Judges of Oxford University Press’s Law Teacher of the Year award name Nick Clapham of the University of Surrey the winner for 2017.
Outgoing Law Teacher of the Year, Lisa Webley of University of Westminster, handed over the crown to Nick Clapham of University of Surrey at the end of the Celebrating Excellence in Law Teaching conference, held on Thursday 29 June at Warwick.
After a panel session delving into the motivations and reflections of what it is to be a law teacher, the judges paid tribute to all the finalists. Accepting the award, Nick Clapham acknowledged the fantastic strength of the other candidates, and said “nothing gives me greater pleasure than to take this award back to the students”.
Nick has only been teaching law for the past three years, and worked in the military for many years before that. In the words of his nominators, Nick is "gifted with a rare level of charisma" that he uses to communicate core substantive content "through allegory, history and anecdote". He also innovates in the classroom, often using the space of the lecture theatre to physically demonstrate the divisions between concepts or institutions and to stimulate his students.
The judging process for Law Teacher of the Year Award is a lengthy and rigorous one: each candidate was visited by members of the judging panel, who conducted extensive interviews with students and colleagues as well as observing a typical teaching session.
The winner was announced at the end of a conference attended by over 80 law academics, all of whom share a passion for teaching. At a time when teaching excellence is in the headlines, OUP is proud to have been recognizing and rewarding it through the Law Teacher of the Year Award for many years. And now, through the Celebrating Excellence in Law Teaching conference is able to provide a wider platform to showcase and share excellence in law teaching.
The other finalists were:
• Mohsen al Attar, Queen's University Belfast • Michael Fay, Keele University • Matthew Homewood, Nottingham Trent University • Geoffrey Main, Thomas Bennett Sixth Form • Amanda Perry-Kessaris, University of Kent
Photos by Natasha Ellis-Knight
Mohsen al Attar
Mohsen al Attar is a senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, with teaching and research interests in legal method, international economic law, and Third World legal studies.
“I presume that students study law in a spirit of curiosity: we have questions about society and seek answers in law.”
Mohsen was nominated by one of his former students and a colleague, who highlighted his ability to actively engage students as legal researchers and instil a “shared responsibility toward learning” in his classes. Taking a flipped approach to his teaching, Mohsen produces weekly ‘vlogs’ to supplement core readings and emphasize principles covered in his lectures. This advance preparation allows him to create a “conversational environment with students routinely speaking up and out”.
Mohsen’s nomination particularly noted the work he puts into the first year skills-based induction programme at Queen’s: ‘Integration Week’. As his head of department comments, this programme is not only “extremely inventive and innovative” but has demonstrated its success through improved retention rates. The programme acts as a way for first years to take their first steps into studying law, front-loading the teaching of skills and method whilst breaking down barriers amongst the cohort.
Known as “one of the most accessible lecturers” at the university, student comments in his nomination demonstrate Mohsen’s contagious passion for law. He is able to “capture an audience and bring them along”; he “adopts a narrative […] tone that commands attention”; he “makes me aware of my strengths and weaknesses and boosts my determination to improve myself”.
Nick Clapham is an associate lecturer at the University of Surrey, with teaching and research interests in constitutional law, criminal law, evidence, and international law of war.
“I see every lecture as an act of advocacy in front of a 200 person jury: an enthusiastic delivery seeks to engage the cognitive process.”
Nick was nominated for the award by a colleague and a student representative. They emphasized in particular his unconventional background: having worked in the military for many years, Nick “brings his policy, practice and warts-and-all realist perspectives” to his teaching. As his nomination notes, this experience of the law in “the most fraught of contexts brings an immediacy to the study of law” that he is able to transfer to his students.
In the words of his nominators, Nick is “gifted with a rare level of charisma” that he uses to communicate core substantive content “through allegory, history and anecdote”. He also innovates in the classroom, often using the space of the lecture theatre to physically demonstrate the divisions between concepts or institutions and to stimulate his students.
Nick also gets involved with student activities outside his teaching, for instance by coaching the school’s mooting teams. His background as a practising solicitor advocate, enables him to inject “jeopardy, drama and importance” into practice moots. He also provides extra feedback sessions for first years, and has organized both Brexit themed lectures and football sessions which are open to all students and staff.
Michael Fay is a lecturer at Keele University, with teaching and research interests in tort, medical, mental health, and employment law.
“Learning is a continual process: by adopting a broader approach to teaching I can enhance student confidence, improve understanding and encourage reflection and self-learning.”
Michael’s head of department and one of his colleagues put him forward for the award, thanks to both his ability to enthuse students and for his role in championing outreach and accessibility at the university. According to his students, Michael’s style is “clear and interactive”, making his lectures “interesting and exciting to go to: he is great at making the law relatable”. Among his many teaching techniques, Michael’s nomination particularly highlighted his use of nursery rhyme characters and superheroes to make legal concepts memorable.
Alongside his teaching, Michael has acted as disability liaison officer, recruitment and outreach officer, and the academic lead on Keele’s ‘Looking after your Mate’ programme: a project to give law students “the knowledge, confidence, and skills needed to support their peers encountering mental health issues”. His work in this regard led to Michael being named Keele’s Outreach Academic of the Year in 2016.
Students particularly appreciate the way Michael treats them “as equals, and values their ideas and contributions”, with one of his personal tutees commenting that from their very first meeting “Michael’s chatty personality and jokiness sets students at ease”. He is “a friend in time of need, and a lecturer when he has to be”.
Matthew Homewood is a principal lecturer and acting head of department at Nottingham Trent University, with teaching and research interests in EU law and legal education.
“My approach to teaching is characterized by blending ‘traditional’ learning and teaching techniques with meaningful and effective use of emerging digital technologies.”
The dean and deputy dean of Nottingham Law School submitted Matthew’s nomination, which focused mainly on his innovative use of technology in his teaching. Described by his nominators as “a passionate advocate for technology enhanced learning”, Matthew has trialled various new teaching techniques to support his students, including twitter revision sessions to encourage peer debate amongst EU law students. Emphasizing collaborative learning, these revision sessions were praised by students: “Matthew got down on our level and used a social media platform that we use daily in order to make sessions as accessible as possible”.
Similarly, Matthew has developed a “visually attractive and intuitive” online resource of “engaging and innovative study skills and assessment support materials” to assist students who might otherwise have difficulty accessing more formal existing support within the university. Student feedback for these resources has been “extremely positive” and analytics demonstrate their popularity and the depth of student engagement.
As part of his learning and teaching coordinator role, Matthew has also “demonstrated remarkable leadership in pedagogical innovation”, developing the Law School’s staff development ‘hub’ and turning it into a forum for “sharing good practice and addressing staff development priorities”. Matthew presents his innovations regularly at national and international conferences, and became an HEA National Teaching Fellow this year.
Geoffrey Main is a law teacher and the vocational studies leader at Thomas Bennett Community College, with teaching responsibility for A level law and public services.
“My approach is to interest and motivate students to become independent learners by making legal studies real to life.”
Nominated by two of his former students and a colleague, Geoffrey has a lasting impact on his students. One of his nominators recounts his memorable first law lesson with Geoffrey, in which students “began preparing for their first legal trial”, taking on the various roles of the courtroom. Bringing law to life is key to Geoffrey’s teaching: he has also encouraged students to enter the National Bar Mock Trial Competition, organized field trips to the local Crown Court, and invited practising barristers into classes. In the words of his former student, “such sessions allowed us to visualize what our future could look like”.
Geoffrey also employs games alongside his “direct and efficient” teaching style to excite and motivate his students. He also endeavours to expose students to “relevant and eye-catching” legal materials from scholarly articles to explanatory videos.
His nomination also highlights the level of on-going support Geoffrey is able to provide, with one nominator commenting that he has “never experienced a teacher with such an accepting and responsive nature”. This support does not end once students leave the college: another former student recounts his continued correspondence with his former teacher, characterizing it as “lifetime support”.
Amanda Perry-Kessaris is a professor of law at the University of Kent, with teaching and research interests in law and development, international law and foreign investment, and economic sociology of law.
“I see teaching as an opportunity to refresh, sustain, and apply my own learning; and to remember the pleasures and agonies of following a learning path that has been defined by another.”
Amanda was nominated by two of her colleagues, who focused their comments on her ability to “spark the imagination” and inspire “a keen sense of the joy of learning” amongst students at all levels. Described as “a creative and imaginative scholar” by her head of department, Amanda uses her expertise in law, economics, and graphic design to engage students. For instance she has created bespoke audio visual materials for her core undergraduate modules, set her classes the task of photographing everyday scenes that “shed light on the economic life of law”, and led the development of the Legal Treasures Project, in which students “identify, present, and recreate on-site ‘legal’ objects in museums”.
Student feedback on Amanda’s innovative methods has been very positive: “entertaining and thoroughly engaging”, “refreshing and stimulating”, with one student commenting “probably the best lecturer I have ever had”. Her classroom is described as “a very encouraging, safe, and comfortable learning environment” and she has “an exceptionally strong reputation for supporting students”.
Colleagues also feel the benefit of this supportive nature as Amanda contributes to the Law School’s staff development programmes, sharing her knowledge and encouraging peers to “take risks with [their] teaching and engage effectively with technology”.
How it works
Wednesday 14 December 2016
The judging panel carefully consider all the nominations individually before meeting to draw up a shortlist of six finalists.
February – April
Two members of the judging panel visit each of the six shortlisted candidates to:
Observe a teaching session;
Interview a group of students, including some who participated in the observed session;
Interview two of the candidate’s teaching colleagues;
Interview the candidate’s Head of Department;
Interview the candidate themselves.
Each of these sessions is either video or audio recorded so that it can be shared with the remaining members of the judging panel.
Students past and present are invited to produce a short video in support of their teacher.
The judging panel are sent the recordings from each of the campus visits and the student videos for their consideration. All four members of the panel then meet to discuss each candidate and decide the winner.