I didn’t quite know what to expect when first meeting Dr Mary Boyd, Ulster University Business School’s Inspirational Teacher award-winner. But when Mary greeted me, with a smile stretching from ear-to-ear, I immediately felt welcome and knew I would be right at home. When you read the award nominations from her students, her approachable and motherly nature are aspects they value so highly. She is also described as dedicated, fair, motivating, strong, caring and of course, inspirational.
So what makes a lecturer like Mary, course director of the BSc Hons Marketing degree, so well-liked and inspirational that her students would nominate her for a teaching award? One of her nominations explains that ‘she knows everyone by name and is like a mother to over 300 students’, which is no mean feat in itself.
“Firstly, my students are the reason that I am course director, I represent them and they mean a lot to me. There are over 300 students on the course and it’s as personal as I can possibly make it. I do make a point of getting to know all the students’ names and I do think that is very important. There’s nothing worse than having someone standing talking to you and they don’t know your name. I also think it is very important for students to feel that they’re not being spoken to as one great, big group but that I know ‘Emma’ and ‘Christopher’ and ‘Jane’”, she explains.
“Students are our biggest asset in the University and they need to feel cared for and they need to feel content and they need to feel that apart from getting a good degree that they are developing as people.”
Mary continues: “When you think about it, students come in here at 18 or 19 years of age and they graduate at 22 or 23 – these are very formative years in a young person’s life and to be part of that is a great privilege. You get to see them grow up really, and I am as proud as a mother and father when they graduate.”
When questioned about her label of ‘mother-figure’, she quips, “Well the mother-figure did come up a lot, yes. I would be the same age as their mothers, and if they do regard me such, I am very honoured.”
An Open Door
Mary’s open door policy is another reason that her students rate her so highly. Harking back to her nominations, one student says, ‘When something isn’t working out for a student, Mary is our first point of contact. She does everything to ensure that each and every one of us has not felt alone or unsure about any aspect of our academic lives.’
Mary explains, “My door is always open and if anybody did feel they needed to speak about something, yes I will make the time to speak to them. We can go and have a cup of tea and we can come back down here and talk about it and they leave here feeling better. Or maybe somebody is having difficulty at home and can’t get in, I will ring them at home, there’s no problem there whatsoever. Maybe they only needed two minutes to speak to someone and if it only takes that two minutes, then I am willing to do that.”
From Nursing to Business
When Mary explains that she was a fully-qualified nurse for ten years and nursed both her parents, then this exceptional level of care for her students makes perfect sense.
She says, “After my father died I decided I would like to come back into university life again. I did a part-time business studies degree, which led to a PhD, where I got involved in teaching and loved it.”
Mary continues, “But I do think with my background, and being that bit older, that I am well aware of the problems that young people face. When I was a nurse I experienced a lot of different situations, some of them not very happy and I dealt with families on a regular basis. We do have students who are in a caring role, and they are young people at the end of the day and they do need somebody to talk to, and if it’s me, that’s good.”
Engaging the Students
Of course, being inspirational isn’t just about the relationships that Mary has built with every student – it also involves her ability to teach and interact in the lecture theatre. To pick one example, a student wrote, ‘Mary’s teaching skills are first class, she ensures that all students understand every statement she makes using contemporary examples… every class is filled with complete engagement.’
She says, “I find I do a traditional lecture with interaction so I am never too far into the subject matter when I start asking questions and I walk around the class and get the students involved. I get them to see that it’s not a subject that they know nothing about – more that it’s an opportunity for them to immerse themselves in a subject that they can learn everything about.’ Mary continues, ‘I don’t preach to the students and the more I can be anecdotal and the more real-life examples I can use the penny drops quite quickly and they begin to enjoy it. We also have a good atmosphere in class – I like dialogue, I don’t like monologue.”
The Big Picture
Mary’s ideology is to nurture and support each student through their journey from Ulster student to where they are working in industry. Her vision is to create a solid marketing network of Ulster alumni and students within the Northern Irish marketplace.
She explains, “I don’t believe the course director’s role is just to be in front of a class for three hours teaching strategy. I am a great believer that it is a continuing role.”
“Every year is different, first years are finding their feet, they are new to the University, I feel that in first year it is my responsibility to get them settled in and get them to know as many people as possible so I get them to join the Marketing Society. The Society has really helped with a sense of belonging on the programme, the students know the course they belong to and get to know each other through joint enterprise.”
Mary continues, “Moving on to placement year, it is a very big growing up year. I am a big advocate for placement and I really, really promote placement as much as possible.
“Moving past graduation and final year, I say to them, ‘once your course director, always your course director’. I have a great relationship with our alumni and those students who are going out into the world of marketing in Northern Ireland, they are our future employers, so to be able to say you can network with people that you got to know when they were doing your degree is a great thing.”
So after talking to Mary I think I have found the formula to being an inspirational teacher – it’s the ‘above-and-beyond’ personal touch, mixed with a teaching style that facilitates involvement and debate in the classroom and creating a great sense of belonging to the course and engagement with the subject area and industry. So, the only question left is, when can I sign up?