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'Don’t be afraid to swim upstream'

16 Mar 2020 | Advance HE Haleh Moravej, Senior Lecturer in Nutritional Sciences at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and National Teaching Fellow (NTF) 2018, explains how her teaching practice has evolved over the years.

Haleh was a little apprehensive when starting her application to become a National Teaching Fellow, due to her unusual background before entering higher education.

“The person who inspired me to apply for an NTF was Dr Chrissi Nerantzi, of our (MMU) University Teaching Academy. She ‘found’ me. I think she saw potential in me, we got to know each other first, then started working together.

“We did LEGO Serious Play, wrote papers…and every year with the first year Nutritional Sciences students we look forward to tasting her Greek cooking. I feel very blessed to have worked with such an extraordinary creative mentor in my teaching career.

“It was a bit like an ‘incubation period’, where she thought, ‘Haleh is a rough diamond’ I’ll start polishing her, and then in 2017 she told me I was ready to apply for an NTF.

“I put everything into it, so was really excited to get it because I had heard the stories of people applying three, four, five times. Doing it for the first time and getting it and being judged by my peers was truly humbling and a testament to Chrissi’s impassioned and unique mentorship. She knew I was ready for the challenge and she was right.

“People out there had recognised me, so for me as this ‘commercial’ person who had ended up at a university celebration of teaching was extremely exciting.”

Commercialisation

Coming from a commercial background, she admits she finds the pace of change in higher education frustrating at times.

“I find the speed of HE slow. I like things to be a lot faster. We’re seeing a lot of changes in our society, in how people make decisions, how social media and our opinions are changing. Everything is ever-changing but within HE things are a lot slower, there’s lots of paperwork, lots of admin and for me, I was attending lots of meetings and thinking, ‘Well, if we want to do employability or creativity or sustainability within the curriculum, we should be able to do it much faster’.

“I just thought let’s see what we can do with experiential learning and getting the students out of the classroom. I could see I was ready for it, I didn’t want to be just a classroom teacher without having that reality check and authenticity.”

She is aware, however, on how much the HE sector has changed since the introduction of student tuition fees but says her purpose as a teacher will always be the same.

“I didn’t think about how much my commercial, can-do attitude would help me but it has really made me realise how HE in the last 10 years has moved from providing education to more like running a business. Students are paying, they’re getting a service, and as much as people have struggled with it, students might see themselves as ‘customers’.

“I think it’s important to remember that even with commercialisation, monetary measurement and KPIs, we are still dealing with human beings. At the core of everything that we do, we have our students. The students come to university and are so much more than data or a number.

“As a frontline member of the staff, my priority is that students always get the most out of me and can grow. I want my students to become active citizens, lifelong learners and contribute in positive ways to society and local communities.

“My purpose has NEVER changed, I am here to inspire students, and no matter what happens with the landscape I will never stop doing my job, but I think that commercial awareness has made me faster, more agile and more aware of how to network and collect the creative people I needed to achieve some of my goals to support my students.”

Purposeful fun

Her social enterprise MetMUnch is now a well-known platform for sustainability, health and nutrition at MMU but it had humble beginnings.

“In 2011, we started MetMUnch as an extra-curricular enterprise with £20. There was no budget, there was no dedicated funding, we just created it because students didn’t have much on their CVs. There was an urgency and no time to waste and some of us lecturers had to lead the way.

“It was just at the start of the sustainability movement and we needed to be at the forefront of that, be pioneers. I don’t think ‘climate fear’ is the way to inspire students, we needed to do positive things and positive public engagement and it needed to have a ‘purposeful fun’ attached to it.

“We started with cabbage soup, and now we have a food outlet within the University that’s focused on meat-free, low-carbon food. We’re in collaboration with the MMU catering department, 84% of our customers are students and we provide healthy and affordable food with nutritional education, creativity and wellness, across the whole University. It’s really exciting to see that something so small, with the determination and passion of the team of students, has travelled this far.

“Food is one of the biggest connectors in our society, and I think through food we can do so much. You don’t even need a language, you don’t need to talk to people, you can just showcase how to do broccoli 100 different ways and then everybody’s happy!”

Sustainability is an important theme for Haleh and she is excited by the work that is now taking place in the sector to address it.

“When my colleagues in the environment team said to me, ‘what you’re doing fits in with the sustainability agenda’, we applied to the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) and won our 2014 national and international Green Gown awards going against some amazing organisations with a lot more money. We were kind of these ‘disruptors’ doing cabbage soup and yet 100 judges across the world saw that we were doing things with passion and creativity.

“Now you look at 2020 and you realise Advance HE is collaborating with the EAUC to make sure sustainability is embedded across HE, leaders of universities are being trained in carbon-literacy and we were there right at the start of the climate movement nearly 10 years ago.

“When you do something for the first time people either reject you, ignore you or exclude you and yet 10 years later they’re all doing it. It is never too late to do something good, for our students or the planet and I think that’s really exciting.”

Exploring new galaxies

She says her NTFS application allowed her crucial time to reflect on her teaching practice in order to make sure her students get the most out of her.

“I have so many plates spinning at once that getting that time to reflect is always difficult.

“For me it made me realise that my career and my teaching was more like an evolution process. It’s not a pill that you can just take and suddenly become a motivated, excellent teacher. It takes time. Being a nutritionist, you need to ‘marinate’ yourself and all the flavours then get infused and then you come out tasty and delicious. I’m not fully there, but maybe I’m half-marinated!

“The process has definitely made me more humble. Realising that my peers had looked at my application, had celebrated my unique and 'the road less travelled' journey, has given me a lot more confidence, a lot more belief.

“People were saying, we don’t care that you’re an entrepreneur, we don’t care that you’re a commercial person, we’re still celebrating that you are a good teacher and you’re motivated and passionate.”

She explains she didn’t apply for an NTF to progress her career; it was about personal growth and development.

“It wasn’t about doors, I didn’t want it to open any doors, as an entrepreneur it’s more about flying rockets towards different galaxies. Waiting for doors to open did not mean anything to me but the award did create opportunities externally for me.

“The first one was an invitation from PVC for education from Nottingham University School of Biosciences, who invited me to go as a keynote speaker for their annual Learning and Teaching Conference. Oxford University Innovation Centre invited me to talk about social enterprise and entrepreneurship, then there was Blackpool College who invited me to inspire their FE sector with engagement of students with sustainability.

“Manchester Climate Change Agency has also hired us to work with them on a European Commission project, we will be working collaboratively to enhance knowledge of urban youth in sustainable diets. It was never about any doors but about communities and collaboration with change makers.

“One of the only really tangible things I’ve received for my award was actually a jar of jam from Prof Sally Brown! And it’s still in my fridge because I can’t bring myself to actually eat it!”

MetMUnch

Her advice for NTF applicants, and all teachers, is to not be afraid of doing something different even if that is difficult and challenging.

“Why would you want to be in a box? NTFs, I have noticed, are not people you can put in boxes. Conformity is celebrated in HE and the National Teaching Fellowship is completely the opposite. It is a safe place to celebrate going beyond your limits, not being fearful and to trust your instinct.

“Try not to follow the crowd because it will make you settle for what you think is good enough rather than excellence, it will make you mediocre and average, try to swim upstream like a trout. It’s not easy but once you do it it’s great.

“Excellent teaching is not a destination, it is a long journey, it is an evolution, and you get better and better. Creativity is scary, innovation is lonely and when you mix that with entrepreneurship, you discover the unknown.

“One size it not going to fit all and lecturers are a bit like beautiful snowflakes of course, no two snowflakes are ever going to be the same. So find the best mentors, be fully aware of the need to grow and learn every single day, find the people with the same passion as you and create little communities of practice. That way you can change a culture and hopefully the world.”

NTFS logo

Applications for a National Teaching Fellowship 2020 close on Wednesday 18 March 2020. Institutions can nominate up to three individuals for the award. Find out more.

Share your #NTFSis20 story with us on Twitter and join the Advance HE Connect group especially for National Teaching Fellows.

 

Haleh Moravej is a Senior Lecturer in Nutritional Sciences at Manchester Metropolitan University. Prior to teaching, Haleh was a commercial entrepreneur with her own nutrition clinic. She is perhaps best-known for her award-winning MetMUnch (http://www.metmunch.com/), a student-led enterprise that sets the standard for sustainability, nutrition and entrepreneurship across Manchester Metropolitan, local communities and further afield.

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