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The value of inspiration, mentors and a supportive environment for a new NTF

17 Aug 2021 | Dr Chris Headleand Dr Chris Headleand, Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, was awarded his 2021 National Teaching Fellowship for his work in student engagement. He gave us his thoughts on what the award means to him.

It is an honour to be awarded a National Teaching Fellowship (NTF) as part of the 2021 awards. Many of the educators I most admire are NTF recipients, and I feel humbled to now count myself among that community. 

I have always taken a student-led approach to my work as a lecturer and teacher. All my most impactful initiatives have started with a conversation with students. I take this approach because I believe student engagement creates an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive. Actively involving students in their education can help them to take ownership and responsibility for their learning. It also provides a flexible environment where we can adapt delivery to evolving individual needs. This approach of inclusion through engagement is the core motivator of my teaching philosophy.  

My experience as a learner 

I feel passionate about student engagement as it was rare for my own teachers to try and engage me. Truth be told, most of my early teachers didn't believe that I was worth engaging. "If Christopher ever achieves anything, it will be with his hands; it won't be academic", was the evaluation my primary teacher gave my parents. At nine, I had already been written off as an academic failure due. My dyslexia was mistaken for incompetence, and my frustration was confused with apathy. Going through school was hard, and my wonderful parents often found themselves plugging the gaps in my understanding and fighting for my inclusion at every stage of my education.  

Subsequently, I have been the first in my family to earn a degree, followed by a PGCertHE, an MSc, and a PhD. But I have never forgotten my school experience, and it has been a driving force in my educational approach. 

The value of inspiration, mentors and a supportive environment 

When I returned to university to undertake my PhD, I was fortunate to be surrounded by excellent educators. Pedagogic stars such as Dave Perkins, Jonathan Roberts, and Sue Clayton provided valuable support and mentored me through my first HEA fellowship. Exposure to the UKPSF has structured my subsequent CPD and development and ultimately set me on the path towards NTF.  

I joined the TEF gold-rated University of Lincoln (UoL) in 2016 as a Lecturer in Computer Science. Lincoln is a fantastic place to teach, where education is underpinned by world-class research and a commitment to student engagement. I used to come here every year on my holidays when I was younger. I can still remember the first time my mum and dad took me for a walk up Steep Hill to see the castle at seven years old. When I was offered my lectureship here in 2016, it felt a little like coming home. My life has changed quite a bit since my childhood, but the magic of this place never fails to escape me; I still feel like a kid on holiday. 

In Computer Science, I was lucky to learn from one of the best educators I have ever observed, Kevin Jacques. I learnt a lot about communicating with students and how policy and process can be tools to create a fair and inclusive environment. I feel very lucky to have come through the "School of Kev" and much of what I know about cohort communication has come from his example. 

Since joining Lincoln, I have worked through the school, holding various roles, and since June 2019, I have been the School Director of Teaching and Learning (DTL). I was promoted to Associate Professor later the same year. I have been really fortunate to have been surrounded by a team of fantastic educators and researchers. 

Moving to Lincoln has been inspiring. The university has long had a reputation for sector-leading student engagement initiatives. The environment facilitates innovation, which has allowed me to develop new approaches within a supportive structure. The Pro-vice Chancellor of my college (Libby John) has always supported novel approaches and facilitated idea exchange between teams. Libby also gave me my first cross-college leadership role when I was asked to run the college HEA mentorship scheme. Having the backing and encouragement of a supportive manager is essential in individual development; it makes people feel safe to innovate.  

I have also had the opportunity to work with excellent institutional colleagues such as Dave Prichard, who encouraged me to take leadership roles and support the development of others. Since joining the institution, Dave has been a complete inspiration, and I know many individuals that owe their careers to his unwavering support and championship. I have never met anyone with such an innate ability to identify, develop, and promote potential in others - every institution needs a Dave. 

One of the real benefits of working at Lincoln is the environment curated by the senior leadership. Mary Stuart (our VC) has been a champion of the positive civic impact a university and its students have on a community. From Mary, I have better learnt to appreciate the effect of student engagement beyond the classroom and that education doesn't end when the lecture does. 

Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Student Engagement and Development (Liz Mossop) has also had a significant impact on helping develop my pedagogy. Liz is an inspirational educator who I have been fortunate to be encouraged and mentored by. With Liz's support, we developed a scheme to develop student-educators and even had students achieve HEA Associate Fellowships earlier this year. This year I was lucky to support Liz in developing a student-led learning festival, where 60 students led over 200 hours of workshops and seminars for hundreds of their peers. Liz (a NTF herself) was also my inspiration and encouragement to go for the award.  

Of course, inspiration doesn't just come from within your own walls. I am fortunate to have been taught, mentored, and inspired by the best educators, within Lincoln and across the sector. Sally Brown in particular, has been somewhat of a pedagogic fairy godmother and has helped me to hone my ideas and see the magic in teaching and learning. There are so many excellent educators (and many of them NTFs) who inspire me daily - far too many to mention, and I wouldn't want to leave any out. Twitter has been a great tool to tap into some of these inspirational sources over the past few years.  

This blog has quickly begun to sound like an academy awards acceptance speech... not my intention! The point here is that in supportive environments (where people are surrounded by inspiration), innovation and individual development thrives. I have been fortunate to work with some fantastic higher education professionals, and help has never been far away. I have always felt included, and my contribution to the team has always been valued. I am at this point on my journey because of the people who have been willing to show me their map. 

Beyond anything else, I owe this recognition to every student colleague I have worked with over the years. I am lucky to be in a job where I can teach and collaborate daily with some of the most innovative and energetic learners.

Innovate and share  

I have learnt a lot from the practice of others, and I do my best to pay this back by sharing my practice with the sector. Since the start of the pandemic, Higher Education has come together to support each other and the students. I am really proud to have had some small contributions to this effort by writing guides setting up the Pedagogy and Pancakes practice sharing seminars.  

Sharing ideas is at the core of the university experience, but never has this been more true. The speed that ideas have moved around the sector since the first lockdown since has astounded me. I am so grateful to everyone who has contributed to Pedagogy and Pancakes, and all the podcasts and conferences that have helped spread great ideas.  

You never know who you will encourage by sharing approaches. You can never underestimate the value of inspiration as a tool to engage and include. Ultimately, we are all still learners on a journey.  

What NTF means to me 

Becoming an NTF after this year has humbled me. I have always tried to create an inclusive environment where students are engaged, developed and supported on their academic journey. Inclusion through engagement is the core tenant of my teaching philosophy. But I also believe in this as a leadership approach, and I feel fortunate that my own leaders and mentors have engaged, developed and included me.   

I'm delighted to be offered this award as a member of the team at Lincoln, and I hope that it serves to showcase the novel ways that we work in partnership with students in all aspects of teaching, learning, and research. But also the way that we develop and support our community of educators. I am very proud to be a National Teaching Fellow and count myself among this wonderful community of educators.  


Dr Christopher Headleand joined the University of Lincoln in 2016 as a Lecturer in Computer Science. He is now the School Director of Teaching and Learning (DTL) and an Associate Professor. In 2020 he was awarded a teaching excellence award by the institution for work in student engagement.

Nominations for CATE and NTFS 2022 open on Monday 4 October 2021. Find out more about the 2021 winners of the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme and Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence.

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