Teaching & Learning Award for Outstanding Contribution to Academic Leadership. In the summer, Sarah was appointed Associate Dean of Education for the Faculty of APSS.

However, these achievements are about more than NSS results, awards and impressive job titles. For Sarah, success in the field of education is about enabling transformative change. Despite her current success, Sarah’s road into the world of teaching is unorthodox. After dropping out of university in her early twenties, Sarah worked in retail and hospitality until a chance encounter with a Finnish massage therapist.

“She leant forward and said into my ear ‘You could have all the therapy in the world, but you will never get rid of the internal voices saying you’re not good enough. All you can do is refuse to listen to them.’”

Feeling inspired, Sarah almost immediately decided to return to university and study creative writing. After finishing her master’s degree and working three part-time jobs, she then split her time between lecturing at LJMU and teaching online for The Open University. When the previous Programme Leader decided to step down, Sarah took on the role.

“It feels like a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Because I’d been a student within the department many years before, I could see what I’d like to do differently and what a student would want. I’m very student-centred and so are my staff team. Without students we don’t have jobs.”

To prepare for her new role, Sarah took part in the Aurora Leadership Development Training Programme for Women, which helped to set her sights much further. “It shifted my mind-set quite a lot. I met Tanni Grey-Thompson. I met the first female detective in the Met, who’s now Chancellor of a University. When she started in the police, the police women had to carry handbags. We met women who’d pushed beyond what was expected of them.”

Having served on LJMU’s Board of Governors, Sarah knew the student experience is at the heart of the University but just like those who’d inspired her at Aurora, she used her position to do much more. To increase student engagement on her programme, Sarah used methods such as peer education. For instance, she introduced a ‘speed dating with Chekhov’ game in order to get her students reading more short stories and shared the process at the Teaching & Learning Conference.

“If I want to affect a change, we’ll look at what the problem is. For example if some assignments weren’t of a high enough quality, we’d look at it like an assembly line, working backwards finding out where the problems begin.”

To keep her colleagues motivated, Sarah maintains a positive energy throughout the team. In creative writing meetings, a ‘blow your own trumpet’ item is a fixture on every agenda, where team members share what they’ve been working on that’s been successful in order to encourage further development.

As well as making improvements for the Creative Writing program, Sarah has helped administer various developments across LJMU, including:

  • The introduction of Applicant Days for students looking to study at LJMU, which was first trialled for Creative Writing.
  • Piloting a peer exchange initiative for university teaching colleagues throughout the pandemic.
  • Leading a drive to meet students’ feedback needs.
  • Producing personal tutoring discussion templates.

Throughout all of her professional academic work, Sarah’s priorities have always been with the students themselves. “I want students to know that their opinion has a place and I want them to have the confidence to express their opinion, to know that they can question and they can disagree. I love it when students argue with me because sometimes they persuade me to their way of thinking. If students didn’t have the confidence to do that, I’d be really upset – I want students to have the confidence to challenge authority for the rest of their lives. That’s how our students are going to affect societal change.”

Her ambition for this change reaches beyond the university itself and, in recent years, Sarah has used her creative writing knowledge to help various marginalised groups. Over lockdown, she ran a 10-week creative writing programme for the children of asylum seekers.

“We read and wrote poems on a whole range of topics and I’d set them homework to write a poem. The next week it would be ‘I’ve written 10 poems’. It was absolutely amazing! The children always volunteered to read because they were so proud of acquiring English.”

Sarah is most proud of her work with Liverpool arts organisation Writing on the Wall which saw her exploring the process of storytelling with women who had been trafficked into the country.

“I did not want to talk about the crimes committed against them, because that’s all they do with the Home Office and with the police, and it’s traumatising. I wanted to share stories about people they loved, memories of food, memories of misbehaving in school, things that made them reconnect with themselves. On about week four, a woman came in and she said ‘I’ve been crying for a week, I haven’t been able to get out of bed, it’s been a really tough week. Then I remembered I had creative writing today and I knew I’d spend three hours laughing.’”

With all this on her plate, Sarah still manages to stay on top of her work both within and outside of university. A to-do list is the method of choice to help guide herself through everything she works on. “I know the to-do list will never be done, but it makes me feel in control.”

To succeed in academic leadership, Sarah has this advice:

  • “Your office has got to be a confessional. Staff and students need to know you will maintain confidentiality’
  • “You’ve got a duty of care to all your staff. You are in a sort of mother-hen or father-y role where you look after everybody.”
  • “You’ve got to be absolutely fair. You can never have favourites when managing a team.”
  • “You’ve got to be transparent, so people know the reasons for your decision-making process.”
  • You need to have a vision for your department and find ways of making it a shared vision
  • “If you come from a place of good intention, you’ll find that people won’t take umbrage or go ‘Why is she asking me to do that?’”