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Katrin Matthews – A teaching style passed down through the ages

As a teenager, Katrin Matthews FHEA promised herself she would never be a teacher because she ‘hated what we did to our teachers in high school.’ Little did she know that this vow would be a short-lived one, broken by the role modelling shown to her by one of those very high school teachers who was at the coalface of teenage antics.

“He just loved what he was doing and he was able to pull the whole class along.” She recalls of the teacher who inspired her to become one herself.

“He was also very good at making it clear to us that every student in this class had the same right to be there. If one [student] had a question, even if everyone else was going ‘oh, it’s you again,’ there was no question that the student’s query would be answered and feel justified. For me, that was a really nice example.”

As a University student in Munich, Katrin discovered she could study German as a second language. This offering held appeal, largely because of the opportunities it could lead to, including teaching her mother tongue overseas. Her studies and work led her to Australia, where she commenced her teaching career in 2001 at the University of Technology, Sydney, before arriving at ANU in 2004 where she currently teaches German in the College of Arts and Social Sciences.  Her teaching philosophy is a simple yet powerful one, which places students at the forefront of everything she does.

“My teaching philosophy, for me, it’s the fire of knowledge. You want to feed the flames, you want to get the students enthusiastic about what they are doing, and you want to share your wisdom with them. So it’s about supporting them, really,” she says.

“What’s really important to me is that the students understand that I am not against them, it is not teacher versus student, I’m their guide – I’m there to help them and to facilitate their learning.”

While the joy of teaching and interacting with students is a driving force for Katrin, it doesn’t come without its challenges. Casualisation within the academic workforce means that in an average week she wears a rotating collection of different hats, juggling three distinct jobs simultaneously. A deficit of student contact hours is also a source of frustration for her.

“I would love to have more time for them to speak and to practically apply more knowledge,” she says.

“Yes, we have a book, and with the book we can do a lot, but that’s book knowledge, and the best way to learn is by taking that next step into their own world.

“I try very hard to give them insights into the German culture as well, and give them stories to remember, because that’s what sticks in heads – it’s not book knowledge.”

In completing her Educational Fellowship Scheme (EFS) application, Katrin became well-acquainted with the seminar room at the Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching (CHELT), treating the application process as a valuable professional development journey.

“I thought it was very rewarding because it made me reflect on a lot of aspects of teaching I hadn’t thought about,” she reflects.

“It also made me read a lot more literature, because I do a lot of things intuitively but I hadn’t been that much into theoretical reading, so I thought that was very rewarding, very enriching for me, quite time intensive – that was the downside. The difficult thing was putting the time aside and having the discipline to sit down and write, and the Reflect and Write sessions were a lifesaver because they made me sit down and think ‘this is the time I have reserved for this.’ Even if I had to sit down for two hours and read about stuff, that was really, really good.

While her inspiring high school teacher may have led to broken promises, the ultimate benefactors have been the many students she has impacted. Her teacher’s influence lives on in Katrin’s teaching, notably through her generous and inclusive style.

“For me, it’s really important that the students feel like the classroom is a safe space. It’s where they can make mistakes, they can try things out, and if it’s wrong, it’s wrong, it doesn’t matter, that is the way they learn,” she says.

“I really love the dynamics in the classroom, and the enthusiasm. I enjoy the giving and the taking, and the fact that I keep on learning from my students and they learn from me, as inspired by my old teacher.”